On October 25, the U.S. special envoy for Iran, Robert Malley, warned that Tehran’s reasons for delaying nuclear talks were “wearing very thin.” He also said that the United States and its partners were increasingly concerned “over the “pace and direction of Iran’s nuclear progress.” He added that Iran’s nuclear advances could eventually negate the nonproliferation benefits of the 2015 deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). “You can’t revive a dead corpse,” he told reporters after visiting Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and France. The following is a transcript of the briefing.
Special Briefing with Robert Malley, U.S. Special Envoy for Iran
October 25, 2021
Mr. Malley: So let me just start by stating the obvious, that we’re in a critical phase of the efforts to see whether we can revive the JCPOA. We’ve been at this now for – we had six rounds of talks and now we’ve had a hiatus of many months, and the official reasons given by Iran for why we’re in this hiatus are wearing very thin. Particularly because at the same time as they are not coming to the table, they’re not prepared to discuss how we could resume mutual compliance with the JCPOA, they are taking steps to expand their nuclear program and they’re putting additional obstacles on the work of the IAEA, all of which is in contradiction or inconsistent with what they claim to be their desire to come back to the JCPOA.
So in this situation it is normal that we are intensifying and accelerating our diplomacy so that we could consult with allies and partners and others around the world to figure out how we’re going to address and agree on how we’re going to address these – the attitude that Iran is adopting. And that explains why my team and I were in Moscow not long ago and why, more recently, we traveled to the Gulf and spoke to virtually all of the – I think all of the countries in the GCC, and then went to Paris to meet with the political directors of the E3 who participate in the talks in Vienna, basically to do three things. First, to listen – to listen to their views about where we are and how they see the situation. Second, to share our assessment of the current context and of the situation we find ourselves in. And third, importantly, to discuss where we go from here. And I think you’ll see in the coming weeks and months at the various levels – well, I should say no, in the coming days and weeks, not months – coming days and weeks, more intense diplomacy around these objectives, and you’ll see that happening in short time.
So without intending to speak for the leaders, the officials that I met with, that we met with over the past week, let me at least try to summarize what I thought were some of the common takeaways. First, I think all of our interlocutors – whether they’re in the region or in Europe – shared deep and growing concern about the pace and direction of Iran’s nuclear progress, particularly at a time when the U.S. has made clear that it is prepared to come back into compliance with the JCPOA and to take all of the steps necessary to come back into compliance. So this is not a U.S. preoccupation; it’s not even just a Western preoccupation. This is very much a regional and even I would say a global one that Iran has resumed its nuclear activities in ways that raise very serious questions about its intent.
Second, I think, is shared impatience. I said earlier that it’s now been many months since the last session of the talks in Vienna. We could understand some hiatus to their transition, their election, their transition. But at this point it’s hard to find an explanation, an innocent explanation for why they are taking so long. And I think, again, all of our interlocutors felt the same thing. They felt that it was imperative to resume the talks in Vienna and in a constructive way as soon as possible.
I think the third point was a shared willingness by all of those that we spoke to, to work together to coordinate closely to address Iran’s nuclear program but also its regional activities, which we could come into – come back to in a moment.
But also the fourth point, which I think is equally important: a strong preference among all of our interlocutors, all of those we spoke to, a strong preference for diplomacy, for an effort to revive the JCPOA, and were that to happen, to find ways to engage Iran economically consistent with the lifting of sanctions that would occur.
So that means very clearly coming out of the talks that we had that countries, whether they’re in the GCC or the E3, see two paths clearly laid out ahead: one in which Iran and the United States and the other parties of the P5+1 take their responsibilities seriously to find solutions to the remaining issues that were left open after the sixth round of talks in Vienna, find practical, pragmatic solutions so that Iran would live by the constraints on its nuclear program that it agreed to in Vienna in 2016, and the U.S. would lift the economic sanctions that are inconsistent with the agreement that was reached in 2016. That is one path, and it’s a path that would also allow – under that path it would also allow countries in the region to develop closer ties economically with Iran, and also for European countries, and that was one of the goals that we heard GCC countries had. But they also said that they could not do this as long as Iran was not back in the JCPOA.
Then there’s the other path, a path that nobody I spoke to was hoping to see come about but that all said we needed to be at least prepared for, which is that Iran chooses a different direction, continues to either delay resumption of talks or comes back with demands that clearly exceed the parameters of the JCPOA. We are – as I said, we’re increasingly concerned that’s the path Iran is in, and so we had to discuss with our partners and allies our approach to that different reality. And that’s a different path; that’s a path that Iran – it is in Iran’s hands to choose which one it wants to take. If it chooses the second path, I would add that President Biden, Secretary Blinken have both said if diplomacy fails, we have other tools and we will use other tools to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, and I would only reiterate that commitment.
