Discover more from Diplomatic, by Laura Rozen
US expresses renewed interest in Iran nuclear diplomacy: ‘Our goal is to reach a diplomatic outcome with Iran’
“We hope that we can resolve this through diplomatic means, and we’re prepared to go down that path,” US Iran envoy Rob Malley told NPR May 30.
After months of the U.S. blaming Iran for rejecting a proposal to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal last August and Iran’s subsequent brutal crackdown on the ‘women, life, freedom’ protesters, US Iran envoy Rob Malley expressed renewed interest Tuesday in pursuing a diplomatic solution to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.
“Our goal is to reach a diplomatic outcome with Iran that would verifiably ensure that Iran can’t acquire a nuclear weapon,” Malley told National Public Radio’s Mary Louise Kelly in an interview broadcast on Tuesday (May 30).
“We are not there yet, of course,” Malley continued, adding that it was Iran last August that “turned its back on a very realistic deal.”
“We hope that we can resolve this through diplomatic means, and we’re prepared to go down that path,” he said.
The comments, echoing those of US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan earlier this month, came after months of seeming U.S. hesitation to express interest in resuming nuclear diplomacy with Iran in the face of Iran’s brutal crackdown on the protests spurred by the death last September in the custody of Iran’s so-called morality police of 22 year old Masha Amini. “The JCPOA is not on the agenda,” American officials had said for many months, referring to the acronym for the formal name of the 2015 pact, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which the Trump administration quit in 2018, though Iran had been complying with it.
The Biden administration’s hesitation about pursuing nuclear diplomacy with Iran since then seems now to have subsided, eclipsed by mounting concerns about Iran’s advancing nuclear program and the risk for military escalation.
“We are…engaging Iran diplomatically regarding its nuclear program, and we continue to believe that it was a tragic mistake to leave the deal with nothing at all to replace it,” US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told the Washington Institute for Near East Policy May 4.
“We are going to continue to take action to, yes, deter Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and then to seek a diplomatic solution that puts this on a long-term pathway of stability,” Sullivan said.
The Biden administration officials’ recent comments, however, suggested that whatever diplomatic outcome the U.S. would be prepared to pursue now, it may not be a revival of the JCPOA. Nor does it seem, at least in the near term, that the U.S. is exploring a diplomatic option through the format of the so-called “P5+1”—the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (US, UK, France, Russia and China + Germany) which negotiated with Iran to reach the 2015 deal—but seemingly an understanding that might be reached between the US and Iran, possibly with third country mediation.
Biden National Security Council Middle East advisor Brett McGurk traveled to Oman on May 8 to discuss with the Omanis if the Iranians would be “open to taking steps that would put some limits on their nuclear program and de-escalate the regional situation and what they would want in return,” Axios’ Barak Ravid reported Tuesday.
Oman’s Sultan Haitham bin Tariq al-Said conducted a two-day trip to Iran last weekend (May 28-29) during which he met with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Iran protests subside, Iran nuclear program advances
“I think that it's true that it was difficult for us to engage in negotiations when Iran was engaged in the brutal crackdown against its own people,” Ali Vaez, director of the Iran program at the International Crisis Group, formerly headed by Malley, told me Tuesday. “But now that the dust has settled, the problem of Iran's nuclear proliferation is looming large again, and so obviously, the US has to pursue a diplomatic solution to try to curb Iran's activities.”
“It’s a question of priorities,” Vaez said. “I think that there's a change in how the U.S. perceives key concerns about Iran's activity. A few months ago, human rights was at the top, and now I think the nuclear issue is once again… flashing red.”
But Vaez expressed skepticism that even an interim nuclear deal is possible in the near term, and suggested what was likely being explored was much more modest.
“I do not believe that an interim agreement is… realistically achievable,” he said. “The expectation gap between Iran and the U.S. is just so large that it's not really bridgeable in the time that remains in this administration.
“But it is completely natural for the Biden administration…to try to find a way of preventing tensions over Iran’s nuclear program from boiling over,” he said. “And so I think that is what the U.S. is most likely exploring, which is a solution to try to at least make sure that Iran does not engage in the kind of provocative behavior that makes a confrontation…inevitable in the run-up to the election.”
“Having diplomatic contacts, especially in an indirect format, does not mean that a deal is possible or at hand,” Vaez said.
A senior European diplomat agreed.
“Nothing is moving” the European diplomat said Tuesday.
“We have a credible diplomatic path, but we also have a credible deterrence path”
Malley seemed to acknowledge that the nuclear issue has risen again to the top of the long list of U.S. concerns with Iran.
Since Iran rejected a proposal last August to revive the JCPOA, “a lot has happened,” he told NPR. “Iran has engaged in a brutal repression of its peaceful protesters. It has delivered drones that Russia is using for its brutal invasion of Ukraine. And its nuclear program has advanced.”
“But Iran knows that if it wants to go down that path, we’re prepared to do it,” Malley said. “Of course, we will not ignore the other issues that we face with Iran, whether it’s the detainment of several American citizen hostages, and we’re engaged in indirect talks to get them out, or the other threats that Iran presents to our people and to our personnel in the region.”
“Our intelligence community has made the assessment public that we believe that at this point, they have not made the decision to pursue a bomb,” Malley said. “We’re not going to rest on that assessment. And that’s why it’s very important for us, and President Biden has made clear, that we will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon.
“We will use deterrence to make clear to them that all options are on the table if we conclude that they’re taking steps tantamount to a decision to acquire a bomb, but we will also pursue diplomacy, because we think that’s the most verifiable and sustainable way to prevent them from getting a bomb,” he said.
Diplomatic is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.