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President Joe Biden prepares to board Air Force One at Yokota Air Base in western Tokyo, Tuesday, May 24, 2022.

President Joe Biden prepares to board Air Force One at Yokota Air Base in western Tokyo, Tuesday, May 24, 2022. (Kelly Agee/Stars and Stripes)

The top U.S. envoy to the Iran nuclear talks says that efforts to revive the 2015 agreement are faltering but that he believes offering Tehran “limited” sanctions relief could still salvage the accord and provide the basis for a broader deal.

In testimony prepared for a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Wednesday, Special Envoy Robert Malley says that a return to the multinational Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action would help keep a lid on Iranian nuclear activity that accelerated after President Donald Trump’s 2018 decision to pull out of the deal despite an array of punishing sanctions.

But Malley makes clear that time is running out after more than a year of start-and-stop talks in Vienna appeared to have lost momentum.

“We do not have a deal with Iran, and prospects for reaching one are, at best, tenuous,” according to Malley’s prepared remarks.

“The bottom line is that we are convinced, as are all our European partners, that we can both provide limited sanctions relief in exchange for Iran taking important steps to roll back and constrain its nuclear program, and still use the vast reservoir of remaining sanctions and other tools at our disposal to pressure and target its other dangerous activities,” he says.

Trump and his allies argued that the original deal, negotiated under President Barack Obama, eased pressure on Tehran without addressing Iran’s ballistic missile program or its support for terrorists beyond its borders. Trump referred to the accord as “a horrible one-sided deal that should have never, ever been made.”

Iranian officials have repeatedly said their nuclear program is peaceful and not designed to build a weapon. But since the U.S. quit the accord, Tehran has gone beyond agreed-to limits on nuclear enrichment and, according to Malley and other experts, may be only weeks or months away from accumulating the fuel needed to build a nuclear weapon if that decision is made.

The Biden administration has struggled to resurrect the 2015 agreement, with negotiations in Vienna dragging on, even as the efforts of U.S. diplomats continue to fuel criticism from senior Republican and Democratic lawmakers at home. The Foreign Relations panel’s chairman, Democrat Robert Menendez of New Jersey, was among opponents of the original accord and has questioned the prospect of reviving it.

In his remarks on Wednesday, Malley acknowledges the “strongly held competing views” on the agreement but added that “the simple fact is this - as a means of constraining Iran’s nuclear program, the JCPOA was working.”

Malley begins his comments by detailing all the ways Iran poses a threat to the U.S. and its allies - including offering support for terrorist groups, directing attacks on U.S. forces in the Middle East and detaining foreign and dual nationals for political purposes - but added the collapse of the deal, and the urgent need to revive it, has actively distracted American officials from focusing on Iran’s other activities.

“We harbor no illusion,” Malley says in his prepared remarks. “Nuclear deal or no nuclear deal, this Iranian government will remain a threat.”

But he argues, every problem the U.S. has with Iran “would be vastly magnified, and our freedom of action to address them significantly reduced, if Iran’s leaders acquired a nuclear weapon or if it remains as it is now, close to being able to obtaining the material for one.”

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