But with these two paths laying ahead, as one senior official from a GCC country put it to me, that means that every day that goes by, every day that goes by that Iran is delaying or procrastinating or not taking a position that is consistent with a fair negotiating stance to come back into the JCPOA, is a day that it is depriving their own country of sanctions relief and therefore the economic opportunities that a return to the JCPOA would mean. So every day that passes is a day lost in that sense, and that’s a clear message that we heard from our GCC partners.
My final point and then I’ll open it up to questions. We heard from some of our interlocutors who have had direct interaction with the new Iranian Government that the Iranian Government tells them that this is a government that wants to achieve practical results; this is one that is determined to actually have practical outcomes. That’s our willingness and our determination too, and we have a good test now. Are they prepared to come back to Vienna? Are they prepared when they come back to take a position that is consistent with the JCPOA and try to close quickly the remaining gaps that remained after the sixth round in Vienna? Because time is not on our side. We’ve said this and the Secretary has said this many times: Time is not on our side; the JCPOA cannot survive forever.
Question: When will the window for diplomacy close? And Israel is for – has resumed its training to attack the nuclear sites in Iran. Is that one of the options that the U.S. is considering too? Thank you.
Mr. Malley: So first, the window of diplomacy is not – is never going to be closed. We are always open to diplomatic arrangements with Iran, and we believe that this can only be resolved diplomatically. The question is (a) whether the JCPOA can still be revived, and as we say, that becomes more tenuous as Iran accelerates its nuclear steps and takes steps that are flatly inconsistent with the JCPOA and impedes the work of the IAEA, which has to be the eyes and ears of the international community in terms of seeing what’s happening by Iran. So it’s not the window of diplomacy; it’s whether we could come back to the JCPOA. And – but yes, we will continue to pursue diplomacy even as we pursue other steps if we face a world in which we need to do that.
Which brings me to your second question, and I’m sure you’ll understand I’m not going to comment on what steps Israel might take and nor will I comment on what steps we will take. We will reserve that for – now what we’ll be discussing. I’ll leave it to the President and Secretary of State and others to decide and announce what we might do.
Question: You said you – the window of diplomacy is never going to be closed. So you’ve been saying also that this will not last forever, that [inaudible] situation. What steps can be taken to show diplomatic pressure exists? And if I may, one other question, please. Are you willing to support a new role of [inaudible] against Iran?
Mr. Malley: So thank you, but just as we don’t negotiate in public, we don’t say in advance what steps we’re going to take. But just be assured that we have given a lot of thought of what we would do if it – as it becomes clearer by the day that Iran is giving us its answer, and it doesn’t seem to be prepared to come back to the JCPOA in a realistic way. We’re still open to that and we hope that’s the case, but we have to be prepared, as I said, for a world in which that’s no longer the case, and we will have various ways to address that. And again, that’s what we were discussing with our partners in the region and in Europe, is what steps we could take together to persuade Iran, to press Iran to take the path – the first path that I described, which is the path that they say they want, so it shouldn’t be that difficult, which is to come back into the JCPOA, mutual compliance; we would offer them the sanctions relief that is – implement the sanctions relief that is required by the JCPOA and they would take the nuclear steps that are required by the JCPOA. That shouldn’t be too difficult a step to take. If we need to take other steps to get them there, as I said, I’m not going to lay them out here, and our objective of course is to get there through the road of diplomacy and through Vienna.
But you, and I know our partners, can rest assured that we will – we have ideas and we’ve discussed them with them about what we need to do to either – both to make sure that Iran comes back to the table and answers, but also to adapt to a world in which Iran will have given us their answer that that’s not their objective.
We will see when we’re there what approach we take, but it is critical for us that Iran respect its commitments to the IAEA and cooperate fully with the IAEA, and that’s something that we are going to fully back Director General Grossi as he makes his efforts in that regard.
Question: Sir, in your consultations with allies in the region over the Iran talks, how would you describe their attitude towards the talks with Iran?
Mr. Malley: So as I said earlier, I think there was unanimous support for the talks, unanimous support for our efforts to revive the JCPOA, to achieving a deal on mutual compliance. We heard nothing that suggested anything different, and that was not a surprise because I think we’ve heard that now for many months. At the same – that was coupled with great concern about where the situation was and where – and the pace and the scope of Iran’s nuclear progress, but they all supported diplomacy. And as I said, they made clear that if this diplomatic path were pursued and we could reach an agreement, they wanted to engage more deeply with Iran on the economic front. But that could not be done if Iran were not in compliance with the JCPOA because by definition, U.S. sanctions remain on the books.
Question: Since you’ve been in the region and you talked to Gulf allies, are they ready to support revival of JCPOA without any guarantees concerning the security and Iranian activities in the region?
