Robert Malley on State of Nuclear Diplomacy

On October 13, Robert Malley, the U.S. special envoy for Iran, said that the United States and its allies were considering alternative ways to constrain Tehran’s nuclear should diplomacy fail. “Every day they [Iranians] are not coming back to the table … is telling us that this is a team that may not in fact be prepared to come back into [the nuclear deal],” Malley said during an event hosted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “I'll be traveling to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar in just a matter of days … to talk about our efforts to come back into the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) and to talk about what options we have to control Iran's nuclear program if we can't achieve that goal.”

From April to June 2021, Iran and the world’s six major powers held six rounds of talks on restoring the JCPOA. Diplomacy stalled in June during Iran’s presidential campaign and the political transition as Ebrahim Raisi took office and appointed his cabinet in August.

Malley also warned that Iran’s enrichment of uranium to higher levels, use of advanced centrifuges, and production of uranium metal could complicate a return to the 2015 deal. “The point will come, and it's not that far into the future, where Iran's nuclear advances, the knowledge advances will be such and will be irreversible that we could not recapture the essence of the nonproliferation benefits that were negotiated in 2015,” he said. The following is a transcript of his conversation with Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment.

Aaron David Miller: You were appointed in January of this year, 2021. Looking back now, was there a moment or an alternative approach that might have created a different situation to where we are now, or is where we are now more or less where we had to end up, in your view, now looking backwards?

Robert Malley: Of course, we didn't need to be here if the prior administration had not unilaterally withdrawn from the deal. Everything that people are worried about – what they’re seeing from Iran's nuclear program, and rightfully worried – the runaway nuclear program, the higher levels of enrichment, more advanced centrifuges, work on uranium metal, obstacles to the access by the IAEA. All of that is in violation of the deal, which Iran had been respecting until the U.S. withdrew.

So, I think that certainly 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. And then you asked the question, I assume your question is, was there an alternative path starting in January?

Some of the commentators, some of our former common friends have said, “Well, why didn't the U.S. act sooner and take some kind of step to create trust with the Iranians?”

I'll let historians debate what could have been. But what is clear, and it's been clear since April, is that the U.S., the Biden administration, put on the table ideas which meant if Iran had negotiated and had they reached this understanding, all of the sanctions that were inconsistent with the JCPOA, with the nuclear deal, would have been lifted, and would have been lifted very quickly.

So, in terms of a confidence building step, in terms of the Biden administration establishing its bona fides vis-à-vis Iran, that was the most important step that the administration could have taken.

As I said, people could say, “Why didn’t you take a confidence building measure earlier on?” The fact is, 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 could 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. Are they prepared to go back to that, or do they want to choose a different path?

Miller: There are those who argue that the president simply should have checked the box. He's re-upped the Paris climate [agreement], rejoined WHO., reversed the Muslim ban. Why not just check the box with respect to Iran?

On the other hand, there are many who argue, perhaps more realistically, that his predecessors’ withdrawal from the agreement created a new set of reality: more sanctions, Iran's regional behavior and Biden's own priorities in the region.

We'll come back to this question later because it cuts to the core of what represents, I think, a key to any successful negotiation, which is the degree to which each party attaches urgency to getting this done. So, you've had six rounds of talks in Vienna. Take us through, if you can – I know you can't talk about the substance of the negotiations and where the sides differ in any detail – but in terms of the process, take us through an average day, if there is such a thing in the life of Rob Malley in Vienna. How did this process actually work?

Malley: Well, it didn't work the way it should have for a very simple reason that you and I'm sure everyone else on this podcast is aware of, which is that the Iranians have refused to have direct communication, direct contact with us. So, everything has been done through intermediaries.

When we’re in Vienna, the E3, France, Germany, the U.K. are there, the Russians are there, the Chinese are there, and the E.U. coordinator is there. And our work consists of talking to them before they meet with the Iranians, and then messages are passed to the Iranians. The Iranians negotiate or talk to their interlocutors who then communicate back to us.

