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Prepare for a nuclear Iran, Biden envoy says

Gas Centrifuges (Nuclear Regulatory Commission/WikiCommons)
October 15, 2021

Robert Malley, President Joe Biden’s Special Envoy for Iran, warned this week to prepare for Iran to ignore all constraints on its nuclear program, as Iran continues to approach weapons-grade nuclear fuel.

During a virtual discussion on Iran policy hosted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Malley said, “We have to prepare for a world . . . where Iran doesn’t have constraints on its nuclear program.”

Malley also criticized President Donald Trump’s administration for withdrawing the U.S. from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Trump withdrew from the deal in May 2018, following criticisms the agreement did little to constrain Iran and that Iran had violated it by not disclosing a past nuclear weapons program.

Following the U.S. withdrawal from the deal, Iran has also begun ignoring constraints on its nuclear program, such as the amount and enrichment levels of nuclear materials it can have. According to a September report, Iran stands poised to achieve a nuclear breakout in which it could rush to enrich enough nuclear material to fuel its first nuclear warhead in a matter of weeks.

Malley said, “If the prior administration had not unilaterally withdrawn from the deal, everything that people who are worried about . . .Iran’s nuclear program and rightfully worried — the runaway nuclear program, higher levels of enrichment, more advanced centrifuges, work on uranium metal, obstacles to the access by the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) — all of that is in violation of the deal which Iran had been respecting until the U.S. withdrew.”

The special envoy said he believes there “was an alternative path in which we would be in a very different situation if we had not withdrawn from the deal” but “what’s done is done.”

Malley did go on to question whether the Biden administration still has a chance to get Iran to come back to the 2015 nuclear deal. The U.S. has been engaged in talks in Vienna, Austria since April. Malley said both U.S. and international observers had originally assessed an Iranian desire to return to the 2015 deal, but now questions whether that has been the case.

“Were we really reading the Iranians correctly even then?” Malley said.

Further complicating the effort is the fact that Iran has had a change in leadership since the Vienna talks began. Shortly after the elections in June, Iran’s new president, Ebrahim Raisi, signaled he is not interested in meeting with the U.S. side.

Malley said, even as the Biden administration is trying to get Iran to return to compliance with the 2015 agreement, the administration is considering what other options it has to

“We have to consider options to deal with that,” Malley said, “which is what we’re doing, even as we hope that we can get back to the deal that is by far our preference.”

Malley’s assessments mirror those of Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who on Wednesday also said the Biden administration is “prepared to turn to other options if Iran doesn’t change course.”

Blinken also accused Iran of not negotiating in good faith and has instead used the negotiations as a stalling tactic.

“Iran has been using this time to advance its nuclear program in a variety of ways, including enriching uranium to 20% and even 60%, using more advanced centrifuges, acquiring more knowledge,” Blinken said Wednesday.