Biden’s Iran Envoy: Sanctions Are ‘Not the Answer’

Robert Malley on the stalled nuclear deal and Washington’s plan to help Iran’s protesters.

By , the editor in chief of Foreign Policy.
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When U.S. President Joe Biden was on the campaign trail two years ago, he promised that the United States would reenter the landmark Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), known as the Iran nuclear deal, which then-U.S. President Donald Trump pulled out of in 2018. Nearly two years into Biden’s term, however, talks to reenter the deal have failed. Instead, Iran has enriched more uranium than ever before and elected a hard-line new president, Ebrahim Raisi, who is less likely to engage in constructive dialogue with the West.

Meanwhile, Iran has expanded its support of Russia’s war in Ukraine, providing Moscow with drones that have been used to target and kill civilians. Tehran has continued these policies even as it has confronted its most significant national protests in more than a decade.

As the Biden administration’s special envoy for Iran, Robert Malley is tasked with executing Washington’s entire Iran policy, from its continuing sanctions on Tehran to attempts to reenter the JCPOA. I spoke with Malley as part of FP Live, the magazine’s forum for live journalism. What follows is an edited and condensed transcript of our conversation.

When U.S. President Joe Biden was on the campaign trail two years ago, he promised that the United States would reenter the landmark Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), known as the Iran nuclear deal, which then-U.S. President Donald Trump pulled out of in 2018. Nearly two years into Biden’s term, however, talks to reenter the deal have failed. Instead, Iran has enriched more uranium than ever before and elected a hard-line new president, Ebrahim Raisi, who is less likely to engage in constructive dialogue with the West.

Meanwhile, Iran has expanded its support of Russia’s war in Ukraine, providing Moscow with drones that have been used to target and kill civilians. Tehran has continued these policies even as it has confronted its most significant national protests in more than a decade.

As the Biden administration’s special envoy for Iran, Robert Malley is tasked with executing Washington’s entire Iran policy, from its continuing sanctions on Tehran to attempts to reenter the JCPOA. I spoke with Malley as part of FP Live, the magazine’s forum for live journalism. What follows is an edited and condensed transcript of our conversation.

Foreign Policy: So, how close is Iran to a bomb right now?

Robert Malley: It’s a tough question to answer because there’s how close they are to having enough fissile material enriched at weapons grade, and that is, as we’ve said, only a few weeks. That’s a result of very dangerous choices that the Iranian regime has made. It’s also the result of the reckless decision by the Trump administration to withdraw from a deal that was working. So, they’re very close to having enough fissile material for a bomb. Weaponizing that takes longer, but it’s much too close for comfort.

FP: It’s fair to say that so far, talks between Washington and Tehran to try and revive the nuclear deal have failed. Why do you think that’s the case?

RM: U.S. President Joe Biden campaigned on a commitment that he would try to get back into the deal if Iran would reciprocate. If you ask any participant in the talks, they would say that the United States played a good faith role in trying to get back into the deal. We came very close many times, most recently in August. Each time, Iran stepped back and came up with some new demand, often one that had nothing to do with the nuclear talks—and most recently, having to do with inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency. This has suggested to us that the Iranian system is divided.

Each time we came very close, they were in deals that were presented not by us but by the three European countries—Germany, France, and the U.K.—and by Russia and China, no friends of ours in these circumstances. All of them said that the deal on the table was a fair one. Iran is the one that walked back and rejected it on more than one occasion. You’d have to ask them why.

FP: Some of your critics would say that you and your team were ready to give the Iranians everything under the sun just to get back into the JCPOA. What do you say to them now that a deal seems so far away?

RM: The fact is that Iran didn’t accept the deal. If they had everything that they had wanted, they would have said yes. What we were prepared to do was to lift those sanctions that were supposed to be lifted under the JCPOA and which had been put back into effect by the Trump administration.

Iran has rejected countless opportunities to come back into the deal. We’ve continued, as we’ve always said, preparing for a world with the JCPOA or without the JCPOA. We’ve continued to put pressure on Iran, to try to enforce our sanctions, to make sure that they are sanctioned for their support for terrorism, for the human rights violations, for the ballistic missile program, and for their nuclear program.

The JCPOA is not on the agenda because of Iran’s position. And we’re continuing with our policy, which is to respond to all of Iran’s destabilizing activities.

FP: You’ve said that there will come a point where a deal is no longer viable. What exactly is that point?

RM: Well, it’s a technical question more than a political one. It’s when our nuclear experts will tell us that the nonproliferation benefits of the deal don’t warrant the sanctions relief that we would be offering. When we get to that point, the deal will be dead. But I do want to emphasize we’re not spending our time now focused on the deal. Our focus is on what’s happening in Iran and Iran’s support for [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s war of aggression in Ukraine.

FP: How would you characterize Ebrahim Raisi as a president and as an interlocutor on a potential deal?

RM: It’s clear that this is a hard-line regime. We’re seeing it every day. In terms of the deal, I’ve said many times the key negotiation that needed to take place was not so much between Iran and the United States but between the Iranian regime and itself because it seems that there were some elements who were interested in a deal and others who, for whatever reason, were not. And that’s what caused the impasse that was created.

FP: Another criticism of the Biden administration has been that it simply took too long to get around to focusing on the JCPOA. Are there regrets about not acting more quickly?

RM: Within a month of President Biden coming into office, we made clear to the European Union that we were prepared to meet immediately to start negotiations. The Iranians then had all these conditions; they wouldn’t meet in certain circumstances. Could we have moved faster? Could we have moved differently? I’ll leave it to others to judge. But very quickly, we made clear what our position was, and then the stalling that took place was all on Iran’s side.

FP: Talk us through the plan in place to stop Iran from becoming a nuclear power. Is a military option on the table?

