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U.S. and Iran agree to talks on returning to the 2015 nuclear deal

The United States announced Friday that it will join indirect talks with Iran beginning next week in Vienna, Austria. The ultimate goal is to have nations return to a 2015 deal in which Iran curbed nuclear activities in exchange for sanctions relief. Robert Malley, the U.S. special envoy to Iran, joins Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    One major shift in this Biden administration, a willingness to engage with Iran to curb that country's nuclear ambitions.

    As talks start in Vienna next week, there is a lot on the line.

    And, for more, we speak with Robert Malley, the U.S. special envoy to Iran.

    Rob Malley, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    So, first off, what is the U.S. goal in these talks, these indirect talks?

  • Robert Malley:

    So, the goal is to see whether we can agree on what steps the United States needs to take to come back into compliance with the nuclear deal and what steps Iran has to take to come back into compliance with the nuclear deal.

    It's been many years since the United States has had that kind of engagement with Iran. It's going to be indirect. But we have seen the product of several years in which the Trump administration had tried to impose maximum pressure on Iran, withdrawing from the deal, trying to get Iran to surrender and to agree to better terms.

    Well, the result four years later, is that we're worse off vis-a-vis Iran, both on the nuclear front, where Iran has expanded its program, and on the regional front, where they have become more aggressive.

    So, our goal is to see whether we could agree on a road map back to compliance for both sides.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So to clarify, this is about coming up with an overall agreement, making sure both sides are on the same page, coming up with an overall agreement, not with negotiating piecemeal steps?

  • Robert Malley:

    Well, that's right. But, again, this is just the first step. It's going to be a difficult, arduous path because of how much time has gone by and how much mutual distrust there is.

    But our goal is to discuss indirectly with our European and other partners who have internal discussions with Iran to see whether we could define those steps that both sides are going to have to take. If they're serious about coming back into compliance with the deal, we're serious. President Biden said it during the campaign and since that the United States is prepared for a mutual return back into compliance.

    Let's see if we could reach an understanding with Iran about what that means.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, what is the minimum that the U.S. is prepared to accept? Does Iran have to come back into full compliance? And how do you confirm, how do you verify what that means?

  • Robert Malley:

    Well, absolutely. And we did it once before. We did it in 2016.

    There is the International Atomic Energy organization that can do that verification. That's what we want to do. We want Iran to be back in full compliance with the deal.

    I will just note, today, they have 10 times more enriched uranium than they did at the time in 2017. So, by the simple test, are we better off today than we were then, no, we're worse off. And so we want to get Iran back into compliance. And the United States knows that, in order to get back into compliance, it's going to have to lift those sanctions that are inconsistent with the deal that was reached with Iran and the other countries involved in the nuclear deal.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Which raises, of course, the question, is the U.S. prepared to raise those sanctions?

    We know, what is it, something like 1,500 new sanctions were imposed in the Trump administration. Is the Biden administration prepared to lift all of those?

  • Robert Malley:

    Well, what President Biden said is, we're prepared to come back into compliance if Iran is prepared to come back into compliance. So we will have to go through that painstaking work of looking at those sanctions and seeing what we have to do so that Iran enjoys the benefits that it was supposed to enjoy under the deal.

    So we'd have to remove those sanctions that are inconsistent with the deal, if Iran is prepared to retract those steps and reverse the steps that it is taking in violation of its nuclear commitments.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I want to quote to you something that Iran's foreign minister, Javad Zarif, said in a tweet today.

    He said, the aim of the session would be to — quote — "rapidly finalize sanction lifting and nuclear measures for choreographed removal of all sanctions, followed by Iran ceasing remedial measures."

    Is that — is that — does it sound like you're on the same page?

  • Robert Malley:

    Well, I'm not going to engage in Twitter diplomacy.

    I would put it this way. If we're realistic about what both sides have to do, if we engage in this with a realistic and constructive frame of mind, we could get there. But if either side takes a maximalist position, and says that the other side has to do everything first before it's going to move one inch, I think it's hard to see how this succeeds.

    But Let's go in there with a constructive attitude, see what happens, see whether we can land on the same page. As I said, it's just the first step. We haven't had this kind of even indirect conversation with Iran in some time.

    And so it will take some time to get back even to the semblance of the same page. But we hope we can take this first step in a constructive way and lead to the outcome that we would like to see, which is a mutual return into compliance with the deal.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Rob Malley, how do you deal with the fact that Iran's nuclear scientists now have so much more information than they did in 2015, when this deal was originally agreed to?

    Does this — is this just something the United States has to live with?

  • Robert Malley:

    Well, that's one of the questions that we're going to have to address. That's what coming back into compliance with the deal means, looking at what they have acquired, and how do we address that?

    And that's why this is not as easy as just turning on a switch and we're back in compliance, they're back in compliance. It's going to require difficult discussions about what they need to do, so that we and others in the Iran nuclear deal and the International Atomic Energy organization are satisfied that Iran is back in compliance with the commitments that it made.

    But that's exactly what we have to discuss and that we're going to be working on next week in Vienna.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Is it fair to say the burden is equal on both sides, or do you look at Iran as having the greater burden of proof here?

  • Robert Malley:

    Again, I don't look at it in either way.

    I think it's an issue of whether both sides can take the steps that are necessary to come back into compliance. President Biden said it. I mean, he was elected. That was the mandate that he ran on, which is that he believed that we were worse off out of the deal than we were in the deal.

    And I think that's noncontroversial when you look at how much more Iran has developed its nuclear program, the reason — and how much more aggressive is it in the region than it was back in 2016. So, our goal, that — and so it's not a matter of who has the greater weight. It's whether both sides are prepared to carry the burden that they have to come back into compliance.

    So, that's really — that's what we're going to test in the coming week and more, because this is — we're only in the first phase.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, as you know, there's a lot of discussion about the timing here.

    Is it essential that this agreement be reached before Iran holds its elections in June?

  • Robert Malley:

    What's essential is that we get a good understanding, an understanding that's consistent with U.S. national security interests, from the U.S. point of view.

    So, we're not going to rush this in order to beat any artificial or real deadline. But we're also not going to drag our feet in order to wait for those elections.

    When there's an understanding that both sides are comfortable with, that's when there will be a deal. It has to be satisfactory to the U.S. It has to meet the conditions that the U.S. has and that other parties to the JCPOA, to the Iran nuclear deal, have.

    We understand that there's an election coming up. And we know that Iran is very well aware of it. But our goal is to get to a correct return to the JCPOA, to the nuclear deal. And that's — and we will follow that pace in a very determined way. But we're not going to cut corners if we can't get a proper understanding before that time.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But, just quickly, you do believe it's possible to get this done before June?

  • Robert Malley:

    It's possible, of course. I mean, every day that goes by, it becomes less possible, but it is possible.

    And I do want to say before I leave just a thought that we have American detainees unjustly detained in Iran. We can't forget them. And anything that happens on the nuclear side, whether we succeed or fail, our goal is going to be to get them back home.

    One of them, Siamak Namazi, is going to be marking 2,000 days unjustly detained in an Iranian prison tomorrow. So, we will work as hard as we can on the nuclear deal. We will get it as soon as it's possible. But we're never going to forget the Americans who are wrongfully detained and need to be reunited with their loved ones.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Can there be a deal if they are not returned?

  • Robert Malley:

    We're going to get them home, and we will do everything we can. That's a priority for the president. It's a priority for the secretary of state. And it's a priority for my entire team.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Robert Malley, who is the U.S. special envoy to Iran, thank you very much.

  • Robert Malley:

    Thanks so much for having me.

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