Malley: Future of JCPOA is “Tenuous”

On May 25, U.S. Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley warned that the prospects of reviving the 2015 nuclear deal were “tenuous at best.” He blamed “excessive Iranian demands” for the impasse. Malley addressed a range of issues during testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee:

  • On removing the Revolutionary Guards from the Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) list: “We've made clear to Iran that if they wanted any concession on something that was unrelated to the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) like the FTO designation, we need something reciprocal from them that would address our concerns. … I think Iran has made the decision that it's not prepared to take the reciprocal steps.”
  • On how long the United States will continue to negotiate: “We will seek a return to the JCPOA as long as we assess that its nonproliferation benefits are worth the sanctions lifting we would provide.”
  • On Congressional review of a potential deal: “We will submit this deal for Congressional review pursuant to INARA (Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015) were we to reach it.”
  • On the Biden administration’s actions against Iran: “We’ve imposed over 150 sanctions designations… addressing ballistic missiles, human rights violations, support for terrorism, and the like.”
  • On military options to stop Iran’s nuclear advancements: “By far the best option is a diplomatic one. A military option cannot resolve this issue. It could set it back. ... The only real solution here is a diplomatic one.”

The following are opening statements by Malley, Chairman Robert Menendez (D-NJ), and Ranking Member Jim Risch (R-ID) from the hearing.


U.S. Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley

“Let me begin with some basic facts upon which I am sure we can all agree. The Iranian government’s actions threaten the United States and our allies, including Israel. Iran continues to support terrorist groups. It has an appalling human rights record. The brutal response to ongoing protests being only the latest reminder. It unjustly detains foreign and dual nationals for use as political pawns.


“While we’ve been working intensely with allies and partners to deter and counter this dangerous array of Iranian activities, we've not had the luxury of focusing exclusively on them. Instead, our administration has spent much of the past year seeking to restore strict limits on Iran's nuclear program, including an unprecedented international monitoring regime. We've also been repairing vitally important ties with our European allies that are necessary to hold Iran accountable and change its behavior.

“That is because when President Biden came into office, he inherited an immediate crisis, an unbridled Iranian nuclear program that makes every other problem we've had with Iran, more dangerous and intractable, as well as badly frayed relations with our European allies, who were spending as much time arguing against U.S. policy as they were countering Iran. This is the unfortunate result of the last administration's decision to unilaterally end U.S. participation in the JCPOA at a time when Iran was complying with it.

“To the extent we have disagreement in this room, it boils down to this. Are we better off reviving the nuclear deal and in parallel, using all of the tools at our disposal—diplomatic, economic and otherwise—to address Iran's destabilizing policies? Or are we better off getting rid of the deal and banking on a policy of pressure alone to get Iran to accept more onerous nuclear constraints and curb its aggressive policies?

“We do not need to rely on thought experiments to answer this question anymore. For we've gone through several years of a real-life experiment in the very policy approach critics of the JCPOA advocated. Many of us strongly disagreed with this policy at the time. But of course, we could not prove that it would fail. Then, we predicted. Now, we know. The simple fact is this. As a means of constraining Iran's nuclear program, the JCPOA was working. Leaving it has not.

“Under the JCPOA, Iran operated a tightly constrained and monitored nuclear program; it would have taken Iran about a year to make enough fissile material for a bomb – which would have given us and our allies the ability to know what Iran was doing and the time to act should Iran make that fateful decision. Without those constraints, Iran has been accumulating sufficient enriched uranium and made sufficient technological advances to leave the breakout time as short as a matter of weeks, which means Iran could potentially produce enough fuel for a bomb before we can know it, let alone stop it.

“Force, rather than compelling Iran to make concessions, the prior administration’s so-called maximum pressure campaign resulted in Iran’s maximum non-nuclear provocations. These included increasingly brazen attacks by Iran and the armed groups it supports against our Gulf partners and our own forces, leading to a 400 percent increase in attacks by Iran-backed militia between 2019 and 20. In this context, it is hardly surprising that a preponderance of former Israeli security officials including two more, just today, has stated unequivocally that the U.S. decision to leave the deal was among the most damaging to Israel’s safety. These are hardened security professionals from across the political spectrum, all of whom were doing whatever necessary to defend their country.

“That's why we will seek a return to the JCPOA as long as we assess that its nonproliferation benefits are worth the sanctions relief that we would provide, and we will submit this deal for Congressional review pursuant to INARA were we to reach it. Of course, as I speak to you, we do not have a deal, and prospects for reaching one are tenuous at best. If Iran maintains demands that go beyond the scope of the JCPOA, we will continue to reject them. And there will be no deal. It is not our preference. But we're fully prepared to live with and confront that reality if that is Iran's choice. 

