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The odds are against reviving Iran nuclear deal, U.S. envoy says

The U.S. will not agree to Iran’s "excessive" demands, U.S. envoy Robert Malley told senators Wednesday.
Image: Robert Malley
Robert Malley, the Biden administration's special envoy for Iran, waits to testify about the Iran nuclear deal Wednesday at a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.Brendan Smialowski / AFP via Getty Images

President Joe Biden’s envoy for Iran said Wednesday the prospects of reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal were “tenuous” at best as lawmakers demanded the White House come up with a new plan to prevent Tehran from acquiring an atomic bomb.

The envoy, Robert Malley, the lead U.S. negotiator for the revival of the nuclear accord, told members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that “as I sit here today, the odds of a successful negotiation are lower than the odds of failure,” adding, “And that is because of the excessive Iranian demands and ... to which we will not succumb.”

“We do not have a deal with Iran, and prospects for reaching one are, at best, tenuous,” Malley said.

Malley faced tough questioning from both sides of the aisle at the hearing. The chairman of the committee, Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., said the administration needed to explain how it would block Iran from developing a nuclear arsenal now that the chances for a diplomatic deal appeared bleak.

“I think we must prepare for the increasingly obvious reality we face in 2022: A return to the 2015 nuclear deal is not around the corner, and it is not in the U.S.’s strategic interest. We need to tackle what comes next. We need to hear your plan,” Menendez said.

“What is your plan B, because I get no sense of what that plan is?” said Menendez, who opposed the 2015 agreement.

Robert Malley, the Biden administration's special envoy for Iran, testifies Wednesday about the Iran nuclear deal at a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.Brendan Smialowski / AFP via Getty Images

Malley said the administration still favored a return to the 2015 nuclear agreement, which imposed limits on Iran’s nuclear program in return for lifting sanctions. But he said the Biden administration was ready if the accord could not be salvaged and suggested economic pressure on Iran would increase.

He cited new measures the Treasury Department announced Wednesday against a smuggling network backed by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps and Russian officials. The network is alleged to have overseen the shipment of hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of Iranian oil despite U.S. sanctions, according to the Treasury Department.

Malley said the administration would not rule out the use of military force to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, saying, “All options are on the table.”

But he said military action would not settle the matter, suggesting it would only slow Iran’s nuclear work.

“A military option cannot resolve this issue,” Malley said. “It could set it back, and we’re happy to talk about it more in a classified setting.”

He added, “The only real solution here is a diplomatic one.”

More than a year of negotiations in Vienna between Iran and world powers came close to clinching an agreement, but they bogged down over Iran’s demand to remove the Revolutionary Guard from a U.S. terrorism blacklist, a move strongly opposed by many in Congress. The Trump administration imposed the terrorism designation on the Revolutionary Guard in 2019.

Asked about the issue, Malley said that Iran’s demand was unrelated to the 2015 nuclear deal and that as a result Tehran would have to offer an equivalent “reciprocal” concession to Washington, which so far it has failed to do.

Although the Biden administration has not declared a final decision on Iran’s demand, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett tweeted this week that Biden had told him the U.S. would not remove the Revolutionary Guard from the terrorism blacklist.

Iran has argued that the U.S. bears the responsibility for the impasse because President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of the deal in 2018, and it has said Washington’s positions have delayed a revival of the agreement.

Iran’s U.N. mission did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, was negotiated between Iran and the U.S., Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China. Malley was on the U.S. team that negotiated the accord. As part of it, Russia agreed to receive excess enriched uranium that Iran was required to ship out of the country.

Malley said the administration was exploring alternatives to the arrangement but did not elaborate. He also said Russia had not played a central role in recent negotiations.

Trump pulled out of the deal, reimposed sanctions on Iran and introduced an array of new sanctions as part of a “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran.

Malley argued that Trump’s approach failed to coax Iran back to the negotiating table or persuade it to curtail its support for Shiite militias across the region. Instead, he said, Iran accelerated its nuclear program and blew past the limits set in the agreement on uranium enrichment.

“We learned that a policy centered on pressure alone, unmoored from a realistic policy objective, produces not maximum results but maximum escalation and maximum danger,” Malley said.

After the nuclear deal went into force, the so-called breakout time for Iran to obtain enough fissile material for an atomic bomb was at one year. Now Iran’s breakout time is estimated to be a matter of a few weeks or less, experts say.

Some lawmakers said the Biden administration needed to more strictly enforce existing sanctions, saying Iran was able to evade U.S. sanctions by selling large amounts of oil to China.

Malley acknowledged that China is “the main importer of illicit Iranian oil,” and Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho, the ranking Republican on the committee, said enforcement of the sanctions was “toothless.” Iran’s ability to export oil to China is a “huge problem,” Risch said.

The committee later heard from an outspoken critic of the deal, Mark Dubowitz, the CEO of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a think tank, who said the deal, if it were revived, would allow Iran to build up a nuclear weapons capability as various provisions of the accord expire in the next seven years.

“The problem with this agreement is that it doesn’t put Iran’s program back in a box. In fact, if anything, it’s going to leap forward like a jack-in-the-box,” Dubowitz said.

Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, a think tank, said at the hearing that the U.S.’s ability to affect Iran’s decision-making or the nature of the regime was limited, whether Washington pursued confrontation or engagement.

“Although ending the four-decade U.S.-Iran cold war would serve the national interests of both countries, Washington will not be able to reach a peaceful accommodation with an Iranian regime whose identity is premised on opposing the United States and whose leader believes that softening this opposition could cost him everything,” Sadjadpour said. “Nor are there any quick fixes — whether in the form of greater U.S. engagement or pressure — that can swiftly change the nature of the U.S.-Iranian relationship or the Iranian regime.”

As a result, he said, “the United States must deal with Iran like any adversary: communicate to avoid conflict, cooperate when possible, confront when necessary and contain with partners.”