Mr. Malley: I think what – and this was, you can imagine, a big subject of discussion for months now, at least not – I’ve had regular – we’ve had regular consultations in full transparency with GCC member-states. This was a first sort of meeting in the region, but we’ve had these from the beginning of the Vienna process and even before. And we’ve always made clear and I think they fully understand that our immediate goal, if we can achieve it, is to get back into the JCPOA, and the JCPOA dealt with the nuclear issues that you’re all familiar with.
But we’ve also said and President Biden said it throughout, and we never hid that, that we thought that we also needed to have conversations with Iran to deal with regional issues and other issues, and that Iran would also have issues that it wanted to raise with us, that the JCPOA was not the end of diplomatic engagement, it was opening the path to more comprehensive diplomatic engagement.
So number one, I’d say we all – and that’s why we say that there needs to be follow-on diplomacy after we – assuming we get back into the JCPOA. But of course, even as we’re making this effort to get back into the JCPOA, we can’t turn blind eyes to the activities that Iran is engaging in in the region, which we see evidence of every day, and that’s a separate conversation which we have with our partners in the region and elsewhere: how to counter Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region and beyond. And that’s a conversation that we have had and actually that we continue to take, and that we continue to take in coordination with our partners.
Question: Aren’t you afraid that Iran will act in the way that North Korea did in the ‘90s? As you said, we are in a critical moment. We already know they enriched to 60 percent. That means they are very close to a breakout. Aren’t you bothered by such a scenario? And another question about the issue you just mentioned, about regional aggression by Iran. Are those two issues separate, which means you might get the JCPOA and just afterwards deal with regional aggression, or it’s linked and you will handle both issues together and one is dependent with the other? Thank you very much.
Mr. Malley: So I’m not sure I understood. If you could repeat your first question, because I’m not sure I understood. Are we bothered by – could you say that again?
Question: By an option that Iran will act the way North Korea did in the ‘90s? In other words, will say one thing but then suddenly will break out to full enrichment, 90 percent and more, in other words.
Mr. Malley: Again, we have to be prepared for anything, and we are concerned. I’ve said it, and “concerned” is a mild term by the accelerated progress that Iran is making in its nuclear program, which is inconsistent. If they truly want to come back into the JCPOA and their goal is to then come back into compliance with the strictures of the JCPOA, it is very hard to understand, of course, what they’re doing and we hope that they will reverse course, stop their most provocative activities, and come back into compliance with the deal. But this is what gives rise to our worry and why we need to think about how we want to address this as Iran continues to grow its program and snub the talks in Vienna. So I think that I don’t want to minimize the concern that we, the GCC, or the E3 countries have. I would let them speak for themselves. But that is very much what is motivating our efforts both to get them to Vienna and to have – to try to revive the JCPOA, but also to think of alternative steps that we need to take to address their nuclear progress.
On your other point, I think I tried to answer it earlier. This is not – it’s not a sequential issue. There is – it is true that the JCPOA is the JCPOA and nothing but the JCPOA. If we can get there, it will deal with the issues that the 2016 deal addressed. But that – but there’s two things. Number one, even as we are trying to get back into the JCPOA, we are taking steps to respond to counter – and counter and deter Iran’s aggressive behavior in the region, and we’re doing that with our partners and we’ll continue to do that, as you’ve seen President Biden on several occasions take steps to respond to and deter Iranian activities in the region. And if we do – and then we also have said that once we’re back in the JCPOA, we believe it should be a platform to help open the door for more discussions, diplomacy with Iran, with regional partners to try to deal with all of the issues that have divided our countries for so many years, and that involves not just the nuclear issue but of course, as you say, the regional issue, and Iran will bring to the table the issues that it will bring to the table.
But we are not waiting to get back into the JCPOA to address their regional behavior, and we will continue whether or not we’re in the JCPOA to deal with those questions and the threats that Iran presents.
Question: When the U.S. administration says that the window for negotiations with Iran will not remain open forever, does this mean that there’s a specific deadline for reaching an agreement with Iran?
Mr. Malley: No, and I think we’ve tried to respond to this one. Number one, the window for negotiations on a return to the JCPOA will not be open forever, but that simply – it is a – as I’ve said, this is not a chronological clock, it’s a technological clock. At some point, the JCPOA will have been so eroded because Iran will have made advances that cannot be reversed, in which case we can’t be talking – you can’t revive a dead corpse. So if we get to that point, and as I say, we’re not there yet, and we very clearly prefer not to get to that point and we’ve said that to all our friends and we’ve indicated that indirectly to the Iranians. We are still prepared as of now to come back into the JCPOA because the JCPOA still has meaning if we could revive it.
But at some point we will – if we continue on this trajectory, that will no longer be the case. I don’t want to speculate as to when that is because that’s a technological issue that depends on the progress that Iran chooses to make on its nuclear program.