That, by definition – and you've been a negotiator in all kinds of different formats that you and I experienced with Israel and the Syrians and the Palestinians – it's not a particularly constructive one. It’s one that lends itself to delays, one that lends itself to misunderstanding. And that all of that has happened in the space of those six rounds where at the end of the day, you weren't entirely clear on what each side, what the Iranians were saying, and I'm sure the Iranians had questions about what we were saying.

So, the day is punctuated by these meetings with third parties, I mean, members of the P5+1, the five permanent members of the Security Council, plus Germany, plus the E.U., who are dealing with Iran. And they were trying to do their best to negotiate and to convey our positions.

So, that's the day, and you can imagine what it's like. It could be quite frustrating because the essence of a negotiation is to try to get a sense what really matters to them and what their priorities are, and how you can work through those priorities and overcome obstacles. You can't do that, or you can't do that that easily if there's no direct communication. Everything you're doing is through indirection, and that's what’s happened.

And so, we're hoping still that the Iranians would be prepared to sit down with us. That's not a concession to the United States. It’s a favor to diplomacy, and therefore it's a favor to what should be a joint effort to get back into compliance with the JCPOA. Again, if that's Iran's intent, there's a shortcut. There's an easier way to do it than the way it's been done through six rounds in Vienna so far.


Miller: Right. So if you were running a railroad, the preferred modality would be a direct negotiation. Would a direct negotiation, in many respects, though, have made a difference, or would it have accentuated the differences?

At one point, you and I talked, and I think you said that given where the parties were, you could have ended up with some pretty volatile direct negotiations between the parties. So, on balance, that would be your preference if in fact you could create such a circumstance?

Malley: This is not just a negotiation between the U.S. and Iran, it is one between the P5+1 and Iran. But I have no doubt, of course, we were spared some of the diatribes and the accusations against the U.S. and some of the volatility that you mentioned.

But on balance, I think there's no doubt that the negotiation would have been more effective, would have lent itself to fewer misunderstandings. We may still not have reached the 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.

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, whenever they resume, that's what we'll do. But I think it's clear, and I think it was clear to the Iranian negotiators themselves that this was not the ideal way to do business.


Miller: Before we move to the present, I want to ask a couple of other questions, one on the tragic situation of the dual nationals that have been imprisoned by the Iranians. Iran is a serial human rights abuser. I think, with the exception of China, it executes more people on average per year. And these negotiations aren't just about nuclear issues. There's a human dimension to them. And you are in touch with the families, I know. What is the administration's view, position, and thinking on trying to secure the release of these Americans?

Malley: Thanks for raising that. Separate and apart from the talks on the nuclear deal, we've been engaged, again indirectly, with Iran from day one on talks about securing the release of the four Americans who have been unjustly, cruelly and outrageously detained as pawns by the Iranian government, and also to get clarity on the fate of some missing persons, in particular Bob Levinson.

So, we've had those talks through third parties with ups and downs. We made real progress, but having concluded, as you said, I'm in touch very regularly with the families of the detainees. Today is the sixth anniversary of the detention of Siamak Namazi, and the secretary of state will be meeting with his brother Babak in just a few hours.

And it is really one of the most painful aspects of this experience. But we will do everything. It's a priority for the president, for the secretary of state, for my entire team to make sure that they get home, and that they get home safely as soon as possible. And we'll continue to work on it, again, regardless of what happens on the nuclear deal, whether they succeed or collapse, we have a separate track which we are insistent on pursuing to get everyone home.


Miller: Your formal position, of course, is that there is no linkage. And I think obviously that's the right position. But as a practical matter, these individuals are being used as they've been used in the past, as pawns, as instruments in a negotiation on any number of issues.

So as a practical matter, the reality will drive this train, no? I mean, an improvement in U.S. Iranian relations, a deal that is even transactional could possibly set the stage for their release. It's hard to imagine the Iranians giving up these cards, and I'm sure we've called them out repeatedly publicly. No private conversations separately on the issue of the hostages?

