Iran’s foreign ministry rejected any new negotiations or changes to the participants in Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers, after French President Emmanuel Macron said new talks should include Saudi Arabia.
The remarks came after the White House confirmed that veteran diplomat Robert Malley was named special US envoy for Iran. A key member of former president Barack Obama’s nuclear negotiating team, Malley is a controversial figure in Israel, where he is viewed as soft on Tehran and tough on Jerusalem.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh was quoted by state media on Saturday as saying: “The nuclear accord is a multilateral international agreement ratified by UN Security Council Resolution 2231 that is non-negotiable, and parties to it are clear and unchangeable.”
President Joe Biden’s new administration has said it would rejoin the deal, which the Trump administration left in 2018, but only after Tehran resumes full compliance with its terms.
“It is clear the Iranians are playing hardball, which is why the pressure on them cannot let up,” said an Israeli official. “There’s only a hope the Iranians will compromise if they believe that’s the only way the pressure will be lifted. If pressure is lifted prematurely, one can expect no concessions from the Iranians whatsoever.”
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the Biden administration would consult with its allies in the Middle East, including Israel, before engaging in talks with Iran. Israeli officials have expressed hope that this means there will be a positive dialogue moving forward, and emphasized the need to completely stop Iran’s nuclear program.
Formally called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear deal completed by Iran and six major powers committed Iran to restricting its nuclear program in return for sanctions relief from the United States and others. Israel and Gulf Arab states strongly opposed the deal as not being stringent enough.
Saudi Arabia and its ally the United Arab Emirates have said that Gulf Arab states should be involved in any renewed talks, which they say should also address Iran’s ballistic missile program and its support for proxies around the Middle East.
Macron stressed in his comments on Friday, cited by Al Arabiya television, the need to avoid what he called the mistake of excluding other countries in the region when the 2015 deal was negotiated.
Saudi Arabia, which is locked in several proxy wars in the region with Tehran including in Yemen, supported Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran.
Macron said any new talks on the nuclear deal with Iran would be very “strict,” and that a very short time remained to prevent Tehran from having a nuclear weapon.
Khatibzadeh said Macron should “show self-restraint,” and that “if French officials are worried about their huge arms sales to Persian Gulf Arab states, they better reconsider their policies. “French arms, along with other Western weapons, not only cause the massacre of thousands of Yemenis, but are also the main cause of regional instability.”
In Jerusalem and in Washington, Malley’s appointment was preceded with controversy.
Malley, who strongly favors negotiations with Iran, spoke out against former secretary of state Mike Pompeo’s conditions for lifting sanctions on Iran that include full transparency of its nuclear program, ending uranium enrichment, releasing US citizens, and ending support for terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah.
He also has a long history of positions that have been challenging for Israel.
After the 2000 Camp David talks, during which Malley was special assistant to then-president Bill Clinton for Arab-Israeli affairs, he contradicted Clinton and his top Mideast peace negotiator Dennis Ross, who said Arafat walked away from then-prime minister Ehud Barak’s peace offer.
Malley said Barak’s offer was a setup, a claim that lent credence to the narrative that Israel did not want peace. The collapse of the 2000 negotiations were soon followed by the Second Intifada, in which Palestinian terrorists killed more than 1,000 Israeli civilians.
Malley’s association with the 2008 Obama campaign ended after he turned out to have held talks with Hamas representatives, but in 2014, Obama appointed him to the National Security Council.
Israeli officials would not comment on record over the appointment. Anticipating that Malley would be chosen as envoy, one senior official said last week: “We know him, but in the end, the one to authorize the agreement will be the president. The president will decide the policy.”
But another Israeli former official involved in the Iran portfolio expressed concern: “If the administration were serious about meeting our concerns about the Iran nuclear deal they wouldn’t appoint the person most likely to arouse them,” he said.
US Sen. Tom Cotton tweeted last week that it is “deeply troubling that President Biden would consider appointing Rob Malley to direct Iran policy. Malley has a long track record of sympathy for the Iranian regime and animus towards Israel. The ayatollahs wouldn’t believe their luck if he is selected.”
Xinyue Wang, an American imprisoned in Iran in 2016, tweeted that Malley “played no positive role in facilitating my release,” and posited that Malley’s appointment would send a message to Iran that is opposite to Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s statements that the US seeks to strengthen the JCPOA and stand up for human rights.
Gilead Sher, chief of staff for Barak when he was prime minister, tweeted that Malley “will make a superb Iran envoy. We had our difference over the years, however, they affected neither trust nor friendship.”
Progressive and pro-Iran deal figures came out in Malley’s defense.
Sen. Bernie Sanders called Malley “an excellent choice for the role of Iran envoy,” and “an extremely knowledgeable expert with great experience in promoting US security through diplomacy rather than war.”
J Street applauded Malley’s appointment, saying his “distinguished career and impressive talents make him the perfect choice to take on such a vital role at a critical time.”
A State Department official said: “Secretary Blinken is building a dedicated team, drawing from clear-eyed experts with a diversity of views. Leading that team as our Special Envoy for Iran will be Rob Malley, who brings to the position a track record of success negotiating constraints on Iran’s nuclear program.
“The secretary is confident he and his team will be able to do that once again,” the official said.
The post would make Malley the point person in Biden’s efforts to deal with Iran after years of worsening relations under former president Donald Trump, who reimposed crippling economic sanctions after pulling out of the 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran.
Malley’s expected appointment comes as Biden and his foreign policy aides move to craft their approach to Iran. Malley is expected to report directly to Blinken, said a source familiar with the matter.
Biden’s top diplomat stuck to the new administration’s stance that Tehran must resume complying with the Iran nuclear deal before Washington would do so.
Making his first public comments on Iran as secretary of state on Wednesday, Blinken reiterated Biden’s policy “that if Iran comes back into full compliance with its obligations under the JCPOA, the United States would do the same thing.”
But Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted on Thursday that the United States should make the first move by returning to the nuclear pact.