But the other point I made is even if – even if we can’t revive the JCPOA, and we hope we don’t get to that point, the door for diplomacy, it will be a different kind of diplomacy; there’ll have to be different steps, and of course the whole context would be different at that point. But our goal will still be to resolve this issue diplomatically because we feel that that’s the best way to find a solution. But we would have to consider other tools at the same time.
Question: I wanted to ask about the announcement by your counterpart, Ali Bagheri, who said that you’re going to Brussels to meet with the European Union in the city. While tweeting this news, Mr. Bagheri is also saying that the question of if the other side is ready in a real way to abide by its commitments, saying that a continuation of maximum pressure, which he calls the same policy, is not going to remove the obstacles in front of these negotiations. I want to know what’s your reaction to this and do you think Iran is coming back to the table with a very different approach when talking about continuation of maximum pressure beforehand, before revival of the JCPOA?
Mr. Malley: So first a comment on Mr. Bagheri Kani’s trip to Brussels. He is free to consult with whoever he wants. That’s not the issue. But of course, that can’t be a substitute for the talks. Number one, it shouldn’t be a substitute for direct talks with the U.S., because if Iran has any questions regarding sanctions relief and the commitment of the U.S., the best address to hear the answer would be from us. We know that’s not their position, but at a minimum they should be talking in the format that we had established in Vienna because that’s the way to get the responses to the questions they may have. They will not be able to get the responses to questions they may have on the kind of sanctions relief that they expect or the – what they call the guarantees by talking to the EU. So we’re a little bit – that again raises questions about what they’re doing.
As to the position that Iran has taken that they want to see good faith from the U.S., I don’t think that – they have said clearly that they are not putting any preconditions to resumption of talks, nor are we. So hopefully that’s the case and they’re not looking for any steps by the U.S. beforehand, because we don’t believe that there needs to be any U.S. steps to get – to resume talks that Iran has always said that it is prepared to engage in. So we hope that that’s not their position.
As for our commitment, I think we’ve demonstrated from the beginning, from the time – from early on, from when we were back in Vienna, a firm commitment to returning to JCPOA compliance, and we’ve been clear both in public and in private that we are prepared to lift all sanctions that are inconsistent with our JCPOA commitments as part of that initial return. It goes without saying that we’re doing this because we think the JCPOA is important and we would not leave it on spurious grounds. We’ve made – if we’re getting through this effort, it’s because we believe that the JCPOA serves our mutual interests and we want to get back in.
So we are not doing this just for them to leave the deal, so that’s clearly our intent is to be faithful to the deal if we could get back in, and we’ve also said that we don’t think the maximum pressure campaign has succeeded. Our goal is to turn that page. We’re prepared to turn the page, but we need to turn the page together with Iran, because we need to know that Iran when we – as we take our steps, Iran will take steps to come back into compliance. This is not something that we can do unilaterally. And that’s why we hope that as soon as Iran is ready, and sooner rather than later because, as I said, as time elapses this becomes more and more difficult and at some point it will become impossible to revive the JCPOA – but we hope that they come back and that we could have the kind of discussion that would show both sides a good-faith effort to come back into compliance.
Question: I just wanted to ask if you could elaborate a little bit more on your discussions with GCC officials. Were there any new messages to or from the U.S. side?
Mr. Malley: The clear messages that we – were the three that I said earlier that we all shared, the three or four that we all shared. So I think that’s the – the important point right now is I think we find that the U.S. under the Biden administration is on the same page, clearly, as our European partners; it is on the same page as our GCC partners; and to a large extent on the same page as the other members of the P5+1 when it comes to a determination to quickly resume talks to come back into compliance, but to resume talks not for the sake of talks but to resume talks to pick up where we left off in June to try to quickly close the remaining gaps and implement in a realistic way a mutual return to the JCPOA.
And what I heard again – and I think this was a – it’s not a U.S. message, it’ s a common message – is that this path is open if we – if Iran chooses to take it. I think they could test our good faith at the negotiating table. They could test our good faith when we then enter into the deal, if we can reach it, just as we will test theirs. That’s a path that’s open. It’s a path that is open now. It can’t be open forever simply because of the technical realities of Iran’s nuclear program and of the JCPOA, and we cannot wait idly by forever if we are seeing Iran procrastinate on the one hand when it comes to diplomacy, and accelerate when it comes on the other hand to their – when it relates to their nuclear program.
So we will have to take steps responding to theirs. I’ve said this before that people sometimes ask and sometimes criticize the U.S. for talking about a plan B. The plan B that we’re seeing implemented before our eyes right now seems to be the Iranian one, which is to delay talks and accelerate a nuclear program. And we need to respond to that reality. That’s a reality that Iran chooses. Again, we hope they choose that other path – a path which in all my discussions was the preferred path of all our interlocutors and a path that would give greater economic opportunity to Iran and a greater sense of security both to the region and to the world. But we’ll have to see what Iran chooses and hopefully we’ll see it in the coming days.