There are all sorts of third-party efforts, I know, in train to secure the release of hostages, but the administration's position is no linkage, correct?

Malley: I mean, there's no linkage with the JCPOA talks, and the Iranians take the same position. And frankly, I think obviously this is a difficult negotiation to get our detainees out.

I'm saying we have separated them. They, the Iranians, say that they want to separate them. and there’s no reason they need to be linked. We should be able to reach an understanding on the early immediate release of detainees who have done nothing wrong other than been American citizens who were in Iran, and they shouldn't be punished for that.


Miller All right. Before we run to the present, one final question. You've had 10 months and a lot of time at ICG [International Crisis Group] and other roles to digest and to analyze Iran's behavior. After 10 months in your formal role, are you any closer to determining or having any sense of what Iran really wants out of this process?

Malley: It's a good question. I was thinking, because I knew that you and I would be talking. When we go back, there are all of these debates how close Israelis and Palestinians were to reaching a deal at Camp David in the year 2000. And with the benefit of hindsight, we have a slightly different appreciation of how close or how close we were not.

I think we'll have to wait to see whether what we were hearing from the Iranians throughout those six rounds – and I want to make clear our assessment at the time was that we were making real progress. It wasn't just our assessment: it was the assessment of the Europeans, it was the assessment of the Russians, it was the assessment of the Chinese, in fact, it was the assessment of the Iranian negotiators themselves who were saying publicly that we were close to an understanding. 

So, if you take that at face value, we had a pretty good sense of what the Iranians were looking for. Now, two big caveats. One, were we really reading the Iranians correctly, even then? And two, we now have a different team, different leadership, a different president, that is clearly saying that it wants to do things differently. So, we're going to have to see whether we are negotiating and thinking that we're making real progress toward a resumption of mutual compliance with the deal, whether that is still the case. 

And I have to say, I know we're coming to the present and to the future, but every day that goes by we're gaining a piece of Iran's answer. Every day they're there, not coming back to the table. Every day where they are making statements about how little was achieved in Vienna, which is what the current team is saying, is telling us that this is a team that may not in fact be prepared to come back into what we would consider—and what the rest of the P5+1 would consider—full mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA.

And so of course, we have to prepare for a world, which we're doing now in consultation with our partners from the region again, I'm sure I'll talk more about that, about a world where Iran doesn't have constraints on its nuclear program. And we have to consider our options to dealing with that, which is what we're doing even as we hope that we can get back to the deal, because that is by far our preference. But as I said, Iran is giving us its answer by what it's doing and not doing every day, and we need to take that into account.


Miller: It does raise the question of urgency, which is critically important in any negotiation. The balance between how much pain there is and how much prospect there is for gain, because if there's insufficient pain and insufficient gain, well from our common experience in the Arab-Israeli, Israeli-Palestinian, issue, the result is something that kind of remotely resembles the status quo.

Now, the present. You may get your answer if and when you return to Vienna. Some would argue that the geopolitical environment for the success of these negotiations really has deteriorated. You've got a new Iranian government that is acting more aggressively with respect to nuclear activities. You have harder-line foreign ministers, perhaps a new negotiator. You have the image that the U.S. has been weakened by the Afghan withdrawal.

The president [Biden] is entering perhaps the most intense period of his presidency, where in effect, his presidency in 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 might reduce leverage at the negotiating table. As you look at a return to Vienna, does any of this ring true?

Malley: The context we're facing today is different from the context that the Obama administration was facing in 2015 for some of the reasons you mentioned. I may not agree with all of that, but certainly it's a different context.

And let's not forget, one major change is that since then, Iran has experienced a unilateral U.S. withdrawal, which is a trust deficit that that needs to be overcome. Relations between the U.S. and China in particular are not what they were. But the fundamental equation, the fundamental equation that was at the heart of the deal in 2015-16, and which remains pertinent today, which is Iran being able to get sanctions relief and the U.S. and its partners and national partners being able to put constraints on Iran's nuclear program to give us confidence that Iran is not trying to break out to develop a nuclear bomb.

