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Biden picks nuclear deal architect to be Iran envoy as Tehran exceeds uranium enrichment goals

Robert Malley “brings to the position a track record of success negotiating constraints on Iran’s nuclear program,” a State Department official said.
Image: Rob Malley
Rob Malley, former U.S. negotiator during the Iran nuclear program negotiations, poses in his office in 2018.Brendan Smialowski / AFP via Getty Images

The State Department has named a former Obama aide who helped negotiate the landmark 2015 nuclear deal as the U.S. special envoy on Iran.

And as if to underscore the urgency of the situation, Tehran on Thursday said the country was producing uranium enriched to 20 percent, moving its nuclear program closer to weapons-grade enrichment levels.

According to a State Department official, Secretary of State Antony Blinken has chosen Robert Malley the White House Coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa and the Gulf region under former President Barack Obama, to be the Biden team’s point person on Iran, expected to be a critical foreign policy issue for the administration.

Malley “brings to the position a track record of success negotiating constraints on Iran’s nuclear program,” the official said. “The Secretary is confident he and his team will be able to do that once again.”

The administration's approach to the nuclear deal is bound to come under pressure. American allies Israel and Gulf Arab states vehemently opposed the nuclear accord when it was negotiated and welcomed Trump’s withdrawal three years later.

Also, speculation around Malley's appointment in recent days saw Malley come under fire by some Republicans and Iran hawks who see him as dovish, too soft on Iran and less than fully supportive of Israel.

The criticism prompted various progressive foreign policy wonks and groups, including J Street, to then rally in his defense describing him in an open statement as “an astute analyst and accomplished diplomat.”

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But if some felt optimistic that the U.S. may once again help constrain Iran’s nuclear program, Tehran announced further details concerning its reduction in compliance with the beleaguered nuclear pact from which former President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. in 2018.

Iran’s Parliament Speaker Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf told a press conference carried by state TV that Iran had produced 17 kilograms (37.5 pounds) of uranium enriched to 20 percent in less than a month.

Under the terms of the nuclear deal, Tehran is only allowed to enrich uranium to around 3.5 percent. However, the country started to reduce compliance with the pact in 2019 after Trump unilaterally withdrew America from the deal the year before and re-imposed sanctions.

In its final weeks in office, the Trump administration’s continued to pursue a campaign of maximum pressure against Iran and Tehran continued to break with the terms of the agreement.

A bill approved by Iran’s parliament in December obliged the country to produce at least 120 kg of uranium enriched to 20 percent a year, or 10 kilograms per month on average, a significant reduction in compliance.

The latest news that Iran says its produced 17 kilograms in less than a month at its Fordo nuclear facility, puts the production well ahead of its timetable.

And earlier this month, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said Iran has started modifying and installing relevant equipment to conduct research and development on the production of uranium metal.

For bomb-grade material uranium should be enriched at roughly 90 percent.

Iran, which has long denied it is seeking to develop a nuclear weapon because it would be against Islam, is currently enriching it to 20 percent, which it says it needs for medical isotopes used to treat cancer patients.

Uranium enriched up to 20 percent can also be used to fuel research reactors, nuclear experts say.

The Biden team has said the U.S. is willing to return to the pact if Iran abides by the deal, while also expressing a desire to build on the agreement. Officials have indicated that Iran’s ballistic missile program would be high on the priority list.

However, Iran has repeatedly ruled out broadening the agreement and said the U.S. should first return to the pact.

On Friday, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said in a press conference in Istanbul that it was the “duty” of the United States to return to the deal having unilaterally withdrawn from it, according to a Reuters.

Iran was ready to fulfil its commitments as soon as the U.S. fulfilled its obligations, Zarif added.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.