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U.S. and Iranian delegations fail to reach a deal to restore the Iran nuclear deal

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

U.S. and Iranian officials recently left Doha, Qatar, after one more round of talks to try to restore the Iran nuclear deal. Both sides left disappointed. The two delegations have been trying for more than a year through indirect talks with European Union officials acting as intermediaries. The U.S. special envoy for Iran, Robert Malley, leads the delegation from Washington, and he spoke with our colleague Steve Inskeep about this latest round.

ROBERT MALLEY: The European Union, in its role as coordinator, wanted to try one more effort, at least one more effort, and so they invited both delegations to meet with them in Doha in the hope that the Iranians would show something, some willingness to get to yes. But they seem, at this point, not capable of providing an answer. And so it was a little bit of a - well, more than a little bit of a wasted occasion, I'd say.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The Iranian foreign minister alleges that the United States side - you, in effect - just repeated the United States' previous position. Is that, in fact, what you did?

MALLEY: Well, let's take a step back and where - look at where we are. The European Union, again, as coordinator, put on the table very detailed outlines of what they think a fair outcome would be, and we've said we're prepared to take that deal. The party that has not said yes is Iran. So it's not clear to us when Iran says that we came with old positions. We came with a position which is consistent with what it means to come back into the deal. So, yes, the party that needs to provide an answer now is Iran. And so if they were not prepared to do so, it's unclear why they were prepared to go to Doha.

INSKEEP: I want to make sure that I'm clear on this since it's complicated. The matter here is that the United States pulled out of the nuclear deal and imposed sanctions on Iran. Iran wants the sanctions lifted. The United States wants Iran to come back into compliance with the deal because it's been enriching more uranium and doing other things that would be out of compliance. You're saying that there is a proposal on the table for a timeline to do these things, and the United States has said yes to it. Is that right?

MALLEY: That's basically correct, Steve. It's not 100% finalized. The EU has some more ideas to try to make it more of a final deal. But yes, what they put on the table, we said we're prepared to sign on that basis. We're waiting to see whether Iran can get itself to cross the finish line.

INSKEEP: Has Iran added new demands?

MALLEY: They have and, including in Doha, added demands that I think anyone looking at this would be viewed as having nothing to do with the nuclear deal, things that they've wanted in the past that clearly us and the Europeans and others have said that's not part of this negotiation. The discussion that really needs to take place right now is not so much between us and Iran, although we're prepared to have that; it's between Iran and itself, that they need to come to a conclusion about whether they are now prepared to come back into compliance with the deal, if we're prepared to do the same, and we've said we are.

INSKEEP: Is Iran maybe telling you they're not that interested in resuming the deal?

MALLEY: You know, I don't want to speculate as to what their motivation is. At this point, our assessment is that they haven't made that fundamental decision. Whether they are interested or not, they're going to have to decide sooner or later because at some point the deal will be a thing of the past.

INSKEEP: How much closer is Iran to a nuclear weapon than, say, a year ago or five years ago?

MALLEY: So they're much closer to having enough fissile material for a bomb. To our knowledge, they have not resumed their weaponization program, which is what they would need to develop a bomb. But we're, of course, alarmed, as are our partners, about the progress they've made in the enrichment field, and that's why we think that getting back to the deal is in our nonproliferation interest. We think it's their interest because they'd get sanctions lifted. But, of course, that's an assessment that they alone have to make.

INSKEEP: Do they have enough highly enriched uranium on hand to make a bomb should they choose to do so?

MALLEY: Yes.

INSKEEP: They could begin that at any time, and how long would it take them, do you think?

MALLEY: It would take them a matter of weeks. Again, it would be something that we would know, we would see and to which we would react quite forcefully, as you could imagine.

INSKEEP: How dangerous is this situation?

MALLEY: Well, it's a situation - I have to remind our listeners that it was completely unnecessary. It's a situation we inherited from the last administration, which recklessly decided to withdraw from a deal that was working. Our effort from Day 1 from the Biden administration has been to try to get back in if Iran was prepared to get back in because we knew - and we knew this at the time that the Trump administration withdrew - that this was a recipe for a very dangerous situation. And that's what we're living right now. There still is time to resolve this. There still is time to get back to the deal which was working. We hope that Iran chooses that course. It's the course to which we remain committed.

INSKEEP: A related matter that I know you involve yourself in - how many Americans, U.S. citizens, remain in Iranian custody in Iranian prisons?

MALLEY: So thanks for raising that, Steve. I mean, you know, this is another 4th of July that these four American citizens are going to be separated from their families. It's unconscionable. And yes, we're working on it in parallel to the nuclear talks. We hope that regardless of what happens with the nuclear talks we'll be able to resolve this issue because it weighs on our minds every single day.

INSKEEP: What do the Iranians want in return for those prisoners?

MALLEY: They're asking for things in exchange. You know, the right thing to do would be to let them go because they've not done anything wrong. They're innocent. They've been used as pawns. But we are looking at steps that we could take that would facilitate their return in the shortest time possible.

INSKEEP: Rob Malley, thanks so much.

MALLEY: Thank you, Steve.

FADEL: Veteran diplomat Robert Malley is the U.S. special envoy for Iran. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.