Robert Malley, US Iran envoy, defended the Biden administration’s approach to Iran before a critical Senate committee Wednesday as the best option available.

Malley told the foreign relations committee the administration would work closely with allies to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), “for as long as our assessment is that its non-proliferation benefits are worth the sanctions relief that it would provide.”

But he added, "We do not have a deal ... and prospects for reaching one are, at best, tenuous."

If agreement could be reached, Malley said, the terms of any revival would be open to review by Congress, but not submitted as a treaty for ratification. So far, the Biden team had resisted to make a pledge to Senate review.

He did not confirm the claim by Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennett, referred to by Senator Robert Menendez, chairing the committee, that President Joe Biden had ruled out removing Iran’s Revolutionary Guards from the US list of ‘foreign terrorist organizations’ in order to secure agreement over restoring the JCPOA.

The special envoy insisted that continuing to pursue JCPOA revival, which has seen the US in year-long Vienna talks with Tehran and five world powers, did not preclude other actions against Iran.

“We’ve not lifted a single sanction that president Trump imposed, we’ve added to those sanctions,” Malley said. “We’ve taken steps with our partners to go after their UAV [Iran’s drone program], the ballistic missile program, to strengthen both Israel and our Gulf [Arab] partners in their ability to counter the threat that Iran presents.”

Lawmakers zeroed in on past US statements that the time to revive the pact had all but passed - in February and March the State Department suggested it was only a matter of days - prompting an expression of contrition from Malley.

"When are you going to end (the talks)? When are you going to walk?" said Senator Jim Risch, the panel's senior Republican.

‘Worse’ without a deal

Malley said that “all problems” posed by Iran “would be much worse if Iran was a threshold state,” with the capacity to quickly move towards producing a nuclear weapon.

The envoy reiterated criticisms of Trump’s 2018 decision to leave the JCPOA, given the deal had extended to a year the ‘break out’ time Iran needed to make enough fissile material for a crude weapon. “Without those constraints [under the JCPOA], Iran has been accumulating sufficient enriched uranium, and made sufficient technological advances, to leave the break out time as short as a matter of weeks, which means Iran could potentially produce enough fuel for a bomb before we know it, let alone stop it.”

Rather than compelling Iran to give way, Malley insisted, ‘maximum pressure’ sanctions of the Trump administration had led to “Iran’s maximum non-nuclear provocation” including “increasingly brazen attacks by Iran and the armed groups it supports against our Gulf [Arab] partners and our armed forces, leading to a 400 percent increase in attacks by Iran-backed militia in 2019 and 2020.”

‘Fatally flawed’

Among senators critical of the JCPOA questioning Malley, James Risch, a Republican from Idaho, called the deal “fatally flawed” from the start in showing it was impossible to separate Iran’s nuclear program from its other “malign” activities.

But Malley stressed common values held “in this room.” Disagreement, he said “boils down to this: are we better off reviving the nuclear deal and, in parallel, using all other tools at our disposal – diplomatic, economic and otherwise – to address Iran’s destabilizing policies? Or are we better off getting rid of the deal and banking on a policy of pressure alone to get Iran to accept more onerous nuclear constraints and curb its aggressive partners?”

Critics of the deal, Malley added, had said nothing that undermined the advantages of a restored JCPOA.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez, a Democrat who opposed the original agreement, said he did not understand why the Biden administration was still willing to negotiate nor what it would do if talks fail.

"Why is it that we are still keeping the door open?" Menendez said. "What is your Plan B?"

Malley said the United States is working with Israel and European partners to try to deter and respond to any Iranian actions, including attacks on U.S. partners as well as its ballistic missile and unmanned aerial vehicle programs.

‘Power to engineer change’

In giving evidence to the committee, Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies that opposes the way the nuclear talks are handled, said a revived JCPOA lifting ‘maximum pressure’ sanctions would allow Iran to net $275 billion in the first year ($130 billion from assets now frozen abroad), $800 billion by 2027, and $1 trillion by 2031. Dubowitz claimed a revived JCPOA would not restrict Iran’s nuclear program but rather make it a “jack in the box,” certainly by the time the JCPOA ‘sunset clauses’ expired in 2031.

After the testimony, FDD told Iran International that the organization does not oppose a diplomatic approach toward Iran but what Dubowitz's testimony made clear is that the current negotiations appear to be providing a patient pathway to a bomb for Iran. Dubowitz believes the US is giving up important leverage in talks when Iran is building up its nuclear program.

Karim Sadjadpour, policy analyst at the Carnegie Endowment, cited an observation of Henry Kissinger than Iran needed to decide if it were a “nation or a cause.” Sadjadpour said the US did not have “power to engineer regime change in Iran” but should use the Voice of America Persian network in taking “the playbook employed during the Reagan administration vis-à-vis the Soviet bloc.”

Sadjadpour said the Iranian leadership showed no urgency in JCPOA negotiations. “The problem is that they think they can get the JCPOA whenever they want it” and could meanwhile achieve concessions, he argued.

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