That equation remains. It’s the same one, and so we know we can try to reinvent the wheel a thousand ways, the geopolitical circumstances could change, but at bottom, if Iran wants sanctions relief, and we know that we want to see Iran's nuclear program with the constraints that were imposed by the nuclear deal, then that core hasn't changed. A lot of things in the environment have, and therefore we have to adjust to the new environment as others do.

But at bottom, that remains the equation and the equilibrium that we think is still on the table. And Iran has to decide again whether they have that feeling that you just mentioned, the urgency that they want to get to that. And if not, again, we will be prepared to adjust to a different reality in which we have to deal with all options to address Iran's nuclear program if it's not prepared to come back into the constraints of 2016.

So, it's a more complicated environment. That's true. In some ways it's a more hostile environment. In some ways, it’s a less hostile environment. I mean, one big change from 2016 to today, if I may, is that Iran's neighbors are now engaging with Iran. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, all of the other countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council are now having interactions with Iran, which they were not having. Many of them were not happening back in 2016. That's a different environment.

You have the normalization accords between Israel and a number of Arab countries. That's also a new element. And those can, in fact, lead to greater de-escalation, if we use them in a proper way and create more incentives to address the nuclear crisis with Iran. But there are pluses and minuses. At bottom, what was struck in 2016 should remain relevant today, again, if Iran is prepared to do so,


Miller: We’re going to get back to both the issue of Iran's relations with Saudi Arabia and the Emirates and the Israeli piece of this, which I think is quite intriguing.

I want to ask you about China. Our mutual friend Karim Sadjadpour, my current colleague at Carnegie, has argued that U.S.-China tensions, plus Iran's growing capacity to export oil to China and China's willingness to buy, has somehow created a measure of resilience.

I think in the last year or two, the Iranian economy has even grown by two percent, although the long-term prognosis is pretty severe without removal of sanctions and some integration into normal economic reality. Have you noticed any impact of U.S.-China tensions or Iran's relationship with China in this regard?

Malley: There's no doubt that relations between the U.S. and China are not where they were and are facing real tensions. At the same time, and one can underestimate that, and that’s clearly a factor. At the same time, all of the P5+1, and I think this is important to remind people, all of them have said that they think that negotiations should resume immediately. They think that they should start from where they were left off. And they also have expressed concern about some of the nuclear steps that Iran is taking, whether it's expansion on its nuclear program or lack of cooperation with the IAEA.

So, there is still that sense, and I think whether it's China or others, none of them has an interest in a crisis in the Gulf, particularly given China's reliance on imported oil. So, we've had discussions with Chinese colleagues, we’re continuing to have them about sanctions and telling the Chinese very clearly our preference is a return to the JCPOA in which the sanctions would be lifted and China could import Iran oil freely.

But if Iran is not prepared to come back into the deal, then of course our sanctions remain, and our sanctions will have to be enforced. I think the Chinese understand that, we are talking to them about it as we're talking to all our partners about what to do to try to get Iran back into compliance, mutual compliance, us and Iran back into compliance – and what kind of world, what we will have to do, if that's not the case. And as you know, we have a number of visitors, including today, regional visitors to talk just about that.


Miller: Let's turn to the Israeli element in all of this. Not only has there been a change in government in Iran, there's been a change of government in Israel, which is in many respects been much more meaningful. It’s resulted, and it seems to me, in a shift, certainly in tactics. Prime Minister [Naftali] Bennett, arguably the weakest prime minister in the history of the state, has essentially taken the Iran issue, given the policies of his predecessor, out of American politics. He’s no longer playing the Republican-Democratic divide, and he's also taken the issue, it seems to me, largely out of the media.