RM: Our priority is diplomacy. It’s the proven way. It’s the best way. It’s the most sustainable way to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. And that remains our preference.

There are other tools that we’re already using: international pressure of a kind that Iran has not experienced for many years. Remember, under the Trump administration, much of the world, including our three European allies in the negotiations, spent at least as much time blaming the United States as they were blaming Iran for its nuclear advances. We’re in a very different situation today where we’re working in lockstep with the U.K., France, and Germany. There is a vast majority of countries today, not just Western ones, that understand that pressure has to be put on Iran to stop its nuclear advances.

That said, we have the sanctions, we have pressure, we have diplomacy. If none of that works, the president has said, as a last resort, he will agree to a military option. But we’re not there. We’re still hopeful that we will find other means and that Iran will change its current path because it will be best for everyone.

FP: Given the recent midterm election results with a Republican House in place in 2023, how would that change America’s Iran policy?

RM: I don’t know [if] that much will change. We’ve tried to have as bipartisan a policy as possible. It’s proven extremely difficult, but we consult regularly with the Republican and Democratic members of Congress and will continue to do so. And hopefully, we could agree on a large chunk of our policy because we all agree Iran shouldn’t acquire a nuclear weapon. We all agree that we need to put pressure and to take steps to stop Iran’’ transfer of weapons to Russia. And we all agree that we need to support the Iranian people as they struggle against the repression that they face.

FP: By your own admission, Iran’s closer to a nuclear bomb than it’s ever been. There’s a growing body of work that argues that Washington is overusing its power to sanction other countries and then force compliance upon the whole world. Critics of these sanctions say that first, the world is beginning to tire of following U.S.-led policies, which often disrupt local and regional alliances. And then second, sanctions often don’t work; they just backfire.

RM: I think it’s a very fair question. The U.S. Treasury Department took a stronger perspective in terms of the impact of sanctions and how they can be better constructed so they don’t backfire and so they hurt the right people. And there are cases where sanctions have ended up hurting ordinary citizens as opposed to the leaders that we’re trying to target. I think it’s a very difficult balancing act.

I’ll be candid: I think we need to fine-tune our sanctions. It’s not the answer. If it had been the answer, then Iran would not be advancing its nuclear program. We’d have different results in many countries across the globe. We owe it to ourselves to have an honest examination of how sanctions work and how they don’t work in this particular case of Iran.

I don’t want to sound overly nostalgic, but the JCPOA was a result of diplomacy backed by sanctions—but sanctions that were targeted in a way that made clear that if Iran took certain steps—difficult steps, but realistic steps—those sanctions would be lifted. It worked once. We hope that something like that could work in the future. But we have to be even better than we have been in making sure that they don’t hurt ordinary citizens and that they achieve the results that we are seeking.

FP: How would you define U.S. policy towards the protests in Iran?

RM: It’s one of support for the legitimate aspirations of the Iranian people and for their fundamental freedoms and rights that all citizens across the globe should enjoy. We have made clear we are mobilizing international attention and putting the spotlight on what’s happening in Iran at a time when the Iranian regime is trying to hide and distort what’s happening: to make sure that Iranians have the ability to express themselves, to share through social media information with each other and with the outside world, by sanctioning those up and down the chain in Iran for violating the basic rights of the Iranian people.

We’re going to make sure that the world knows and that the Iranian people know who is behind that repression. And then organizing international efforts, whether it’s at the [United Nations] Human Rights Council or elsewhere. We will soon try to get Iran kicked off of the [U.N.] Commission on the Status of Women because it’s a complete anomaly that Iran would be on the commission that’s supposed to defend the rights of women when they’re repressing them.

FP: Let’s move to Russia’s war in Ukraine. Iran has been providing military equipment to Russia. How does Washington plan to respond?

RM: We have already taken steps to make it harder for Iran to transfer drones and other military equipment, working in partnership with others around the world to sanction and to take other steps to make it is as hard as possible for Iran to transfer deadly weapons that are helping Russia kill and target civilians in Ukraine.

FP: This circles back to my earlier point about sanctions backfiring. If you already have a so-called maximum pressure campaign to [hurt] Iran’s growth, then it perhaps opens a backs-to-the-wall, nothing-to-lose scenario where Tehran can arm Moscow, right? Also, in that case, what else do you have left in the arsenal of options to respond?

RM: I think you raise very good questions about how blunt an instrument sanctions can be. And we need to make as strong an effort on our part to make sure that the sanctions are fine-tuned.

We will sanction what we can. But this is a sanction that doesn’t hurt the Iranian people; these are sanctions against military transfers to Russia. And we are trying to be as effective as we can on that.

You’re not going to find an argument from me that the maximum pressure campaign of the Trump administration was a failure. We’re still living with that legacy. But at this point, the Iranian regime was given an opportunity to get back to where we were in 2015. They chose not to.

FP: Since we’re back on the Iran nuclear deal, let’s talk about the role of a new Israeli government led by Benjamin Netanyahu, who famously pressured the United States to get out of the JCPOA in the first place. How does that change America’s position regarding Iran?

RM: It’s too soon to say. The government has not been formed yet. But I would simply note that when the Biden administration came into office, our counterpart was Prime Minister Netanyahu, and we dealt with them very openly and candidly. I think both sides tried to learn the lessons of what didn’t work in 2015 and 2016 and try not to replicate some of what had happened then. Now we’re back with Netanyahu, and I expect we’re going to have very close conversations. We know there may be some disagreements on Iran, but on the fundamentals—which is preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon and making sure that we can counter its destabilizing activities across the region—there’s a lot of commonality.

Ravi Agrawal is the editor in chief of Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RaviReports

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