deal or no deal

‘No movement’ on Iran deal, ‘it’s not on our agenda,’ envoy Malley says

U.S. Envoy for Iran Rob Malley said talks with Tehran have been stalled since early September, and the U.S. is focused on protests, Ukraine drones

BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images

Robert Malley, Biden administration special envoy for Iran, testifies about the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action during a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations on Capitol Hill on May 25, 2022, in Washington, D.C.

Nuclear negotiations with Iran have been inactive for months, and it is not currently a U.S. priority to push them forward, Rob Malley, the U.S. special representative for Iran and lead U.S. negotiator for the nuclear talks, said on Monday.

The talks have not advanced since late August or early September, Malley said, when Iran demanded a concession “extraneous to the [nuclear deal] and which none of the other participants… would have said was a legitimate demand” to the European Union’s proposed framework, which many had thought could lead to a finalized agreement.

“It’s really not our focus right now, it’s not on the agenda because nothing has changed,” Malley said in a virtual interview with Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “So we’re not going to focus on something that is inert when other things are happening.”

The U.S. envoy described the mass protests inside Iran and Tehran’s decision to provide drones to Russia for its invasion of Ukraine as more significant recent developments, and as the U.S.’ primary focus with regard to Washington’s Iran policy.

“If nothing’s going to happen, we’re going to spend our time where we can be useful,” Malley explained. “We’re going to continue to use our sanctions and other pressure tools to make sure that Iran can’t acquire nuclear weapons. And we’re going to focus on areas where we can be effective at this time.”

Malley suggested that the nuclear talks are one of multiple options and tools being pursued by the Biden administration, claiming that the administration and the media have failed to “fully” present the administration’s Iran strategy.

“President Biden said during the campaign, and since he’s been in office, that we believe that he is committed to preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon and that diplomacy is the best way to do that, and so we will pursue it without apology,” Malley said. “At the same time, as I said, we will use other tools and, in last resort, a military option if necessary, to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. So what we had done since the early days of the administration was see whether a diplomatic path was available… Several times we came very close. And each time we came close, Iran came up with a new extraneous demand that derailed the talks.”

Malley further claimed the administration has successfully reunited the U.S.’ international partners in a common effort to oppose the regime’s destabilizing activities and human rights violations, in addition to its nuclear program, and that freeing U.S. hostages has been “a priority” for the administration.

“We have not self-deterred because of the pursuit of a diplomatic agreement,” he emphasized, arguing that permanently abandoning nuclear talks would not impact the rest of the U.S.’ strategy. “We have been doing those other things, we haven’t waited to see what happens to the nuclear deal.”

Iran’s involvement in Ukraine, Malley said, has “extremely mobilized” the Europeans against Iran and “fundamentally compromised its relations with countries across the globe.”

Malley again apologized for a tweet earlier this month in which he said that Iranians were demanding that the regime “respect their human rights and dignity.” Malley faced criticism from Iranian activists in the diaspora for what they said was a mischaracterization of the protesters’ demands. 

“It was a mistake… it’s not something that I should do, particularly because it was viewed as diminishing the demands of the protesters,” Malley said. “And so what I said and what I’ll say again today: it’s not up to us. It’s not up to me to characterize what the people on the streets of Iran — particularly the women — are demonstrating what they want… The Iranian people will determine their future.”