President Biden’s point man on Iran policy said Wednesday that the administration has been telling Tehran for more than six months that Washington is prepared to remove sanctions that President Trump imposed when he pulled the U.S. out of the Obama-era nuclear deal, as long as the Iranians agree to return to the agreement curbing their suspect nuclear programs.
Tehran has spurned the offer, but Robert Malley, the State Department’s special envoy for Iran, said Wednesday that it still stands. He lamented that the Iranians refuse to even meet with their American counterparts.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters that time is “running short” for Iran to work with the administration. He said U.S. officials are exploring options to contain Tehran’s accelerating uranium enrichment activities.
Returning to the multinational nuclear deal was a centerpiece of Mr. Biden’s policy platform as a candidate last year, but the president has little to show for his efforts since taking office in January. The other signatories to the deal — Russia, China, Britain, Germany and France — have tried to keep the agreement alive while looking for a way to get Washington and Tehran back to direct talks.
Mr. Blinken, who spoke as Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid visited Washington, did not specify what options are under consideration. His comments appeared to indicate that the administration’s patience is wearing thin. For the first time, Mr. Blinken acknowledged that the U.S. was discussing options with its allies “if Iran doesn’t change course.”
Mr. Malley said the administration is “not going to beg the Iranians.” The comment suggested growing sentiment among U.S. officials that Iran, which recently installed a hard-line president, is letting slip a major chance to renew diplomacy with Washington.
The back-to-back remarks from the secretary of state and his top deputy for Iran policy presented a rare window into the administration’s internal thinking about what it might do if the nuclear deal fails.
“The major confidence-building measure was to tell the Iranians we are prepared to remove all of the sanctions that were imposed by the Trump administration that were inconsistent with the deal, and therefore we can get back to the business that we should have been on. And that’s where we are today, and I think that’s the choice that Iran faces,” Mr. Malley said.
“Are they prepared to go back to that, or do they want to choose a different path?” he said during a video call hosted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
With the Iranians refusing to participate in direct negotiations involving the U.S., the other parties have held several rounds of “indirect” talks in Vienna about bringing the U.S. back into the deal and how Iran can return to compliance. The talks have been stalled since June despite pressure from Russian and EU officials.
Iran’s government has responded with mixed signals. It has expressed a willingness to “negotiate” but has resisted pressure to set a date for direct talks. Iran’s Tasnim News Agency reported Wednesday that Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian had met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and said Iran would return to talks to reach a nuclear agreement “soon.”
The Iranians appear to be seeking a full removal of U.S. sanctions as a precondition. Tehran says Mr. Trump acted unilaterally in 2018 to pull the U.S. out of what he deemed the “horrible” Obama-era deal. The administration also imposed strict sanctions that damaged the Iranian economy. Iran has responded in recent years by violating some terms of the deal on nuclear activities.
Iran reportedly is also seeking assurances that future U.S. administrations will not unilaterally reimpose sanctions as Mr. Trump did. The Biden team says it cannot give such guarantees.
The Trump administration’s strategy was to pressure Iran into negotiations beyond its nuclear program, which was built over decades of violations to U.N. Security Council resolutions. Trump administration officials have said the goal was to address the full range of Iran’s “malign” activities, including Tehran’s backing of militant allies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, and ballistic missile tests that Washington contends were violations of Security Council resolutions.
Biden administration officials have sharply criticized the Trump withdrawal from the nuclear deal but have expressed a similar desire to draw the Iranians into more comprehensive negotiations.
Some analysts say the Iranians are delaying talks because they have found a way around U.S. sanctions pressure by engaging in discreet oil sales to China. The Trump administration attempted to uphold a global embargo on such sales, but there is speculation that the Biden administration has turned a blind eye toward them.
With uncertainty mounting and time slipping, the chance for a breakthrough in talks appears to be dwindling. “Some would argue that the geopolitical environment for the success of these negotiations really has deteriorated,” Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow for the Carnegie Foundation Institute for International Peace, said while interviewing Mr. Malley during Wednesday’s video call.
“You’ve got a new Iranian government that is acting more aggressively with respect to nuclear activities. … You have the image that the U.S. has been weakened by the Afghan withdrawal [and] the president is entering perhaps the most intense period of his presidency,” Mr. Miller said. “The next several months may actually hang in the balance as a consequence of several domestic issues that are in play, and you’ve got tensions with China, which somehow might reduce leverage at the negotiating table.”
Mr. Malley lamented that the Iranians have refused to meet directly with U.S. officials. If the Iranians were willing to meet, he said, progress in talks would have been made by now.
“We may still not have reached a deal, but I think we would have had a clearer sense of where we were had we been able to talk to the Iranians directly,” he said. “You know, we’re not going to beg the Iranians. We just think that would be better for both of us. But if Iran insists on indirect talks, then whenever they resume, that’s what we’ll do.”