US envoy to Iran Malley says goal is to return to nuclear deal, without calling to strengthen it.
Mixed messages from the Biden administration on the Iran nuclear deal days before indirect talks commence in Vienna between the sides are “very troubling,” senior Israel officials said Sunday.
They expressed their concerns after US Special Envoy for Iran Rob Malley, in an interview with PBS on Friday, spoke about a return to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action without any additional elements that would make it “longer and stronger,” as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said.
“The goal is to see whether we can agree on what steps the United States needs to take to come back into compliance with the nuclear deal and what steps Iran has to take to come back into compliance with the nuclear deal,” Malley said.
Regarding the Trump administration’s maximum-pressure campaign against Iran, he said the US is “going to have to lift those sanctions that are inconsistent with the deal that was reached with Iran… so that Iran enjoys the benefits that it was supposed to enjoy under the deal.”
Malley repeatedly spoke of equivalence between the US and Iran in their behavior, referring to “mutual distrust” between the countries.
“It’s not a matter of who has the greater weight,” he said. “It’s whether both sides are prepared to carry the burden that they have to come back into compliance.”
Malley warned against the US or Iran being too firm in their stances.
“If either side takes a maximalist position and says that the other side has to do everything first before it’s going to move one inch, I think it’s hard to see how this succeeds,” he said.
Malley acknowledged that Iranian nuclear scientists have more information and experience than in 2015 due to their continued violations of the JCPOA. But he did not suggest any solutions, saying only that there will be “difficult discussions about what we need to do so that we and others… are satisfied that Iran is back in compliance with the commitments that it made.”
A senior Israeli official said: “If this is American policy, we are concerned.”
The interview “raised eyebrows” at the highest echelons in Israel, the source said, because “in the past, the Biden administration talked about a ‘longer and stronger’ deal – like they were looking for something else – and that’s not [in the Malley interview]. It’s all about returning to the 2015 deal.”
“Nowhere in the entire interview does Malley say the goal is to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons,” the source said. “Nowhere does he accuse the Iranians of any bad behavior… Nowhere in the interview does he talk about the importance of consultations with American allies in the region.”
“In the old deal, snapback sanctions disappear in 2025,” the source added. “In 2030, all nuclear restrictions end. Even the Europeans say it’s terrible that Iran is developing uranium metal. That becomes legal in 2030. Is that the deal they want to go back to?”
As for the equivalence Malley drew between the US and Iran, the official scoffed: “He’s acting like he’s from the UN, saying both sides have distrust of each other.”
The official speculated that the Americans may see “a moment of opportunity because there is no government in Israel,” and they could think Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will not have a robust response to the talks with Iran.
However, Netanyahu will be giving major public speeches in the coming weeks, on Holocaust Remembrance Day and Remembrance Day for the Fallen of Israel’s Wars, occasions on which he has brought up Iran in the past.
Blinken and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi spoke on Friday, and the topic of Iran came up, though they did not discuss Malley’s comments.
Blinken presented a gradual approach with Iran that would lead to a “sharpened” JCPOA, an official privy to the call said, adding that opinions are split within the Biden administration.
Israelis’ impression from Blinken is that the Biden administration “is not pinning its hopes” on the talks in Vienna this week and is “not expecting a breakthrough.”
“They understand Iran is leaning toward refusing any new declarations or plans… Iran has a tough stance of returning to the JCPOA and removing all sanctions,” the official said.
Israeli officials continue to ask Americans to ensure that “anytime, anywhere” inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency are included in the deal, which is something that Malley said will be part of the talks. In addition, Israelis emphasize the need to curb aggression by Iran and its proxies in the region.
National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat has not spoken to his US counterpart, Jake Sullivan, since early March, when they held a strategic dialogue on the topic of Iran.
The senior official said the talks focused on “looking at the facts and where we are, not about what needs to be done moving forward.”