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Biden presses Iran diplomacy as new special envoy tapped

January 29, 2021 GMT
Secretary of State Antony Blinken is greeted by staff as he arrives at the State Department in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021. (Carlos Barria/Pool Photo via AP)
Secretary of State Antony Blinken is greeted by staff as he arrives at the State Department in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021. (Carlos Barria/Pool Photo via AP)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Biden administration says it’s going to revamp and enhance diplomacy toward Iran as the U.S. looks at restoring constraints on the country’s nuclear program and reining in its regional ambitions.

As Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced the appointment of a new special envoy for Iran on Friday, President Joe Biden’s national security adviser said that restoring limits on the Iranian nuclear program is a top priority and that the administration would work to build on whatever restrictions it could negotiate.

Jake Sullivan said Friday that the administration’s goal is to put Iran’s nuclear program “back into a box” and then to confront other problematic Iranian activity in the Middle East. President Donald Trump cited Iran’s “malign behavior” in the Middle East as one reason for withdrawing from the 2015 nuclear deal that Sullivan helped negotiate for the Obama administration.

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“Our view is that if we can get back to diplomacy that can put Iran’s nuclear program in a box, that will create a platform upon which to build a global effort,” Sullivan said at an event hosted by the U.S. Institute of Peace, with Trump’s national security adviser Robert O’Brien.

“We are going to have to address Iran’s other bad behavior, malign behavior across the region, but from our perspective, a critical early priority has to be to deal with what is an escalating nuclear crisis as they move closer and closer to having enough fissile material for a weapon, and we would like to make sure that we reestablish some of the parameters and constraints on their program that have fallen away over the past two years,” Sullivan said.

Iran vehemently condemned the Trump administration for withdrawing from the nuclear deal and reimposing struct sanctions. Tehran has reacted cautiously to signals from the Biden administration that it’s willing to talk.

Earlier Friday, Blinken formally appointed former top aide to President Barack Obama, Rob Malley, to be U.S. envoy for Iran, saying he would head a dedicated team of “clear-eyed experts with a diversity of views.”

State Department spokesperson Ned Price said that Malley has “a track record of success negotiating constraints on Iran’s nuclear program” and that Blinken is confident he “will be able to do that once again.”

Malley’s appointment, however, has roiled the community of Iran experts who are engaged in a bitter partisan dispute over the nuclear deal. Iran hawks are furious with Malley’s appointment because they see him as soft on Iran and overly critical of Israel. They fear that Biden wants to rejoin the Iran deal at any cost and may be willing to sacrifice the security of Israel and the Gulf Arab states to do so.

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Supporters have praised Malley for being a measured, longtime Middle East hand who has served multiple presidents and who has significant expertise in the region. Malley was one of several senior National Security Council officials involved in both the 2000 Camp David peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians and the 2014-15 Iran deal negotiations.

Like Biden, Blinken has said repeatedly that the U.S. would resume its obligations under the Iran deal by easing sanctions if Iran returns to full compliance with the accord. Only at such a point would the administration return to the deal or embark on an effort to lengthen and strengthen it, they have said.