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What to expect during the Iran-U.S. nuclear deal negotiations

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now, the U.S. envoy in the negotiations with Iran is Rob Malley. Before this round of talks, he traveled to visit Iran's neighbors. He went to Israel, along with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain. Now, when Malley spoke with us, he said those Persian Gulf and other countries offered Iran a choice, and he put their message this way.

ROBERT MALLEY: There are two paths forward. One path is a return to the deal in which case we, countries of the Gulf, are prepared to expand their diplomatic and economic ties, which is what they say they want to do - integrate the region economically and diplomatically. But if you don't go back into the deal, if you continue to escalate and increase your nuclear advances, then that door will be shut. Iran will once again become the cause of a nonproliferation crisis.

INSKEEP: And that is the message that Malley hopes to bring to next week's negotiations in Vienna. He says Arab nations that once doubted the nuclear agreement are ready for the U.S. to return to it.

MALLEY: I'm not going to say they fell in love with the deal, but they recognized the reality is that the alternative to the deal, which is no deal or no American participation in the deal - which means that Iran has left its own commitments - has meant an increased nuclear program and more aggressive Iran and regional behavior. And I think all of the countries of the Gulf - and some of them have different assessments of the merits of the deal. But they all agree that getting back in the deal is critical now. And they offered Iran those two paths.

INSKEEP: Israel openly opposed the deal and openly welcomed President Trump leaving the deal but now has a new government. Has Israel's attitude changed?

MALLEY: So I won't hide that Israel still remains opposed to the deal, although I think there's some nuances in the public debate, including former Israeli officials who say withdrawing from the deal was a big mistake. I think they would prefer that we not rejoin the deal, but at the same time, they've made clear they don't want to have public differences with us. They understand that if we go back into the deal, they won't try to stop it. If that happens, they want us to work together on what happens after we're back in the deal. And if we don't get back in the deal, if Iran is not prepared, they want us to work closely, which of course we want to do as well.

INSKEEP: Just about a year ago, an Iranian nuclear scientist was assassinated. Israel, rightly or wrongly, was blamed for that assassination. Did it set back your efforts to have an Iranian scientist assassinated just as a new president was preparing to try to resume this nuclear deal?

MALLEY: So I don't want to get into details of what may or may not have happened in Iran. I mean, our focus is on diplomacy, seeing whether we could get back into the deal and then build on it. But if not, if Iran chooses - and it really is at this point, I think, an Iranian choice - if they choose not to go back into the deal, then obviously, we're going to have to see other efforts, diplomatic and otherwise, to try to address Iran's nuclear ambitions.

INSKEEP: Diplomatic and otherwise.

MALLEY: Well, I mean, economic and otherwise. I mean, I think the - President Biden has made clear, as has Secretary Blinken, that we privilege diplomacy. And I think we've made clear now - and I think you and I have spoken several times about this - that we're prepared to get back into the deal and to lift all of the sanctions that are inconsistent with the deal. So if Iran wants to get back into the deal, it has a way to do that. If it doesn't want to get back into the deal, if it's - if it continues to do what it appears to be doing now, which is to drag its feet at the nuclear diplomatic table and accelerate its pace when it comes to its nuclear program, if that's the path it chooses, we'll have to respond accordingly. And so we've gone through this before, so the options that are at America's disposal are familiar to all.

INSKEEP: When we last sat in this office talking, Iran's old government was still in place. The old president was still in office. The old foreign minister, the old nuclear negotiator. Now a new president who is seen as more conservative, more skeptical of the United States - or maybe I should say even more skeptical of the United States - has taken office. How has that changed your position?

MALLEY: So it hasn't changed our position. I think it remains to be seen how has it changed Iran's position. If one judges by what Iran has done - continued to expand its nuclear program - what it hasn't done, which is come back to the table - we're only coming back on Monday, so it's been five months since the last time we met - and what it's been saying, which is taking very hard-line positions about their demands, that doesn't augur well for the talks. So let's see what they say when they're at the table. But obviously, the indications they've given - and we're not the only ones who've heard those indications - are not particularly encouraging.

So Russia, China, the U.S., Germany, France and the U.K. all are in agreement. Let's get back into the deal. Let's do it by closing the remaining issues that were left open in June after six rounds of talks. But let's hurry up because time is not on our side. And I have to emphasize this. Given the pace of Iran's nuclear advances, we don't have much time before we have to conclude that Iran has chosen a different path.

INSKEEP: I think you know very well one of the critiques of trying to get back into the deal, which is that at some point it expires. We're six years into the deal. Some of the provisions were only supposed to last 10 years. You're still not in the deal. It's going to take some more time. Is there still a point in getting back into this deal?

MALLEY: Well, listen; by withdrawing from the deal, we have brought that crisis much closer to us. And when people - the deal, some of its provisions lasted 10 years, some 15, some 20, some 25, some never expired. The complete - I would say irony, but it's a tragedy - of the decision to withdraw from the deal is that has brought all of those future problems much closer to home. See; our goal was, when we negotiated the deal, to succeed in implementing the deal. Building a modicum of trust - I wouldn't even go that far, but some sense that both sides can live up to their commitments. And then build on it to address the many, many other issues that we have with Iran, including aspects of their nuclear program. That was what we were hoping to do.

The problem is by withdrawing from the deal, we're sitting now, you and I, talking about issues that had been dealt with in 2016, rather than on building on the achievement of the nuclear deal to try to address issues that we have with Iran and, frankly, that Iran has with us.

INSKEEP: How will the talks in Vienna work?

MALLEY: Well, we'll be in one hotel room, and we'll be waiting to hear what others, those who Iran agrees to talk to, will report back. So this is not exactly the way it should be, and we have repeatedly said to Iran - indirectly, since they won't listen to us directly - that if they want to get results, if they want to get quicker results, the better way is to sit face to face with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Rob Malley, U.S. special envoy for Iran, spoke earlier this week.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.