US special envoy for Iran Robert Malley has voiced doubt about the future of the Iran nuclear deal, as talks to bring the US back into the deal remain in a hiatus over the political transition in Iran following a June presidential election that secured a decisive victory for Ebrahim Raeisi.
“It’s just one big question mark,” Malley told NatSec Daily during an interview in his State Department office, noting that rejoining the multilateral deal, officially called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), “is not something that we can fully control.”
He said the delay in the Vienna talks, which have proceeded fruitlessly since April, is due to the mistrust sowed during the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign and the political transition in Iran.
Iran and the five remaining parties to the JCPOA launched the Vienna talks months after Joe Biden, who had promised to bring the US back into the deal, occupied the Oval Office.
Tehran has refused to speak directly with Washington throughout the course of the talks, citing the latter’s withdrawal from the deal under Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, in 2018 as the reason that the US should not attend the talks.
Malley said that “there is absolute justification to have a question mark, because if you haven’t reached [a deal] yet, the talks drag on.”
“It at least makes us very aware of the fact that it is certainly not a done deal, that it’s a legitimate question whether we will be able to come back, and that we have to be prepared for a world in which Iran’s intentions are not to go back into the [pact], at least not in a realistic way,” he said.
The top American diplomat also refused to assign a percentage chance to the United States’ re-entry into the JCPOA, saying, “I wouldn’t be helping you much if I gave you a percentage … we are prepared to resume the talks, which we wouldn’t do if we didn’t think [a deal] was possible.”
He warned that his team is preparing some contingencies if Tehran and Washington fail to agree on resuming compliance with the terms of the nuclear deal.
One is that Washington and Tehran sign a wholly separate deal, complete with different parameters than the current agreement, he said, though Iran has strongly rejected negotiating a new deal.
Another, he continued, is a suite of punitive responses in coordination with European allies.
Malley also said that in his mind, it’s only logical that “a return to the deal is in the cards,” since both the new administrations in Tehran and Washington have said that’s what they want.
So far, six rounds of negotiations have been held in the Austrian capital, as a result of which, the participants would say “significant progress” was made in the course of the “constructive” and “businesslike” talks. But the diplomats have begun to sound less confident about the revival of the JCPOA in the last few weeks.
Since the beginning of the talks, disagreements have persisted over a number of issues, including how to sequence the US sanctions removal, with Tehran arguing that since Washington was the party that violated the terms of the agreement, it should take the first step back into compliance with the deal by removing its unilateral sanctions.
Tehran has also sought assurances that the next US administration will not violate the deal again, arguing that a guarantee by the US is “crucial” and an “obvious principle” to a successful restoration of the deal.
The Biden administration, on the other hand, has declined to provide Tehran with such a guarantee, despite repeatedly attacking the Trump administration’s “failed” maximum pressure policy and vowing to repeal it.