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5 years after U.S. left Iran nuclear deal, more enriched Uranium and much less trust

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Five years, that's how long it's been since the U.S. walked away from the nuclear deal with Iran. Well, ask Iran's foreign minister about the prospects for a new deal with the U.S., and here's what you'll hear.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

HOSSEIN AMIR-ABDOLLAHIAN: (Through interpreter) This window will not be open forever.

KELLY: That is what Hossein Amir-Abdollahian told me through an interpreter in Tehran earlier this year. Here he is a month later on CNN.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AMIR-ABDOLLAHIAN: (Through interpreter) The window for an accord is still open, but this window will not remain open forever.

KELLY: You'll hear near identical language in speeches and interviews going back to 2021. Funny thing is you will hear the same sense of urgency when you question American diplomats. Here's Antony Blinken, U.S. Secretary of State, talking to me last year.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ANTONY BLINKEN: Mary Louise, we're very, very short on time. The runway is very short.

KELLY: It was then-President Trump who, five years ago this month, yanked the U.S. out of the nuclear deal known as the JCPOA, Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. What followed is the U.S. reimposed crushing sanctions. Over time, Iran stopped adhering to the limits the deal had imposed, and day by day, its nuclear program crept forward.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RAFAEL GROSSI: One thing is true, they have amassed enough nuclear material for several nuclear weapons, not one at this point.

KELLY: That's Rafael Grossi, head of the IAEA, the United Nations nuclear monitor, speaking to European lawmakers in January. Doesn't mean Iran has a nuclear weapon, Grossi says, but...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GROSSI: That trajectory is certainly not a good one.

KELLY: So what now? We're going to spend these next few minutes considering that question, starting with Rob Malley. Today he's the U.S. special envoy for Iran. He was the lead White House negotiator on that 2015 agreement that the Trump administration walked away from. How close is Iran to a bomb?

ROB MALLEY: So, I mean, the answer to that question is in two parts. First is the question of enrichment of uranium. And we know, we've said publicly, that they're only a couple of weeks away from having enough. If they decided to enrich uranium to weapons-grade, they'd be very close to having enough for one bomb. I think the other question is how long it would then take them to have a bomb, to have the means of delivery. That's classified information I can't get into, but it would take longer. But we are focused very much on deterring Iran from making that decision to enrich at weapons-grade.

KELLY: I mean, they're there basically, in terms of having the nuclear material that they would need to do this.

MALLEY: If they made that decision, they would have the weapons-grade uranium within a short period of time.

KELLY: So I put questions along these lines to Iran's foreign minister.

Will Iran build nuclear weapons?

And he told me through an interpreter, we have high capabilities when it comes to peaceful nuclear energy. However...

AMIR-ABDOLLAHIAN: (Through interpreter) However, when it comes to our beliefs and values, we do not pursue the making of a nuclear bomb.

KELLY: So Rob Malley, he says they're not pursuing a nuclear bomb. Do you believe him?

MALLEY: So first, our intelligence community has made the assessment public that we believe that at this point, they have not made the decision to pursue a bomb. We're not going to rest on that assessment. And that's why it's very important for us, and President Biden has made clear, that we will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon. We will use deterrents to make clear to them that all options are on the table if we conclude that they're taking steps that are tantamount to decision to acquire a bomb. But we also will pursue diplomacy because we think that's the most verifiable and sustainable way to prevent them from getting a bomb.

KELLY: When you say all steps necessary, when you say Iran must not be allowed to get a bomb, what, if anything, at this point can the U.S. actually do about it?

MALLEY: So first, as I said, and this has been said from - for the last two and a half years, our preference is a diplomatic option. I think it's been proven to be the most effective way and the most sustainable way to make sure that Iran doesn't acquire a bomb. And we have a credible diplomatic path. But we also have a credible deterrence path. In other words, president has said all options are on the table. You could imagine what that means. He has said explicitly that the military option will be on the table. It is far from the preferred option, but he will do what it takes to make sure Iran doesn't acquire a bomb. And we hope that we could resolve this through diplomatic means, and we're prepared to go down that path.

KELLY: What does a credible diplomatic path look like at this point? The U.S. doesn't talk to Iran and vice versa.

MALLEY: No, the U.S. doesn't talk to Iran because - I mean, we don't negotiate directly with Iran because Iran has decided not to go down that path. But we came very close to reaching a deal last August. In fact, all of the countries that were negotiating - whether it was the U.S., its European partners, Russia, China - all were in agreement with the proposal that had been put on the table by the European Union. Iran turned its back on that deal. Since that time, a lot has happened. Iran has engaged in a brutal repression of its peaceful protesters. It has delivered drones that Russia is using for its brutal invasion of Ukraine, and its nuclear program has advanced. So there have been changes...

KELLY: Which complicates efforts to negotiate with them.

MALLEY: Of course it complicates - of course.

KELLY: Yeah.