“We have no illusion, nuclear deal or no nuclear deal, this Iranian government will remain a threat. As we have throughout the negotiations, we will continue to strongly push back. Today, as part of that ongoing effort, the Treasury Department is announcing new sanctions targeting an international smuggling and money laundering network that has facilitated the sale of hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of oil for the IRGC Qods Force.

“So here's our strategy, fully reviving the JCPOA if Iran is willing to do so, building on that deal without the specter of a looming nuclear crisis to seek a broader follow on diplomatic outcome and throughout, regardless, deterring, countering and responding to the full array of Iranian threats in close coordination with Europe and crucially with Israel and our regional partners, while credibly demonstrating that we will never permit Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon.”


Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ)

“I appreciate the administration's efforts in attempting to negotiate a longer and stronger JCPOA. But the facts are the facts. As we meet here on May 25, 2022, Iran is closer than ever to developing a nuclear weapon. It is on the brink of enriching enough 60 percent uranium for a nuclear weapon. The Iran of May 2022 is a much more dangerous threat and a far less interested party in negotiating than the Iran of 2015. A deal under which Iran has far less than a six-month breakout time with sanctions relief in return that will unlock millions of dollars and no sunset extensions is definitely not longer and stronger. It is shorter and weaker.

“Now clearly this reality is in part due to President Trump's decision to walk away from the JCPOA without a plan, a strategy, or any allies alongside. The U.S. having left the agreement, Iran decided it no longer needed to abide by it and rushed forward with accelerating its enrichment capabilities to the doorstep of nuclear grade uranium. Iran made this decision even though our European allies had stayed in the deal. As the administration worked with our allies to negotiate a return to 2015 nuclear deal, Iran worked to stockpile nuclear material. As the administration negotiated, Iranian drones loaded with ball bearings and shrapnel hit American facilities. As the administration negotiated, Iran has developed what former CENTCOM commander General Frank McKenzie says is “overmatch in its ballistic missile program.” So it can launch more missiles than the United States and our partners can shoot down missiles that Iran points at U.S. troops in the region, missiles that Iran points at our ally, the State of Israel, which Iranian leaders have said should be “wiped off the face of the earth.”

“Meanwhile, Iran unlawfully detained American citizens and citizens of our European allies on trumped up charges for political chits. Unless we forget, Iran abuses, oppresses and violates the human rights of its own citizens.

“In short, Iran has dragged out this process, driving up its demands and exerting its leverage, convincing the world that the United States wants the JCPOA more than the Iranian regime does. After months of negotiation, this is the Iran we must contend with—not the Iran you hoped would be driven by practical considerations at the bargaining table.

“Today's Iran is buoyed by China, who it is reported just in April, imported 650,000 barrels a day of oil from Iran, oil which should be subject to U.S. sanctions. Even at discounted prices, this has resulted in a flood of cash through the regime, tens of millions of dollars per day.

“Today, Iran is protected by Russia. Iran thinks it has options: if Iran wants to extract a better deal, or concede less than U.S. national security demands, it can turn to its autocratic allies. Now, the administration said months ago, that without a return to the original 2015 agreement by the end of last February, the nonproliferation benefits of the deal would be greatly diminished. To quote Secretary Blinken on January 21, 2022, which is four months ago, he said: “The talks with Iran about a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA have reached a decisive moment. If a deal is not reached in the next few weeks, Iran's ongoing nuclear advances will make it impossible to return to the JCPOA.”

“It's late May, it is three months later than that determination. So how is it that Iran is still advancing its nuclear program by leaps and bounds? The knowledge Iran is gaining from these advancements can never be erased, and we continue to wait and hope, but hope is not a national security strategy. Now, I believe in a diplomatic path. But we must ask, using every tool we have, how do we serve the U.S. strategic interest here? If Iran were to break out tomorrow, what is the United States prepared to do? If Iran begins to enrich uranium to 90 percent, what is the United States prepared to do? Using every bit of leverage and deterrence, how do we stop Iran from mastering the weaponization for a nuclear device?

“I want to hear the administration's plans to better enforce the sanctions regime we have put in place that now looks like a sieve. I want to hear your plans for working in lockstep with our European and other allies around the globe to sharpen Iran's choices. I'd like to hear the administration's plans in detail for what the administration is prepared to do to stop the growing oil trade between Iran and China and Iran oil trade with Venezuela and Syria. I want to hear your plans for how to end Iran's hostage taking of our citizens. And I want to hear your plans for how the administration is going to bring home Americans wrongfully detained in Iraq, in Iran. Siamak and Baquer Namazi, Emad Sharghi, Morad Tahbaz, with or without the JCPOA. And of course, we could never forget about Bob Levinson and his family.