Every time I turn around today, there's another Israeli visiting Washington, coordinating or discussing Iran. What's your take on the Israeli factor. Has Bennett’s emergence, and we should remind ourselves that [Yair] Lapid, foreign minister of the State of Israel though he may be, if this government survives, you're looking today at a trilateral meeting between the foreign minister of the Emirates, the secretary of state of the United States of America, and the putative prime minister of the State of Israel. What is your sense of coordination, cooperation with the Israelis, and has the emergence of the Bennett government made your job, the administration's challenge, any easier?

Malley: So first, I want to say, I mean, I was here, obviously from January on, and we were consulting quite closely with the former Israeli government, the government of Prime Minister Netanyahu. So I don't want to make it sound like it was night and day. We were cooperating, and we were coordinating.

We had a fundamental difference, it's true, that dates back quite some time. But now the government of Prime Minister Bennett, the difference is that they want to keep those differences behind closed doors as much as possible but while making clear that they have genuine problems, real problems with the JCPOA. They want to work with us to see how we manage those differences in a scenario where we come back into the JCPOA and in a scenario where we do not.

And we met with them, our respective national security advisers had meetings last week. As you say, Foreign Minister Lapid is in town as we speak, meeting with Secretary Blinken and the Emirati foreign minister. So we will be talking to them. We know we have some differences, but we also know that we have a common purpose, which is to make sure that Iran cannot acquire a nuclear weapon, and in that we are fully aligned and working together.

And I'm confident that despite the differences we have, and to be very clear, our differences have to do with the merits of coming back into the deal. Our position being that everything we hear from our Israeli partners and from others about the concerns they have about Iran's nuclear program, all of those have been not only exacerbated, even created by withdrawal from the JCPOA, so we feel that coming back in would still be the best outcome.

But we are realistic. We know that there's at least a very good possibility that Iran is going to choose a different path, and we need to coordinate with Israel and with our other partners in the region. I'll be traveling to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar in just a matter of days to talk about that, to talk about our efforts to come back into the JCPOA and to talk about what options we have to control Iran's nuclear program if we can't achieve that goal. And that's exactly what Secretary Blinken will be talking to Foreign Minister Lapid throughout today.


Miller: I want to ask you about the Saudis, the Emiratis and Iran, but one more question on the Israelis. And the Israeli press is full of this, both in chatter and in serious analysis, that there has been a change in Israel's position with respect to a negotiation over the JCPOA?

Maybe it's a resignation to reality, assuming the Iranians want to want to play ball and you and they can meet one another's needs, including the rest of the P5. But do you sense any change, however slight in their openness, to consider a situation which the previous government seemed to be unalterably opposed? That is to say, a negotiated return to something that looks like the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action?

Malley: I really don't want to speak for the Israeli government. I think they've made clear still that they have real, to put it mildly, reservations about the nuclear deal. But they've also said that's a decision the U.S. will have to make if Iran is prepared to come back in.

They understand and respect that decision, even if they disagree. I think at the same time, there's a lively debate in Israel among former officials, security officials, about whether, in hindsight, the withdrawal from the deal was a good decision and whether it in fact improved or weakened Israel's security.

I would leave it to Israelis to debate that, but I think in the pages of Israeli newspapers, you're seeing a much more lively debate than occurred back at the time when President Trump decided to withdraw from the deal, which I think was celebrated quite strongly in Israel. I think today people realize that that was a decision that left Iran unconstrained in its nuclear program, closer to a breakout than it's been, perhaps ever, and with a more aggressive regional posture. And so I think there is some rethinking, at least on the part of the security establishment in Israel, and that's obviously a position that we've taken now for some time.


Miller: I also think, Rob, you've got an Israeli government that is really very worried about the prospects of an open confrontation with the United States, frankly, and cannot afford one.

Let's go on now to the Gulf, Saudis. There have been at least three rounds of meetings, negotiations that we know about between the Saudis and Iran since April. There's reports this morning about the prospects of reestablishing consulates in Saudi Arabia and Iran and even talk of restoration of embassies. What's the upside and/or the downside for these negotiations to see those sorts of talks take place with a view, even if it's tactical, to a better, more functional relationship between those two countries?

