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Pushing more hardline approach, US deputy Iran envoy quits Vienna negotiating team

Richard Nephew, who has stepped aside along with 2 others, takes on new post at State Dept after disagreements with others on team over degree of sanctions enforcement, WSJ says

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Former State Department Principal Deputy Coordinator for Sanctions Policy Richard Nephew testifies before the Senate Banking Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, on Tuesday, June 4, 2019, during a hearing on 'confronting threats from China.' (AP/Susan Walsh)
Former State Department Principal Deputy Coordinator for Sanctions Policy Richard Nephew testifies before the Senate Banking Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, on Tuesday, June 4, 2019, during a hearing on 'confronting threats from China.' (AP/Susan Walsh)

The United States deputy special envoy for Iran has stepped down from the Biden administration’s negotiations team in Vienna, reportedly frustrated with the soft stance being taken against Iran in the talks aimed at reviving a 2015 nuclear accord.

Richard Nephew, along with two other US negotiators, decided to leave the team, according to a Wall Street Journal report from earlier this week.

A senior US official confirmed Nephew’s departure to The Times of Israel, saying he recently took on another position in the State Department. The official also confirmed the request of one other individual to be removed from the negotiating team, while claiming that no other member had left for “anything other than normal personnel reasons.”

Nephew did not arrive in Vienna for the eighth round of negotiations that began late last month, WSJ said. In the weeks that followed, US officials have dropped hints at progress toward a joint US-Iran return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

Former US president Donald Trump withdrew from the deal in 2018, launching a “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign, which Tehran responded to with escalating violations of the multilateral accord. While Trump’s successor, US President Joe Biden, campaigned on reviving the 2015 accord, he has been met by a new, more hardline Iranian president in Ebrahim Raisi, who has demanded the removal of all US sanctions in exchange for the Islamic Republic’s return to the deal.

Nephew was appointed by Biden to serve as the deputy to Special Envoy Rob Malley last March. Malley is seen as representing a more dovish flank of the negotiating team, having helped craft the 2015 agreement under the same role during the Obama administration. But this time around, he has made a point in recruiting experts with a broad range of opinions on the nuclear issue, according to Axios.

In this April 1, 2015 file photo, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini (right) speaks with then-US Secretary of State John Kerry (center) and Robert Malley (left), then-senior director for Iran, Iraq, and the Gulf States at the US National Security Council, on the sidelines of the Iran nuclear talks at the Beau Rivage Palace Hotel in Lausanne, Switzerland. (AP Photo/Keystone, Laurent Gillieron, File)

Nephew brought with him a wealth of experience on the issue and was credited for crafting the sanctions that brought Iran to the negotiating table ahead of the 2015 agreement.

But the deputy envoy would go on to spar with other members of the team over how firmly existing US sanctions against Iran needed to be enforced and on whether to walk away from negotiations as Tehran simultaneously made advancements in its nuclear program, WSJ reported.

White House National Security Council coordinator for the Middle East Brett McGurk was asked to comment on Nephew’s departure during a virtual event on Thursday hosted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

McGurk avoided criticizing Nephew, calling him an “incredibly talented teammate.”

The NSC coordinator proceeded to offer implicit criticism of those demanding the US take a more hardline approach in the negotiations. He said the Biden administration could have walked out of negotiations when Iran returned to the negotiating table in December for the first time since Raisi’s election, with completely different demands and ones that reneged on previous agreements reached under his predecessor, Hassan Rouhani.

Instead, the US presented a united front with Russia and China against those proposals, McGurk recalled, saying it led the Iranian rial to collapse.

Mohammad Eslami, new head of Iran’s nuclear agency (left) and Iran’s Governor to the International Atomic Energy Agency Kazem Gharib Abadi leave the International Atomic Energy’s General Conference in Vienna, Austria, on Monday, September 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Lisa Leutner, File)

“The Iranians came back a week later with completely different proposals,” he continued. “That in my view is pretty good diplomacy.”

Nephew’s decision came in the weeks leading up to what McGurk referred to as a “culmination point” in the Vienna negotiations.

The senior White House official said the US and Iran are “in the ballpark of a possible [nuclear] deal,” before clarifying that Washington is “very prepared” for the “pretty likely” scenario that there won’t be an agreement.

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