MALLEY: But Iran knows that if it wants to go down that path, we're prepared to do it. Of course, we will not ignore the other issues that we face with Iran, whether it's the detainment of several American citizens, hostages - and we're engaged in indirect talks to get them out - or the other threats that Iran presents to our people and to our personnel in the region.

KELLY: Is the nuclear deal of 2015 - the one you negotiated for President Obama, is it dead?

MALLEY: You know, I've said this in the past, my job is not to - I'm not a necrologist. My job is not to pronounce death certificates.

KELLY: But is there any movement on it?

MALLEY: Our goal is to reach a diplomatic outcome with Iran that would verifiably ensure that Iran can't acquire a nuclear weapon. We're not there yet of course. And as I said, Iran is the one that turned its back on a very realistic deal. So I have to...

KELLY: Although it was the U.S. that walked out of the 2015 nuclear deal.

MALLEY: And that is true. And the president and the secretary of state have said it, and national security adviser said it only two weeks ago. It was a reckless decision that put us in a much worse situation.

KELLY: I guess it prompts the question, if you were Iran, would you sign another deal with the U.S., knowing that the U.S. has broken its word on this in past and knowing that it's possible the Biden administration may be gone in two years?

MALLEY: That's a decision for them to make. They could continue on the current path which has brought real economic problems for them. We will not be lifting our sanctions as long as we can't enter into another nuclear deal. If they believe that they're better off without one, that will be their choice.

KELLY: At some point, does the North Korea example become instructive? By which I mean the U.S. didn't want North Korea to get nuclear weapons either, but it did. And the U.S. is having to hold its nose and live with it.

MALLEY: That's not a scenario that we're contemplating at all. It would not be in their interest, and it's not something that President Biden would permit.

KELLY: Rob Malley, thank you.

MALLEY: Thank you.

KELLY: He is President Biden's special envoy for Iran. So is he right - that the U.S. can stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon should it decide to do so? A question for our next guest, Iran expert, Vali Nasr. He is a professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. And Professor Nasr, fact check for us, if you would, that assertion that the U.S. is not going to let Iran get a nuclear weapon. Realistically, can the U.S. stop them at this point?

VALI NASR: It's not going to be easy. In other words, the U.S. could use military option against Iran, but it will not necessarily kill the program. And in fact, it will then push Iran to make the very decision that Rob Malley said Iran has not made yet, which is to acquire nuclear weapons. So the United States then would really have to contemplate continuing a war with Iran until it takes nuclear weapons away from Iran, which means a kind of military presence in the region that the United States does not want to contemplate and may not be successful at doing it.

KELLY: Fact check one more thing we just heard there from Rob Malley, that Iran has not yet decided whether to go nuclear or not. Does that square with your analysis?

NASR: I think so. I think for the longest period of time, Iran has really dangled its nuclear program as a way to get the United States to lift sanctions on Iran. We will mothball this program that you're really very concerned about if you actually lift sanctions on us, so we can have a semi-normal economy and govern our country. That trust has broken down. In other words, Iranians are no longer convinced that the nuclear program will actually get sanctions lifted unless it's a much, much bigger program, which is what they're trying to do. But that has brought them much closer to actually crossing the red line and becoming a nuclear state.

KELLY: Let's step back and consider an alternative. You have co-authored a piece that's in Foreign Affairs magazine this month. The headline is "The Path To A New Iran Deal: A Regional Agreement Could Succeed Where Washington Failed." Vali Nasr, briefly sketch out your argument.

NASR: Well, currently it does not look like we can get to a nuclear deal with Iran on the basis of the 2015 nuclear deal because neither sides trust the other one. The United States wants concessions from Iran that Iran is not willing to give to the United States directly and to the Europeans, and they're not even able to talk anymore. Also, the United States, given pressure even in Congress on the administration, is not willing to lift sanctions or give Iran money that Iran needs. So engaging the region is a way of providing a political pathway to break the deadlock that the JCPOA is facing currently.

KELLY: You heard me asking about North Korea, if the U.S. has learned to live with a nuclear North Korea. Is that a possibility with Iran?

NASR: Well, Iran could end up looking like North Korea down the road. That analogy is not incorrect. In other words, the United States may be doing all the saber rattling, talking about all options being on the table. But in the end, the Iranians may calculate that the United States right now, at this moment in time, after the Iraq experience, with Ukraine on the table, is not going down a path of war with Iran. And as a result, the red line of what is tolerable with Iran will keep moving. So this is not out of the ordinary to think that Iran will continue to enrich material, will become more dangerous, but also will become poorer, more radical and a more difficult problem for the United States down the road.

KELLY: Vali Nasr is professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. Thank you so much.

NASR: Thank you very much.

KELLY: To sum up, the U.S. does not want Iran to get a bomb. Iran says it does not want to get a bomb, even as it enriches uranium closer and closer to weapons-grade. And while neither Washington nor Tehran will pronounce the nuclear deal dead, Grossi, the U.N. nuclear chief, calls it an empty shell.

(SOUNDBITE OF APHEX TWIN'S "JYNWEYTHEK YLOW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.