Malley: Let’s put the nuclear negotiations to the side for a second. I don't want to overstate what's been achieved between Iran and Saudi Arabia, I think it's been four rounds. I think if you speak to Saudi officials, they will say so far, progress has been quite minimal. But the fact that they're talking, the fact that the Emirates and Iran have not just been talking but dealing with one another, those are things that we welcome. We think that's a good thing.

If it could be accompanied by de-escalation, of course, we still need to see how Iran, what its policies will be in Iraq and in Yemen, in Syria and Lebanon, in terms of not continuing on the path of encouraging their proxies and their allies to engage in acts of violence. But of course, the proof will be in what happens.

But engagement among countries in the region, engagement with Iran, de-escalation, that's all things that we would encourage. And we think that it's good for stability in the region, keeping our eyes wide open as you mentioned at the beginning in terms of what we should expect and how quickly things can change. How that affects the negotiations, frankly, I think you know, what it means is that we are very much in tune with our Gulf partners in terms of looking and assessing our policy towards Iran.

I've just mentioned that both the Saudi foreign minister and the Emirati foreign minister happen to be in town this week. Next week, I'll be in the Gulf. I think that we're finding that those conversations are extremely productive because some of the tensions that existed in 2015-16, and we don’t want to hide them, there were some tensions over our negotiations to get into the JCPOA and our policies of the region.

I think at this point we're finding a greater commonality. I'm not saying that it's a perfect convergence, but a greater commonality of view, both in terms of how to deal with Iran's nuclear program, how to deal with Iran's regional activities, and what's the best way forward in terms of de-escalation of tensions in the region. So that's, as I said, the more we are in sync with our partners, whether it's Israel, whether it's the countries of the GCC, the better off we are because we could work as one and trying to address what is a common problem.


Miller: Let me ask you one question about today's trilateral. You know, Iran was a clear motivating force, beginning a decade or so ago, in stimulating quiet, discreet contacts between the Israelis and the Saudis, the Israelis and the Emiratis. But it seems to me, and like your view here that neither Saudi Arabia, given its weakness and vulnerabilities, nor the Emirates, want to be the tip of the U.S. or Israeli spear when it comes to confronting Iran.

I've often wondered and maybe you could put on your ICG hat here for a minute. What is the practical value of the Abraham Accords, these two relationships, Bahrain and the Emirates with Israel in relationship to Iran. Is it practical? Is it symbolic? Is it a political gain? Is there any strategic implication with respect to Israeli policies and views toward Iran of these relationships?

Malley: I really don't want to speak either for the Saudis or for Emiratis. I think they’re in a far better place for commenting about how they view the normalization in the case of the Emirates, in the case of Saudi Arabia, who knows where they will end up vis-a-vis Israel. But I think when you talk about the other countries, it's certainly a trend that is, from the U.S. perspective, it's very welcome to see improved relations between some Arab countries and Israel. Anything that contributes to greater engagement, a greater understanding on that front is something that we would welcome, again in terms of how it affects policy towards Iran.

The only thing I would say to that, again without speaking for our partners, is de-escalation of tensions in the region, greater communication, greater understanding — that can only help. And to the extent that the U.S. has good relations with Israel and with the Gulf countries, it puts us in a better position to coordinate our policies, whatever the issue may be. The broader point I make is right now there's an opportunity in the region to have these discussions.

You have the discussions that I mentioned earlier between Iran and some of its neighbors. One thing that could really put this on a very, very different path, a negative path, is if we see Iran's nuclear program crossing thresholds that would put us in a very different position, or Iran's regional activities, leading us to the brink of another escalatory dynamic. That's what could sort of cut against some of the positive trends, I don't want to overstate it by any means, for some of these glimmers of positive trends in the region.

And that's why we are determined through diplomacy, if at all possible, to address these issues, and otherwise looking, as the president made clear, at other options. But we didn’t mention one point, maybe you want to come to it, which is, because I just said the cohort of issues, it's not just nuclear, it's also regional. And this brings me to a question about how the U.S. views follow-on talks, a follow-on agreement.

