In this photo released by the official website of the office of the Iranian Presidency, President Ebrahim Raisi speaks during his press conference in Tehran, Iran, Monday, Aug. 29, 2022.

No contradiction in supporting protesters while pursuing nuclear deal with Iran, US special envoy says

Robert Malley, the US special envoy for Iran, joined The World’s host Marco Werman from Washington to discuss how the Biden administration views the current protests and what this could all mean for efforts to secure a nuclear deal with Iran.

Protests in Iran show no signs of letting up. Yesterday, riot police clashed with demonstrators in dozens of cities across the country. Today, students at Shiraz University of Medical Sciences chanted slogans.

They were condemning police brutality and calling for more freedom for Iranian women. The demonstrations come after the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who was accused of violating the law on headscarves. Amini died in police custody.

Robert Malley, the US special envoy for Iran, joined The World’s host Marco Werman from Washington to discuss how the Biden administration views the protests and what this could all mean for efforts to secure a nuclear deal with Iran. 

Marco Werman: Rob Malley, what’s going through your mind as you watched day after day these protests in Iran? Are they a game-changer for the country?
Robert Malley: We’ve all watched, sort of transfixed at the sight of brave Iranian women and men protesting. And what we do know is what we’re going to do. We’re going to speak forcefully about the fundamental rights of the Iranian people as we want to do across the world. We’re going to condemn and sanction those Iranian institutions that were responsible for the death of Mahsa Amini. We’ve already sanctioned Iran’s morality police and finally, and importantly, we’re going to continue to help the Iranian people find ways to exercise their right to access information in the face of Iranian government attempts to block their access to the internet. We’ve taken steps already by loosening our sanctions in a way that would allow Iranians to talk to each other, communicate with each other and with the outside world.
Well, as you say, as Iran has gone to shutting down the Internet quite forcefully, the US in response, has been trying to get communications equipment into the hands of demonstrators. Has that been successful?
So what we really have done is try to open the door to US companies to allow them to provide tools to ordinary Iranians and allow them to overcome and circumvent the surveillance tools on censorship. We’ve seen that it’s had some effect already, but of course, it’s in the face of a widespread attempt by the Iranian government to block that communication.
So in 2009, when there were widespread protests in Iran, culminating in that killing of a 26-year old Neda Agha-Soltan, the Obama White House did not want to support the protests, fearing charges of foreign interference. Now the US is engaged and supporting the protesters. What changed? 
I wasn’t part of the Obama administration at the time. I think the Obama administration in due course, did condemn the repression. But listen, all I could speak about is what the Biden administration is about. And it’s not about regime change. This is not a policy that is trying to fuel instability in Iran and try to topple the regime and the government. It’s a policy that is trying to be true to US beliefs that people have the right to exercise fundamental freedoms.
At the same time as these demonstrations are happening, there is the languishing Iran nuclear deal with discouraging levels of progress recently to revive the 2015 agreement. With that effort stalled. How has that changed the calculus with supporting these protests? In other words, how do you see the relationship between the protests and the nuclear talks?
Some people have asked us why would we continue to pursue a nuclear deal in the face of the repression of this Iranian government. It didn’t take what just happened, the tragedy that occurred to Mahsa Amini, for us to know what this Iranian government is about. The reason we’re pursuing a nuclear deal is [that] we don’t want this government to have its hands on a nuclear weapon. It’s really as simple as that. And so that remains a fundamental national security interest of the United States. And, yes, we can do both things at the same time. We can be true to our values and speak out forcefully on behalf of ordinary Iranians who want to exercise their fundamental rights, even as we pursue another fundamental national security interest, which is to make sure that Iran doesn’t acquire a nuclear weapon. And so those who say we shouldn’t engage with them, we would ask the question, “What are we going to do to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon?” Isn’t diplomacy the best way, if we can do it? And by the way, we also have to engage with the Iranian government to secure the release of four of our citizens who have been unjustly detained, one of them for seven years. And to those who think that there’s a contradiction, I would ask, what would they do to try to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon?
A US diplomat told journalists this week that the negotiations on that nuclear deal with Iran have hit a wall. What is the wall? How do you see it? 
We were close to a deal, we thought about a month ago, and then Iran, for its own reasons and reasons that one should ask them, decided to reintroduce an issue that has nothing to do with the deal, which has to do with the International Atomic Energy Agency’s investigation into past Iranian activities, and in particular, the presence of uranium particles on the site. So without getting into the details, what Iran has asked for is for us, the United States and European countries to put pressure on the international agency to conclude those investigations. That has nothing to do with the deal, number one, and number two, it’s something that we won’t do. It’s a decision Iran has to make. So that’s the wall we’re facing right now. But it’s a wall that only Iran could overcome. What we can do is continue to maintain our pressure to make sure that Iran doesn’t acquire a nuclear weapon.
As you pointed out, Rob, President Trump famously exited the Iran nuclear deal in 2018. One thing Iranian negotiators have said is that they want guarantees that the election of a new Republican president in 2024, if that happens, would not mean the US will back out of another nuclear deal. Do they have a point? 
I can understand why they would want that guarantee. We’ve told them from the minute these negotiations began over a year and a half ago, that’s not the way our system works. If a future president decides again recklessly to unilaterally withdraw from the deal at a time that the deal was working, if that’s what they decide to do, there’s nothing we, as in Biden, can do to stop that.
Rob, finally, is Iran intent on having nuclear weapons? I mean, is that what US policy assumes? Is that the underlying belief?
Without getting into sort of what our intelligence community would say, I think at this point, it doesn’t appear that Iran has made a decision to acquire a nuclear weapon. It doesn’t mean that they’re not expanding their program so that they could be on the threshold of doing so. But they do not appear today to have made that decision. Again, we can’t build our policy on what we assess to be Iran’s intent. We base our policy on what we see Iran is doing. And our policy is guided by the president’s very firm commitment to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons through diplomacy, if that’s at all possible.
Rob, as you’ve served in this role as US special envoy for Iran, is there an anecdote you can share with us that kind of really sheds light on where things stand at this moment in time with Iran?
You know, I don’t think there’s an anecdote that I would be prepared to recount at this point. I do think, though, that it is quite telling that we have been relatively close to a deal on more than one occasion, last spring and in August. And both times, Iran, for some reason and again, you should ask them and have their officials on your program, once, because they wanted us to commit to lifting the foreign terrorist organization designation of the IRGC, or the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, which has nothing to do with the deal. And we we spent a lot of time in which we told them, you want that lifted, you gotta do something in exchange in terms of the behavior of the IRGC. In the end, they dropped that. Now it’s this question of the investigation by the IAEA. Again, nothing to do with the deal, delaying the deal. What does that say? You’d have to ask them. Are they at the moment of truth? Do they take a step back? Are they not prepared to to get back into the deal? Are they hoping for concessions that won’t come? Our door is still open, if they want to go through, if they want to, to get this deal. But those two episodes show that at some point, the real discussion that needs to take place is not so much between the US and Iran, it’s between Iran and itself. Is it prepared to take the steps necessary to get back into the deal? And if the answer is no, then we’re going to have to see what other paths are available. But that’s the urgent conversation that we think needs to take place.
It sounds like you’re take is that it’s hard to negotiate with a country that moves the goalposts.
Yes. It’s also hard to negotiate with a country that refuses to talk to us, which has made everything more difficult, more time consuming, more prone to misunderstanding. We’re prepared to have direct talks. They’re not. So we’ve had to make do with with a very unsatisfactory, indirect conversation. 

This interview was lightly edited and condensed for clarity. 

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