Malley on U.S. Iran Policy

In fall 2022, U.S. Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley discussed Iran, the 2022 protests, the nuclear negotiations, and the drone transfer to Russia with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Foreign Policy. The following are key excerpts from his comments.


Carnegie Endowment (October 31)

On U.S. Iran policy:

Number one, we and Europe are completely on the same page when it comes to reacting to Iran's nuclear program, reacting to Iran's policy in Ukraine—Iran’s support for Russia's aggression in Ukraine—and standing together shoulder-to-shoulder and expressing support for the Iranian people at this time when they are confronting the violence of the regime. That's what we've done for the last 18-plus months. And I think we really have succeeded in restitching what is so crucial if we want to have a common front to push back against Iran's destabilizing activities, human rights violations, or nuclear program.

Number two is to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. And this is not something that we're going to walk away from. The President made that clear commitment. We are using many tools. It's the view including of people who have very different ways of addressing Iran's nuclear program, including the Israeli government. They all say there is no long-term sustainable solution other than a diplomatic one. Diplomacy is the preferred way to try to resolve it and that's why, without apologies, we've been engaged in an effort to defend U.S. national security interests, because an Iran with a nuclear weapon would make the entire world unsafe. There are other tools—sanctions pressure, and yes, as the President has said, if all other means fail as a last resort, he would keep the military option very clearly on the table if that's what it would take to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

Number three is pushing back against Iran's destabilizing activities in the region. Its proliferation of drones, ballistic missiles, its interference in other countries, its attacks against some of its neighbors. We have—together with our partners and allies and all of the agencies in our government—tried to make an effort to combat and counter those activities, whether it's through sanctions, through interdictions, through hardening the defenses of our allies and our own defenses and finding other ways. That's a very strong pillar of our policy in which we've made real advances.

Number four, the President made clear not just about Iran, but about our global policy, which is to put human rights and the defense of human rights back at the center of our foreign policy. And we have done that when it comes to Iran since the outbreak of the protests in Iran. But that goes back earlier in terms of our denunciation of Iran's human rights violations and trying to get other countries around the globe to unite in defense of [the] Iranian people's basic human rights. It is not a perfect science. But in the case of Iran, I think we've been very strong.

And, last but not least, is to try to make sure that we get the three remaining hostages in Iran back home and reunited with their families as soon as possible. Emad Shargi, Siamak Namazi, Murad Tahbaz—all three deserve to be home. They should never have been imprisoned. It's an outrageous practice that the Iranian government has had, which is to use these dual nationals as pawns.


U.S. policy on the 2022 protests:

First, to make clear our support for the fundamental rights of the Iranian people. Again, as I said, that's a global approach that we have to human rights. And we've done that vocally from day one. You've heard from the President, you heard from the Secretary of State, you heard from the National Security Adviser, all the senior officials in administration, voicing their support for the fundamental rights of the Iranian people.

Number two is to make sure that this is a multilateral international effort. You're seeing countries in the Global South, like Chile, are saying the same thing about support for the fundamental rights of the Iranian people, and the condemnation of the regime violence against them.

Number three is to make sure that the world knows and sees the actions of this Iranian regime, [its] use of violence against peaceful protesters, and the brutality that the protesters have suffered. We are, through our sanctions, putting a spotlight on what's happening in Iran. Through actions in multilateral fora—whether it's at the United Nations, with the Human Rights Commission, whether it's in other places like the online Freedom Coalition—we are going to make sure that people are watching and know what the Iranian regime is doing, and they're held accountable.

And then finally is to make sure that the sanctions that we have imposed on Iran historically over decades do not interfere with the ability of the Iranian people to communicate with each other, or with the outside world—so the steps that we've taken to make sure the restrictions on internet access that the Iranian regime is trying to impose are not compounded by our policy.

And you'll see that we have now imposed a series of sanctions against perpetrators of human rights violations in Iran, not just [at] the very top but also mid-level officials who may have thought that they could escape the limelight. They can be named and shamed, and they know that the world is watching.

The U.S. role can be very ambitious. It also has to be very realistic. There's only so much that we can do and that we should do because we are not the center stage of what's happening in Iran. It is led by Iranians. It's a grassroots popular movement. The Iranian people will determine their future. You'll see more sanctions. You're going to see more efforts to try to make sure that the internet is as unencumbered as possible. You'll see more steps at international fora to show the world and show Iran that we're holding their regime to account. Because this is not a matter of the West against Iran.

[The] Iranian regime will do everything to paint this as a U.S.-inspired or an Israeli-inspired movement. That's absurd on its face. There's nothing that the United States could do that would convince 15- year-old girls to challenge the authorities at great risk to their lives and security. Nothing that we could do that would convince Iranian women and others to come out into the streets in the face of great peril to their own lives. That kind of anger, that kind of passion, can only have been triggered by the policies of the regime. It's their policies that have generated that kind of anger and that kind of movement. The same officials who are claiming that we’re behind it are the officials that said that Mahsa Amini died of natural causes, the same who are denying, in the face of mounting and irrefutable evidence to the contrary, that they have transferred drones to Russia.

