President Biden’s prospects for returning to the Obama-era deal meant to curb Iran’s nuclear program are “tenuous at best,” the State Department’s Special Envoy for Iran told a Senate panel Wednesday.
More than a year into the administration’s push for a renewed agreement with Iran — a pursuit that has played out amid a chorus of bipartisan objections from Capitol Hill — Special Envoy Robert Malley said the White House is prepared to walk away if Iran continues to make untenable demands for returning to a deal.
“As I speak to you, we do not have a deal and prospects for reaching one are tenuous at best,” Mr. Malley, who has been the lead American negotiator with Iran, told lawmakers examining the administration’s ongoing attempts to renew the accord that former President Trump pulled the U.S. out of in 2018.
“If Iran maintains demands that go beyond the scope of the JCPOA we will continue to reject them and there will be no deal,” Mr. Malley said, using the acronym for the Obama-era nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
“It’s not our preference, but we are fully prepared to live with and confront that reality,” Mr. Malley said. “We have no illusion — nuclear or no nuclear deal — this Iranian government will remain a threat.”
His comments, during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing Wednesday, came as the administration struggles to grapple with months of stalled negotiations with Tehran over restoring the 2015 deal that was meant to shorten Iran’s strides toward nuclear armament.
President Trump withdrew from the agreement on grounds it failed to address a wider scope of what U.S. intelligence officials describe as malign activity by Iran, including the backing of militant proxies in several Mideast nations and the pursuit of a ballistic missile program in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions.
In pulling out, the Trump administration reimposed sanctions on Iran that the Obama administration had lifted when the deal was reached in 2015 in exchange for limits to Iranian nuclear activities.
Other world powers who had also been part of the JCPOA, including Russia, China and the European Union, scrambled to try and hold the deal together following the U.S. pullout in 2018. But their efforts largely fell by the wayside as the Trump administration embarked on a “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran that included adding Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to the U.S. list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO).
When Mr. Biden arrived in the White House last year, he signaled a desire to restore diplomatic talks with Iran and pursue a return to the JCPOA. The overtures came as a new hardline government in Iran demanded that the Biden administration swiftly halt sanctions and remove the IRGC from the FTO list.
While the administration has signaled a willingness to halt sanctions, it has so far shown little appetite for removing the IRGC from the terror list.
But Mr. Malley spoke out Wednesday against the pressure campaign that the former Trump administration imposed on Iran, claiming the sanctions and FTO listing have done little to curb Tehran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, and have exacerbated Iranian provocations against Washington and U.S. allies.
The special envoy, who previously served on the Obama administration’s Iran team before being tapped by Mr. Biden to try and renew negotiations with Tehran, told lawmakers that since the U.S. pulled out of the deal, Iran has shortened its nuclear breakout time — the amount of time it would take to produce enough fuel for a nuclear weapon — to a matter of weeks.
Iran has also drastically increased attacks against the U.S. and its allies, said Mr. Malley, who claimed Washington now finds itself in a tenuous position as a result of the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the deal.
“When President Biden came into office, he inherited an immediate crisis, an unbridled Iranian nuclear program that makes every other problem we’ve had with Iran more dangerous and intractable,” Mr. Malley said.
“The simple fact,” he said, is that the JCPOA had been “working” as a “means of constraining Iran’s nuclear program.”
But lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have eyed the Biden administration’s attempts to restore the deal with skepticism, and have openly criticized the White House for keeping details of on-again, off-again negotiations with Iran too close to the vest.
Mr. Malley’s appearance before the panel was in response to a demand by committee Chairman Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat, that the administration provide an update to Congress on its negotiations.
Mr. Menendez has become increasingly critical of the administration’s efforts to reenter the deal as the Iranian regime forges deals with the U.S.’s adversaries allowing it to buck sanctions and make strides toward a fully developed nuclear capability.
“Iran has dragged out this process driving up its demands and exerting its leverage, convincing the world that the United States wants the JCPOA more than the Iranian regime does,” Mr. Menendez said Wednesday. “Iran thinks it has options. If Iran wants to extract a better deal or concede less than US national security demands, it can turn to its autocratic allies.”
“After months of negotiation, this is the Iran we must contend with,” he said. “Not the Iran you hoped would be driven by practical consideration at the bargaining table.”
Lawmakers have pressed the administration to submit any potential deal with Iran to Congress for review, and both Republicans and Democrats have soured on the prospect of lifting sanctions to accommodate a new agreement.
Lawmakers have pushed back most over the prospect of removing the IRGC from the terror list, a key demand for Iran, and a major sticking point for Mr. Biden that reportedly fizzled the most recent round of talks in March.
U.S. ally Israel has also demanded that the IRGC remain on the FTO list. On Tuesday, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett made headlines by claiming Mr. Biden had assured him during a recent conversation that the IRGC would not be removed from the list.
“This is the right, moral and correct decision by President Biden,” Mr. Bennet said on Twitter. “For this I thank him.”
Biden administration officials on Wednesday would not confirm that a final decision on the FTO issue had been made.
“We are not negotiating in public and are not going to respond to specific claims about what sanctions we would be prepared to lift as part of a mutual return to full implementation of the JCPOA,” said a spokesperson for Mr. Biden’s National Security Council. “The President will do what’s in the best interests of U.S. national security.”
Despite the decreasing likelihood of reaching a deal with Iran, Mr. Malley said the administration intends to keep the negotiating line open.