U.S. special envoy for Iran discusses the prospects for reviving a nuclear deal

European, Iranian and American negotiators flew to Vienna last weekend to see if they could once and for all come to an agreement over Iran’s nuclear program. The Biden administration has been negotiating to reenter a nuclear deal from which the Trump administration withdrew. U.S. Special Representative for Iran Robert Malley, the chief negotiator, joins Nick Schifrin to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    This past weekend, European Iranian and American negotiators flew to Vienna to see if they could once and for all come to an agreement over Iran's nuclear program.

    The Biden administration has been negotiating to reenter a deal from which the Trump administration withdrew.

    Nick Schifrin updates us on the talks and speaks to the chief U.S. negotiator.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Since its first day in office, the Biden administration has argued the best way to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon is through diplomacy, instead of through the Trump administration strategy known as maximum pressure.

    For a year-and-a-half, European and Iranian negotiators have met in Vienna for more than eight rounds, with the U.S. participating indirectly, to try and find an agreement where the U.S. and Iran would return to compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal.

    The U.S. would lift hundreds of sanctions the Trump administration reimposed when it withdrew from the deal in 2018. And Iran would roll back its nuclear program to the limits set by the original nuclear deal, including caps on enrichment and how much material it can stockpile. The Europeans now say there is a final text on the table.

    And to discuss whether that could lead to a deal, I'm joined by Rob Malley, the U.S. special envoy for Iran.

    Rob Malley, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    Let's lay out some of the progress you have made with Iran so far.

    Do you believe you have an agreement on the sanctions that the U.S. would lift in exchange for the steps that Iran would take in order to get back its nuclear program into compliance?

    Robert Malley, U.S. Special Envoy to Iran: There's no agreement because nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. There's a text.

    There's a very clear sense about what the European Union, the coordinator, thinks needs to be in the text for there to be a mutual return to compliance.

    And our position has been clear, as we have said from day one. We're prepared to come back into compliance with the nuclear deal if Iran does the same. And, for us, it's very clear what that means, in terms of the sanctions relief we need to offer and the kinds of steps that Iran needs to take to roll back its nuclear program.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Iran is asking for a concession outside the deal, and that has to do with the International Atomic Energy Agency's investigation into nuclear material found in Iran, which the IAEA says Iran has not provided adequate explanations for.

    Iran is asking for that investigation to be lifted or somehow to be solved. Is the U.S. going to give any concessions when it comes to that investigation?

  • Robert Malley:

    No.

    And, again, we have made this clear. And I know there's been some reporting to the contrary. Our position is transparent. And it's clear for everyone to hear, which is, we're not going to put any pressure on the Atomic — International Atomic Energy Agency to close these outstanding issues.

    They will be closed when Iran provides the technically credible answers that the IAEA, the International Atomic Energy Agency, has requested of them. As soon as they do that, and as soon as the agency is satisfied, we will be satisfied, but not before.

  • NICK SCHIFRIN:

    Is there any kind of political agreement, perhaps not a technical agreement, but a political agreement that could be made, frankly, that Iran believes was made for the last nuclear deal in which this investigation into prior Iranian steps could not prevent a deal that you're talking about now?

  • Robert Malley:

    We think there's safeguards, those outstanding issues, nuclear issues, that Iran has to explain the presence of uranium particles that have not been explained.

    And really what the agency is interested in is not so much sort of a prehistorical or historical exploration. What they want to know is, where's that uranium today, and make sure that it's accounted for and that it's under what is called safeguards. That's what the agency is particularly interested in.

    And so it needs to hear from Iran an explanation of where these uranium particles are and make sure they are under IAEA safeguards. There's no shortcut.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Is the U.S. making any concession at all that would allow non-Americans to do business with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and get around essentially U.S. sanctions?

  • Robert Malley:

    We would not and have not and will not negotiate any lowering of our standards about what European or other companies need to do if they want to do business with Iran. They have to respect our sanctions.

    The sanctions are very well-defined. The Treasury Department puts out very clear standards for what companies need to do, what kind of due diligence they need to do. And any report to the contrary that is claiming that we will lower those standards, that we will negotiate those standards are just flat-out wrong.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    On sanctions relief, how much relief would Iran get?

    One analysis by an organization that, of course, opposes you reentering the deal says Iran would gain access to tens of billions of dollars of Central Bank assets that are currently frozen and be able to sell tens of billions of dollars more of oil.

  • Robert Malley:

    Well, listen, I'm not going to give you a number, because that's — that would be highly speculative.

    But I can say there are assets that have been frozen, assets, money that Iran collected at a time when the sanctions were not in place, and that are now in bank accounts across the globe. They would be able to have access to those if they come back into compliance with the nuclear deal.

    And, of course, they would be able to sell oil, which they are not able to do now, and to get the proceeds from the sale of oil. But, again, let's remember why those sanctions were put in place. Those sanctions were put in place to get around to agree to curb its nuclear program and to make sure that Iran cannot acquire a nuclear weapon.

    And we have lived the opposite. We have lived — it's not a thought experiment — for the last several years, since President Trump decided to withdraw from the deal, we have seen Iran with an unconstrained nuclear program and with a more aggressive regional behavior. So that experiment has failed.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The constraints that Iran agreed to in the Iranian nuclear deal, the original 2015 deal, includes sunsets.

    One of the first major sunsets are in 2023, after which they would be allowed to manufacture advanced centrifuges. Why is a deal worth it still today, even though that sunset when it comes to manufacturing advanced centrifuges is only a year away?

  • Robert Malley:

    So, first of all, that's not precisely what happens.

    In 2023, they can do more research and development on some advanced centrifuges. They cannot install them. But let's put it this way. The main constraints, which is a constraint that puts the wrong several months away from having enough fissile material for one bomb, that would last until 2031.

    The situation we're in today, as a result of the decision to withdraw from the deal, is, Iran is only a handful of weeks away from having enough fissile material for a bomb. So, again, we have to compare this to the reality we're living today, if we could get a deal that would put Iran back several months away from being able to have enough fissile material for a bomb.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The Europeans have said this is the final deal. Is it?

    Robert Malley; The European — what the European Union has said — and they are the coordinator — is that they believe that negotiations over this text have exhausted their usefulness and don't see the — they don't see that they can be improved through continued talks.

    We're considering the text very carefully to make sure that it lives up to the president's very clear guidance that he would only sign up to deal that is consistent with U.S. national security interests.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The Department of Justice this week charged a member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps of plotting to assassinate former National Security Adviser John Bolton.

    Is the threat of Iranian attempts to assassinate former senior officials for the assassination of Qasem Soleimani, the former IRGC Quds Force head, is that threat is ongoing. And do you fear it will last for a while?

  • Robert Malley:

    So, I'm not going to comment on the work that the Department of Justice has done. I think it speaks for itself.

    But I would repeat what both the secretary of state and the national security adviser have said, which is that this president, as I assume any president, will be relentless in protecting Americans, whether they are in or out of uniform, whether they are current or former officials.

    And, on this, I think we stand united. And I think Iran has gotten the message that, if it threatens our citizens, we will respond decisively.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Rob Malley, special envoy for Iran, thank you very much.

  • Robert Malley:

    Thank you.

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