Our policy is not one of interfering, to try to foment regime change. It's one of supporting the basic rights of Iranian people. We have to expect the Iranian regime to try to paint those protesters as being lackeys of the U.S. and Israel. The Iranian people see right through that. I don't think this is a playbook that's going to work. We know others who have tried to use it in the Middle East, and it doesn't work because when this level of fury is being generated by the policies of the regime, you cannot convince anyone that it's being in any way micromanaged by the U.S. 


On the nuclear issue:

First, we make no apology for having tried and still trying to do everything we can to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Again, a preference for diplomacy, if that can work with tools of pressure, sanctions in particular, but also keeping all options on the table in case diplomacy were to fail. But I do want to address one of the points that some of our critics have made, which is that because we're still trying to pursue a nuclear deal, we've left other elements of our policy on the shelf. We have not self-deterred because of the pursuit of a diplomatic agreement.

People say, “Why don't you walk away from the negotiations? It would give you more ability to do other things.” We've been doing those other things. We haven't waited to see what happens to the nuclear deal any more than Iran has waited. Iran has continued its destabilizing activities. Iran has continued its support for violent groups and terrorist groups across the region. Iran has continued to develop its ballistic missiles, and to repress its people, and to plot against Americans. If they can do that, even as they claim to be trying to negotiate a nuclear deal, we can do the same. We can take action against those destabilizing activities. We can mobilize countries around the globe. We could counter Iran's activities, even as we are seeking to reach a diplomatic solution on the nuclear front. But there's been no movement on the negotiations now for two months.

Several times we came very close. And each time we came close, Iran came up with one new extraneous demand that derailed the talks. We do believe that we were very close. The Europeans certainly believed we were close. The European Union had put a plan on the table that everyone else had agreed to. Iran at the last minute, once again, came back with a demand which was extraneous to the JCPOA and which none of the other participants, including the Russians [and] the Chinese, would have said was a legitimate demand. That's where we were in late August early September. So, when you say it's in abeyance, it's really not our focus right now. It's not on our agenda, because nothing has changed. We're not going to focus on something that is inert when other things are happening.

There are these protests in Iran. And there is this new decision by Iran to participate in a war in Europe by transferring drones to Russia. So that's what we're focused on because nothing's happening on the nuclear deal. We're not going to spend our time our time on it. If nothing's going to happen, we're going to spend our time where we can be useful. That doesn't mean that we have given up on diplomacy. It doesn't mean that we don't believe that diplomacy is the best way to address this.

The last from Secretary Blinken, he said, "There's no forward movement. Iranians continue to try to inject extraneous unrelated issues in the conversation." The interviewer may have made an editorial comment in pressing the Secretary to basically say that it's dead. Now he hasn't done that. The President hasn't done it.

It's critical to understand that the Trump administration tried to say, “Let's get out of the deal. Let's just use pressure to see whether we can make Iran succumb to our pressure and come back to the table and get a better nuclear deal.” It didn't work. Several years on, we saw Iran with a galloping nuclear program. The experiments of the Trump administration failed, and we are facing today the reality [that] Iran is only a few weeks away from having enough highly enriched uranium for a bomb.


On the drone transfer to Russia:

We know that Iran has been transferring deadly drones to Russia. It's incontrovertible because the evidence is on the ground. The Ukrainians have recovered those drones, and they are Iranian-made drones. Iran has been training Russian operators. Those drones have been used to target civilians and civilian infrastructure. Iran—in the face of all of this evidence—keeps lying and denying that that's happening which shows that they are embarrassed, that they know that this is something that is isolating them internationally.

They're now also helping Russia kill innocent Ukrainian civilians. Iran has made a very bad bet. You're seeing calls from across the globe saying this is simply outrageous, that Iran would be using those deadly drones, which they've already used to ill-effect in the region, now they're using it in a European theater.

For a country that has claimed that it stands strongly in favor of the sovereignty of other countries—itself [having] been attacked by Iraq—I don't know how many people imagined that we'd see that day. If Iran thought that it could do that and hide it, well, they failed, and they'll continue to fail.


Foreign Policy (November 30)

On U.S. Iran policy

Iran has rejected countless opportunities to come back into the deal. We are not going to simply wait to see what they decide. We've continued preparing for a world with the JCPOA or without the JCPOA. We've continued to put pressure on Iran to try to enforce our sanctions—to make sure that they are sanctions for their support for terrorism, for their human rights violations, for their ballistic missile program, and for their nuclear program. The JCPOA is not on the agenda because of Iran's position. And we're continuing with our policy, which is to respond to all of Iran's destabilizing activities.

