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US redoubles support for Iran talks envoy Israeli official claimed was sidelined

State Department says Rob Malley leading US effort on Iran, again rebuffing source in Lapid delegation who claimed Israel managed to box him out of its talks with the US

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

In this file photo from May 25, 2022, 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. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP)
In this file photo from May 25, 2022, 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. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP)

The US on Tuesday doubled down on its support of its special envoy for Iran, Rob Malley, after a senior Israeli official told reporters a day earlier that Jerusalem managed to sideline the architect of the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement from a decisive role regarding a possible US return to the agreement.

“Rob is our special envoy on Iran. He is still very much in charge of the team and our efforts here,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a press briefing.

On Monday, a senior Israeli official told Israeli reporters accompanying Prime Minister Yair Lapid on a state visit to Germany that Jerusalem’s recent engagement with the Biden administration on talks to revive the nuclear deal had resulted in US decision-making being placed “out of the hands of Malley’s camp by now.” The official spoke on condition of anonymity.

“There is nothing to those reports. I can tell you Rob is deeply engaged day-to-day on the substance of this. He is leading a team here at the Department. He is regularly engaging with our counterparts at the White House, the Treasury Department, the intelligence community and elsewhere regarding our efforts to achieve mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA and our contingency planning as well,” Price said.

The State Department spokesman also indicated that Malley would be privately briefing members of Congress regarding the status of the Iran negotiations in the coming days, as he has done in the past.

Malley has been US President Joe Biden’s point man in European Union-led talks in Vienna aimed at bringing the US and Iran back into compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which trades sanctions relief for curbs on Iran’s nuclear program. Malley had been depicted by opponents of the deal as pushing the administration to rush headlong back into the pact, which is vociferously opposed by Israeli leaders.

Former president Donald Trump pulled the US out of the agreement in 2018 and began implementing a “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign against Tehran, which responded by rapidly increasing its uranium enrichment in violation of the JCPOA.

Enrique Mora, a leading European Union diplomat, second right, attends a meeting with Iran’s top nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani, third left, in Tehran, Iran, March 27, 2022. (Iranian Foreign Ministry via AP)

“Our bottom line contention is this: it is not too late to conclude a deal,” Price said Tuesday.

In an initial reaction to the anonymous Israeli comments, a State Department spokesman had rejected the suggestion that Malley had been sidelined, or that the US had concluded that efforts to revive the deal had hit a dead end.

“We have a very close dialogue with Israel and other allies and partners about Iran, including the JCPOA. Special Envoy Malley is an integral part of those talks,” read a statement from the State Department Monday, distributed in the name of an anonymous spokesperson.

The State Department rarely responds to comments from foreign officials.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, left, welcomes Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid, right, with military honors for a meeting at the chancellery in Berlin, Germany, Sept. 12, 2022. (Michael Sohn/AP)

The spokesperson also rejected the senior Israeli official’s claim that “the Americans and most Europeans say there’s not going to be a JCPOA,” along with the suggestion that Biden had “hardened” his stance regarding the Iran talks as a result of Israeli lobbying.

“It is not correct that our position has ‘toughened.’ The President has always been very clear about what we need in order to reach an understanding and return to full implementation,” the statement read.

“There is only one reason that we have not yet reached an understanding: Tehran has not yet accepted the reasonable basis presented by the EU as coordinator of JCPOA talks,” it added.

At a news conference in Mexico City Tuesday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken indicated that prospects for a deal in the near future were not looking good.

“Iran seems either unwilling or unable to do what’s necessary to reach an agreement and they continue to try to introduce extraneous issues to the negotiations that make an agreement less likely,” he told reporters.

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