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U.S. Prepares For Another Round Of Indirect Nuclear Deal Negotiations With Iran

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

President Biden's administration wants to rejoin a nuclear agreement that former President Trump withdrew from. Now American negotiators are preparing for another round of indirect talks with Iran, but the U.S. will be dealing with a new Iranian president. Rob Malley is the U.S. special envoy for Iran, and he talked with our co-host Steve Inskeep.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: The new Iranian president will be Ebrahim Raisi. He won last week's election in which Iran's clerical rulers allowed less competition than usual. He is considered very conservative and hostile to the United States. But the top U.S. negotiator, Rob Malley, told us the prospects for a deal may not change much.

ROB MALLEY: So it has nothing to do with our assessment of who's in power. It's precisely because we don't trust and we don't have confidence in those who are in power in Iran that we want a deal that it is at least going to take care of one of the most pressing problems, which is the risk that Iran will seek to acquire a bomb.

INSKEEP: We spoke with Malley in his office at the State Department. It was for Malley a rare visit home. He's been spending most of the spring in Vienna, Austria, part of a U.S. team that is almost - but not quite - meeting with Iranian negotiators. They pass notes through European diplomats without ever sharing a room. Malley says six rounds of talks so far have yet to produce an agreement.

MALLEY: So we're somewhere between the very hard and the possible. We still think it's doable. There's no reason we shouldn't be able to reach a deal. But it depends also on what positions Iran is going to take.

INSKEEP: What's something you want from them that they are reluctant to do?

MALLEY: Well, we want them to go back to the non-proliferation - the nuclear deal that was negotiated in 2015 and concluded then - the JCPOA, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. There were certain steps Iran needed to take for us to be confident about their nuclear program, that they could not break out and seek to get a nuclear bomb or at least give us what we called a one-year breakout timeline.

INSKEEP: Yeah.

MALLEY: And we want to recapture those non-proliferation benefits that were achieved by the deal in 2015 and 2016.

INSKEEP: I guess we should remind people - Iran stayed in the deal, but gradually, from the U.S. point of view, went out of compliance in protest for the U.S. withdrawal.

MALLEY: Right. Now just, again, take a step back for our listeners. You know, the critics of the deal who left the deal - the Trump administration left the deal in 2018 - we are now in a position where Iran has more enriched uranium enriched at higher levels with more advanced centrifuges and with less oversight by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

INSKEEP: So what you need from them now is for them to what?

MALLEY: Get back.

INSKEEP: Lower the enrichment of the uranium...

MALLEY: Rewind the tape, get back to where we were in 2016 with a cap on the levels of enrichment, with a cap on what centrifuges they could use to enrich, with a cap on the amount of - enriched uranium they could have - and with the IAEA, the nuclear inspectors, being able to monitor everything they're doing, which is not occurring today.

INSKEEP: So when you say Iran, we need you to rewind the tape, that's a thing they're reluctant to sign on to, even in principle.

MALLEY: Well, I mean, there's different definitions of rewinding the tape because they've made advances. And some, they would say, they're not prepared to undo fully in the way we want them to undo it. So I'd say we're not yet to the point where we feel they've agreed to take the steps that would give us the confidence we need.

INSKEEP: What is something they want from you that is hard for the United States to give up?

MALLEY: Well, what they've asked for - in principle, they've said they want all of the sanctions that President Trump's administration reimposed or imposed since 2018 to be lifted. And that's a lot. And we've said we're prepared to remove those that we think we need to remove to be back in compliance with the JCPOA. But we're not going to lift all of the sanctions that the Trump administration imposed.

INSKEEP: As desirable as it would be from your point of view to get back into this deal, is the United States prepared to walk away?

MALLEY: Yeah. I mean, we're not - you know, we're not desperate for a deal any more than we believe Iran is desperate for a deal. But we would walk away if the deal that Iran is prepared to accept is not one that we feel meets our bottom-line interests.

INSKEEP: Are you close to that point?

MALLEY: No, I wouldn't say that. As I said, we wouldn't be going back to Vienna if we thought that it's not possible to reach a deal. I don't think that this window is going to be open forever. At some point, we'll have to conclude that this is not succeeding. But we're not there yet. We still think that it's possible. We still think that it's certainly in our interests. We think it's in Iran's interest, too. But they'll have to make that decision for themselves.

INSKEEP: Is Israel in a way helping? - because Israel has more than once sabotaged the Iranian nuclear program in a way that might set it back without any kind of agreement.

MALLEY: I'm not going to comment on what Israel may or may not be doing. I think we're consulting closely with Israel because they - we share the same goal, which is for Iran not to acquire a nuclear weapon. They have a different appreciation of the nuclear deal. I'm not going to hide that. And we're having discussions - we did with the government of Prime Minister Netanyahu, now with the government of Prime Minister Bennett. And we're going to - and Secretary of State Blinken will be meeting with his Israeli counterpart in a few days in Rome - Foreign Minister Lapid. And we want to be very transparent with them. Where we have differences, we'll deal with them behind closed doors and try to minimize them. But we do have the - we share the absolutely fundamental goal, which is to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.

INSKEEP: For the layman, what are these indirect negotiations like these past many weeks? Do you literally never see an Iranian even in the hallway to say hello?

MALLEY: I think that some of the personnel that work at the hotel we're staying at happen to be Iranian. So that's the closest we've gotten.

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

MALLEY: But no, we cannot - and we are very careful because it would be - you know, be a betrayal of whatever trust exists if we even came close to their hotel when we knew that they were leaving their hotel, because we know when they're meeting with the Europeans. But we avoid their hotel. We avoid trying to meet with them. We don't want to put them into an embarrassing situation.

I have to say, from a negotiator's point of view, it doesn't make much sense. We could get much more done much more quickly, avoid misunderstandings if we were to meet with them face-to-face. Their position is they won't do that until we're back into the deal. It's making getting back into the deal more complicated. But we - we're not going to try to undermine their - or betray their position.

INSKEEP: I want to name some Iranian Americans who are being held...

MALLEY: Yes.

INSKEEP: ...In Iran - Emad Shargi, Siamak and Baquer Namazi, Morad Tahbaz. Do you bring up these names in the passing of notes with the Iranians?

MALLEY: I've mentioned Baquer Namazi, Siamak's father. We bring them up at every single round of talks. And even when we're not in Vienna, it's absolute priority for all of us to get them out. And to be honest, we shouldn't be - have to negotiate or discuss this. They were detained as political pawns. They are being detained for absolutely no good reason. They've done nothing wrong other than being Iranian Americans who happened to be in Iran at the wrong time - wrong time from Iran's point of view. They should be released tomorrow, yesterday, months ago, years ago, unconditionally. We know that's not how this system, this government operates. And that's really - that's unspeakable. But we will do...

INSKEEP: Given that that's not how their system operates, is the United States prepared to trade something for them?

MALLEY: We're talking through our European colleagues to Iran about how to get them home. But we will do everything we can to get them home as soon as possible.

INSKEEP: What do the Iranians want in exchange, Iranians out of American prisons?

MALLEY: Among other things - that's one thing they've mentioned. But again, I really don't want to do anything that's going to complicate what is already a complicated set of discussions with them. So I'll leave it at that. But we'll continue talking until they're home.

INSKEEP: Rob Malley, it's a pleasure talking with you. Thank you.

MALLEY: Always a pleasure. And this time, a pleasure seeing you, Steve.

INSKEEP: Rob Malley is the U.S. envoy to Iran.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAMMAL HANDS' "BLACK SAILS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.