Robert Malley, U.S. Special Envoy for Iran from Foreign Policy on Vimeo.


U.S. policy on the 2022 protests:

Organizing international efforts—whether it's at the U.N., at the U.N. Human Rights Council—we will soon try to get Iran kicked off of the Commission on the Status of Women because it's an aberration. It's a complete anomaly that Iran would be on the Commission that’s supposed to defend the rights of women when they're oppressing them.

The Iranian regime is more isolated now than it's been in a very long time. And that's because we, together with many others, have made sure that the truth of what's happening in Iran is visible for all to see.

What's clear is that these [protests] are extraordinary. It's an extraordinary page of Iran's history that's being written right now. The courage, the determination, the persistence, the creativity of Iranians, particularly Iranian women and girls—they're writing this page of their history. We're not going to be the authors. We can be there to express support for the fundamental rights of Iranians. But this page will be written by Iranians themselves, and they won't be written in Washington or London or anywhere around the globe other than in Iran.

There's two lessons [from the U.S. response to the 2009 Green Movement]. First, a lesson of humility. The United States is not going to decide the course of other nations, whether it is Iran, whether it's the countries in the Arab world. We have to be humble and not think that we're the ones who could or should determine the trajectory of Iran’s popular unrest, or whatever breaks out in those countries.

On the other hand, I think we have to learn another lesson, which is that the truer we are to our values, the more consistent we are with our values, the better. We shouldn't be saying one thing and thinking another. In the case of Iran, we believe that fundamental human rights should be respected by the regime, and that the Iranian people have the right to the same freedoms, the same dignity, that people around the world are entitled to. We should speak loudly about it—we should not pull our punches—saying what we think and making clear that we are watching what the Iranian regime is doing and that we intend—together with others in the international community—to hold them to account. I think [the lesson] is one of being truthful, but also being humble.


On the nuclear issue:

[How close Iran is to a bomb] is a tough question to answer because there's how close they are to having a fissile material enriched at weapons grade—and that is, as we've said, only a few weeks. We're very close and that's a result of very dangerous choices that the Iranian regime has made. They're very close to having enough fissile material for a bomb—weaponizing that takes longer but it's much too close for comfort. We need to do what we can to stop their progress, through diplomacy if possible, and for them to walk back their advances so that we are in a much better place than we are today.

Many times, we came very close—most recently in August—and each time Iran came up with some new demand, often a demand that had nothing to do with the nuclear talks, always suggesting to us that the Iranian system as a whole was divided, had not yet concluded whether they really wanted to come back into the deal. Each time we came very close, deals were presented not by us, but by the European Union supported by us, by Germany, France and the U.K., by Russia and by China—no friends of ours in these circumstances. All of them said that the deal on the table was a fair one. Iran is the one that walked back and that rejected it on more than one occasion.

We basically had a deal. And then at the last minute, after having said that they broadly agreed with the outlines, Iran came up with this demand—which has periodically surfaced on their part—which was that they wanted the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to close off certain investigations into the unexplained presence of uranium particles in Iran. It is the IAEA’s is fundamental job to be able to say that all nuclear material is under safeguards. Because Iran is not responding to the questions, the IAEA can't make that determination. And we said there's no linkage between the JCPOA and this probe. It has to go on independently without any political pressure. We cannot accept anything that's going to put pressure on the independent agency. Iran has one way of completing that investigation, which is to answer the questions the IAEA has put to them.

We're in a very different situation today, where we're working in lockstep with the U.K., with France, with Germany, with so many countries around the world. There is a vast majority of countries today—and not just Western countries—that understand that pressure has to be put on Iran to stop its nuclear advances.

This is not a case where we impose maximum pressure with impossible demands on Iran. There was a clear deal on the table. Iran could have had the lifting of some of the sanctions, and therefore have a very different path.


On the drone transfer to Russia:

It says a lot about the state of Russia's military that they need to turn to Iran of all places for support. And it says a lot about Iran, this Iranian regime, that it will be prepared to cross that line and to interfere in conflict on the European continent, helping the aggressor in an invasion against Ukraine. I think that speaks volumes.

We have already taken steps to make it harder for Iran to transfer those drones and other military equipment. We're working in partnership with others around the world to sanction and to take other steps to make sure that it is as hard as possible for Iran to transfer those deadly weapons that are helping Russia kill and target civilians in Ukraine.

We will sanction what we can, but this is a sanction that doesn't hurt the Iranian people. These are sanctions against military transfers to Russia. We are trying to be as effective as we can—we are working with others to make sure that our sanctions against Russia and against Iran can minimize those transfers.



Some of the information in this article was originally published on November 1, 2022.