Our view on that, and we've said this from the beginning. The JCPOA, we think it is an important deal. It's one that we think achieved the objective that was assigned to it, but it's also a limited deal. And we obviously have many in this country who believe that it needed to be expanded or complemented by other issues that it had not dealt with, and there are many in Iran, and this is something that we have found out through six rounds of talks and through everything we hear from the new Iranian government, they would like to get something more than the JCPOA in terms of the kind of sanctions relief that they are looking for.

So, our position is clear, we think the best way forward, and we also thought that that's what Iran believed is to get back to the JCPOA and then discuss ways of bolstering, of strengthening it, of dealing with issues that remain very divisive between Iran and the United States. And we think this would be to our mutual benefit.

There are things that Iran still wants in terms of sanctions and things that we still want in terms of Iran's posture. And so we think that's the best way. Let's get back to the JCPOA,  to calm things down, to get some benefit for both sides. And then let's build on it. If Iran comes back to the table whenever they come back for the seventh round and put on the table issues that clearly go beyond the confines of the JCPOA, and that's sort of what we're hearing. We may be wrong, but that’s what we’re hearing. Then we’re prepared to have the negotiation about a different kind of deal, a deal that would address more issues than the JCPOA.

But Iran is going to have to make a choice, and it can't have it both ways. It can't say that the U.S. has to give more than the JCPOA, and Iran is going to give only what the JCPOA requires or perhaps even less than the JCPOA requires. Either we're both going to have a deal that is strictly in conformity with the JCPOA, or we’re going to have to have a deal that's different, where we can bring different issues to the table, and they do. But again, it has to be one or the other. It can't be better for Iran and not better for the U.S.


Miller: Right, any negotiation that succeeds and endures has got to be based on a balance of interests. Whether that can be achieved or not is obviously what you're trying to test.  So just to be clear, the notion of a longer and stronger agreement is not an artfully contrived talking point designed to manage opposition to the agreement, particularly from the Israelis – it is actually an objective that you would like to see if the Iranians are interested in cooperating? Whether it can be achieved or not, neither of us know that, but it's not just a talking point?

Malley: Sometimes by simplifying it, we make it more and more difficult to understand. There's a whole host of issues, whether it's regional issues, whether it's nuclear issues that we still believe – or whether it's sanctions issues, because as we've said, we understand them, you just said it has to be based on a balance of interests of things. There are things that we feel the JCPOA doesn't cover, that we wish we could have understandings with Iran about, and there are things that Iran clearly is not satisfied with about the JCPOA.

In fact, they've said publicly that even back in 2016 and 17, when the JCPOA was being implemented, that they felt it didn't go far enough. So, we think that it should a possibility to negotiate with Iran, something that is stronger, that is broader than what was negotiated in the JCPOA, not instead of the JCPOA. Again, our view is let's get back to the JCPOA, but it's not a talking point.

And again, when I hear our critics saying, “You'll have no leverage, there's nothing, once you're back in the JCPOA, what will the incentive be?” Well, the proof is that what Iran is saying as we speak and throughout six rounds of talks has raised issues that go beyond the four corners of the JCPOA. So there clearly are things that they are looking for that go beyond what was negotiated in 2015, and there are things that we're looking for that go beyond that.

What we're telling the Iranians is let's not look at the JCPOA as the end of the diplomacy. Let's hopefully look at it as the beginning of more negotiations, difficult ones, we'll have to see how far we go, but ones where we know that there are things that Iran wants, and we know there are things that we want.

And I would just say, if we had remained within the JCPOA, then we would have had all these years of implementing it. And at this point, I believe we would have been in talks with Iran about these other issues. And so again, it just goes to how catastrophic a decision it was to unilaterally withdraw. We're now talking to Iran about the issues of the JCPOA, rather than talking to Iran about issues that go beyond it. And that's one of the legacies that we’re dealing with now.