“So I want to hear your plans to bolster the security of our partners in the region, so they can defend themselves with or without a return to the JCPOA. The United States must demonstrate we have the will as well as the military capabilities, if absolutely necessary, to defend our people in our interest. We must back up President Biden's statement that Iran will “never get a nuclear weapon on my watch.”
“I think we must prepare for the increasingly obvious reality we face in 2022. A return to the 2015 nuclear deal is not around the corner. And I believe it is not in the U.S. strategic interest. We need to tackle what comes next. And we need to hear your plan. I hope your testimony today can begin to lay the groundwork of such a strategy. But if that plan includes the possibility of a deal with Iran, I want to make clear that it must be subject to congressional review under the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015. Congress has and will continue to play an important role with respect to Iran policy, and I would expect the administration to follow the law.”


Senator James Risch (R-ID)

“First off, Mr. Malley, thank you for taking the time to meet with me, which you do from time to time. I sincerely appreciate it. You don’t have a difficult job – you have an impossible job. The administration has given you a rubber hammer to do a job that a steel mallet couldn’t do. And I appreciate your initial efforts in that regard, but as we discussed in our most recent meeting, time has long since passed and it’s time to turn our attention in other directions.

“Here we go again, the administration has argued that Iran is galloping towards a nuclear device, and we’re left with the choice of the JCPOA or an unconstrained Iranian regime.

“This is a false choice. It remains that the JCPOA was fatally flawed in 2015 and it is fatally flawed today. The JCPOA fails to adequately contain the Iranian regime and safeguard American national security interests.  

“We’re all familiar with the deal’s sunsets. The conventional weapons embargo has already expired. The deal’s ban on ballistic missiles expires next year. The entire deal remains bound by a ‘termination day’ in 2025 where the UN Security Council ends consideration of Iranian nuclear matters, and the resolution's snapback mechanism ceases.

“Iran’s nuclear program is only one aspect of its malign behavior though, as the chairman so adequately pointed out. Over the past four decades, the Iranian regime has murdered its own citizens, murdered Americans, made hostage-taking a central tenet in its foreign policy, exported terrorism on a global scale, and represents the principal threat to stability in the Middle East.

“Despite promises of ‘longer and stronger,’ which were all made in this room and were made individually to each of us at the beginning of this administration, it’s clear that that was a bumper sticker only, which I believed and said at the time. The current approach does not address Iran’s regional terrorism, ballistic missile activity, ongoing Iranian threats to former U.S. officials, or returning American hostages to their loved ones. In fact, sanctions relief fuels Iran’s terror proxies, just as the 2015 JCPOA did. We saw pallets of cash delivered to the Iranians at the conclusion of the negotiations of that in 2015. And where do you think that money went? We know it didn’t go to help the Iranian people for domestic programs or anything else. It was converted, at least partially, into missiles that today have been transported to Lebanon, to Syria, and are aimed at Israel and other places. That’s where that cash wound up.

“Worse, the JCPOA provides a potential sanctions lifeline to Russia that will enrich Putin for continued nuclear work in the midst of his assault against Ukraine.

“Talks remain stalled, and it’s clear the Iranian regime is negotiating in bad faith as it always does. And while it continues to levy unreasonable demands to re-enter the nuclear deal, instead of prolonging this period of uncertainty, it’s long past time the administration end negotiations and implement a more holistic Iran policy. We’d like to hear about that holistic policy today.

“We need to end this never-ending parade of reference to percent enrichment and volume of nuclear material. This is not the measurement of Iran’s evil, but only a mere small part of it. And the Israelis have vowed to handle that end of the problem, and they will. Iran knows it, and we know it.

“On the economic front, sanctions enforcement is sadly lacking. We must close sanctions loopholes, including Chinese purchases of Iranian oil. Iran, confident in its resistance economy, must again feel significantly more economic pressure.

“On the diplomatic front, the United States must press for a censure of the Iranian regime at next month’s IAEA board of governors meeting. For too long, Iran has harassed and obstructed legitimate IAEA monitoring efforts without penalty. In tolerating this, the administration has greatly damaged the legitimacy and integrity of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and the IAEA. We must hold Iran to its commitments, and make clear our support for the NPT and the IAEA.

“In addition to action at the IAEA, we must bring international pressure to bear. Iran must become a renewed topic of discussion at the UN Security Council. For too long, Iran policy has been an issue that has divided us from some our European partners. They have come to realize that the malignancy that they are dealing with and are willing to move forward with a new sense of reality.

“Finally, regional deterrence and U.S. responses to Iranian attacks against our troops and diplomats have been lacking. We must increase deterrence in the region, increase joint military exercises with Israel, and ensure our partners have the right tools to defend themselves. 

“Putin’s unprovoked attack and murder of thousands for no reason whatsoever, other than the fact that good people living in nearby, free, democratic countries have bound themselves together to respond effectively to such an attack, has once again reminded us that evil – real evil – exists in this world, and we must always be vigilant and ready to respond when, and if, it erupts.  

“Only through a comprehensive, multilateral approach can we confront the Iranian challenge.”