“We are going to have to address Iran’s other bad behavior, malign behavior, across the region, but from our perspective, a critical early priority has to be to deal with what is an escalating nuclear crisis as they move closer and closer to having enough fissile material for a weapon,” Sullivan said. “And we would like to make sure that we reestablish some of the parameters and constraints around the program that have fallen away over the course of the past two years.”
Containing Iran’s ability to produce bombmaking nuclear material was the central rationale the Obama administration applied in seeking the deal that Sullivan helped to shape.
A decision about whether or when to return to the deal, as well as a potential follow-on agreement that could include new concessions or promises to Iran, is one of the first major foreign policy tests for the new administration.
As a 2020 presidential candidate, Biden committed to returning to the international compact that Trump had run in 2016 on reversing. After Trump pulled the United States out in 2018, Iran began breaking its obligations under the agreement formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
Biden set the condition that Iran would have to return to complying with the agreement first and said a restored deal would then be a starting point for negotiation of a larger agreement that addresses long-standing concerns over Iran’s ballistic missile capability, its support for terrorism, and aggressions toward Israel and Persian Gulf neighbors.
Sullivan mentioned those concerns in remarks to the United States Institute of Peace and said the threats have only gotten worse because of Trump’s decision.
“Our view is that if we can get back to diplomacy and can put Iran’s nuclear program in a box, that will create a platform upon which to build a global effort, including partners and allies in the region and in Europe and elsewhere, to take on the other significant threats Iran poses, including on the ballistic missile issue,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan did not spell out a preferred timeline, and the issue is now being debated among White House and State Department advisers. One option would be a push to rebuild the original deal, another might be to work with allies to construct an interim or bridge agreement.
Sullivan’s emphasis on a pressing need to contain Iran suggests an accelerated response, though he left open what that might be.
“No one should over-read these comments,” a senior White House official said Saturday. “Mr. Sullivan made a general statement that the US wants to put Iran’s nuclear program back in the box - which we do. Notably, he did not even mention rejoining the JCPOA, let alone in what sequence.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken has adopted a skeptical tone, saying on his first full day in office Wednesday that a U.S. return to the deal is still far off.
“Iran is out of compliance on a number of fronts. And it would take some time, should it make the decision to do so, for it to come back into compliance and time for us then to assess whether it was meeting its obligations,” Blinken said during a news conference at the State Department. “We’re not there yet, to say the least.”
With key decisions about the pace and scope of U.S. outreach on hold, the administration on Friday named former Obama administration Middle East adviser and veteran diplomat Robert Malley to be a special envoy on Iran.
Conservatives including Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) criticized the pick before it was announced, calling Malley too soft on Tehran. Other opponents of the 2015 deal said Malley has been too critical of Israel, whose leaders opposed the deal reached when Biden was vice president.
“As the President and Secretary Blinken have said, if Iran comes back into full compliance with its obligations under the JCPOA, the United States would do the same and then use that as a platform to build a longer and stronger agreement that also addresses other areas of concern,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement Friday.
“But we are a long way from that point as Iran is out of compliance on a number of fronts, and there are many steps in the process that we will need to evaluate,” Price said, promising coordination with allies and with Congress, where skepticism about a return to the deal is widespread.
Malley will lead a team of “clear-eyed experts with a diversity of views,” as the new administration decides what to do, Price said.
Iran has said the United States must make the first move.
Iran’s parliament has tried to raise pressure on the new administration, threatening to suspend some U.N. nuclear inspections unless the United States lifts sanctions by Feb. 21.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif responded to Blinken’s remarks with a tweet in English.
“Reality check for @SecBlinken: The US violated [the] JCPOA,” Zarif tweeted.
Sullivan spoke during an event that also featured his predecessor, Trump national security adviser Robert C. O’Brien, who called the Iran deal a threat to the region. Sullivan and O’Brien agreed on other major priorities, including confronting China and Russia and extending Trump’s effort to forge diplomatic and economic agreements between Israel and Arab neighbors.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu objected to the 2015 agreement and tried to derail it. Sullivan did not mention Israel in his remarks Friday but did say Iran’s threats against other nations in the Middle East are rising.
This story has been updated.