US Iran envoy: We’re not wasting our time on the nuclear deal

Robert Malley says administration focusing on Iran protests and Tehran’s decision to get ‘involved in a European war’ by supplying drones to Russia

Robert Malley, the Biden's administration special envoy for Iran, waits to testify about the Iran nuclear deal during a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations on Capitol Hill in Washington, on May 25, 2022. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/File)
Robert Malley, the Biden's administration special envoy for Iran, waits to testify about the Iran nuclear deal during a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations on Capitol Hill in Washington, on May 25, 2022. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/File)

WASHINGTON— A top Biden administration official on Monday pushed back against growing criticism from Iranian American activists who are calling on the White House to abandon its efforts to resurrect the Iran nuclear deal.

The US special envoy to Iran, Robert Malley, said that the administration “makes no apology” for “trying to do everything we can to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.” The White House has become increasingly pessimistic about reviving the 2015 nuclear agreement, but has stopped short of declaring the deal dead.

Malley spoke during an appearance at a virtual event hosted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington think tank.

The White House has faced growing pressure to scuttle the deal altogether following Tehran’s brutal crackdown of a women-led protest movement and its decision to send hundreds of drones to Russia for use in its war in Ukraine.

Malley said that a fact sometimes lost in the debate is that, as the administration has pursued a nuclear deal, it has also continued to pile sanctions on Iranian officials.

The administration has announced sanctions against Iranians for the brutal treatment of demonstrators after last month’s death of a young Iranian woman while in the custody of Iranian security forces. Washington also hit Iran with sanctions for supplying drones and technical assistance to Russia and ordered US military strikes in August against Iranian-backed militias in Syria in response to attacks on US forces in the region.

“I think people have to understand that they were not tying our hands because of… this hope that someday maybe there’ll be a deal,” Malley said. “No, we are taking action. We’re not waiting. We’re taking the action that we think is consistent and necessary to promote our values and our national security interests.”

The flag of Iran waves in front of the International Center building with the headquarters of the International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA, in Vienna, Austria, on May 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Florian Schroetter, File)

Malley stressed the US is not “wasting” time trying to pursue a new deal, He added that there has been no movement in the negotiations since Iran imposed new, unconnected conditions in August.

“It’s really not our focus now. We are not going to focus on something that is inert when other things are happening,” he said, naming the protests in Iran and Tehran’s decision “to get involved in a war in Europe” by transferring drones to Russia.

“So that’s what we’re focused on because nothing is happening on the nuclear deal, so we are not going to spend our time, waste our time on it if nothing is happening. We are going to spend our time where we can be useful,” Malley added.

Those remarks echoed comments earlier this month by US State Department spokesman Ned Price, who said the nuclear deal was “not our focus right now,” instead vowing to “support” the “bravery and courage” of Iranian protesters.

The Biden administration this month levied new sanctions against Iran over the crackdown on antigovernment protests spurred by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini. Morality police had detained Amini last month for not properly covering her hair with the Islamic headscarf, known as the hijab, which is mandatory for Iranian women. Amini collapsed at a police station and died three days later.

At least 270 people have been killed and 14,000 arrested, according to the group Human Rights Activists in Iran. Demonstrations have continued, even as the feared paramilitary Revolutionary Guard has warned young Iranians to stop.

The White House has also said that Iranian troops are “directly engaged on the ground” in Crimea supporting Russian drone attacks on Ukraine’s power stations and other key infrastructure. The Iranians have provided the technical assistance after selling the Russians — desperate for precision-guided weapons — hundreds of the drones. The Iranian government has denied selling Moscow drones or providing it with assistance.

The Iran nuclear deal already has been teetering toward collapse despite US President Joe Biden’s efforts to revive it since August, with his administration saying Tehran has sought to push extraneous issues into the indirect talks. Still, the administration has not given up all hope for a turnaround.

The pact, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, would provide Tehran with billions of dollars in sanctions relief in exchange for the country agreeing to roll back its nuclear program to the limits set by the 2015 deal.

The deal was brokered by the Obama administration before being abandoned by the Trump administration in 2018. It includes caps on enrichment and how much material Iran can stockpile and limits the operation of advanced centrifuges needed to enrich.

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