Miller: How do you respond to those who argue that on timelines alone, the JCPOA is fast approaching its sell-by date, that the Iranians will not unlearn what they've learned over the course of the last four or five years with respect to their nuclear capacity, that even if you do return to the JCPOA, it really doesn't solve or answer the mail with respect to the problem of Iran's putative nuclear weapons aspiration? The one screwdriver turn away from the capacity to produce enough fissile material, and then miniaturize a warhead, and do the physics package that's necessary to actually make a deliverable nuclear device.

Malley: So very quickly, I know we don't have much time. But there’s two questions in what you’re saying. Number one: so many of our critics, people who say that, also are pointing with alarm to steps that Iran could reverse – level of enrichment, the types of centrifuges that are enriching, the obstacles to IAEA access and inspections, the work on uranium metal, all of that which people are rightly nervous and anxious and worried about. If we were back in the JCPOA, you could all reverse them.

Now you raise the second issue, which Secretary Blinken and others have been very clear about. The point will come, and it's not that far into the future, where Iran's nuclear advances, the knowledge advances, will be such and will be irreversible that we could not recapture the essence of the nonproliferation benefits that were negotiated in 2015. When we reach that point, of course, we're going to have to reassess what we're looking for at the table, at the negotiating table because if we can't achieve what we bargained for, then obviously we're talking about a different kind of a deal.

We're not there yet, and on that, I trust our experts. Many people that have different views. Our experts tell us that as of today, if we were back in the JCPOA, we could recapture the nonproliferation benefits that we bargained for. That's still our pursuit. We'll have to see again whether Iran is interested or not.


Miller: What is your best guess as to when, not day certain, a seventh round will convene in Vienna?

Malley: I think there's too much focus on the date. Sure, we would like to resume the talks a month ago, two months ago. It's now been almost four months since we interrupted the talks. But the point for us is really whenever those talks resume, is Iran coming back with a realistic view about how to come back into compliance with the deal, or are they coming out with a completely different notion?

If they’re coming back with a completely different notion, then these talks are going to go on for a long time. It's going to be very difficult. We have to consider all options to try to address Iran's out of control or unconstrained nuclear program. So, we're just as interested with the substance of what Iran comes back with as with the date. On the date, I could try to guess, and that would just wouldn't be worth much. Ultimately, you know, that's not something that we decide.


Miller: Let's set aside the question whether Iran wants an agreement, any agreement or a deal that strikes that balance of interests price point, which is critically important to a successful renegotiation. Here's my last question, and I ask it in good faith, in good conscience. Do we want a deal anytime soon? And I say this only because of my conviction that the champagne bottle corks will not be popping in Washington if in fact you succeed in renegotiating a return to the JCPOA. There's a lot of opposition to this agreement. Everything in this town is political. The president faces critical domestic issues, which will already require tremendous expenditure of political capital. So it's a softball question in many respects, but what underlies it is a very serious point.

Malley: I obviously don't deal with all the political aspects of this administration. But what's been clear is that President Biden and his administration want to address the problems we face with Iran's nuclear program. It would not be in our interest to see further advances of Iran's nuclear program, which brings them closer to breakout point and which forces us to take some decisions to try to address it.

So, the answer is clear from a national security point of view. We are prepared to come back into mutual compliance with JCPOA as soon as Iran is. And that's been my mandate. That's been my charge. And there's never been any question about it. Again, we're prepared to live, and we have to be prepared to live, with a world in which Iran is not interested. But if Iran is interested, we’re prepared to do it, we’re prepared to do it in good faith.

Seriously, all the P5+1 have witnessed what we’ve been prepared to put on the table, and I think that they would vouch for the good faith efforts that we've made to come back into compliance with the deal. But it will take Iran’s willingness to say yes. So we're prepared to come back as soon as possible, and all those other issues will not affect the core national security interest we have. But that core national security interest also means that if Iran is not interested, we're prepared to deal with that eventuality as well.