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U.S. Envoy Leaves Team Negotiating To Revive Iran Nuclear Deal

A senior U.S. envoy working to revive the Iran nuclear deal has left the negotiating team amid a report of differences of opinion on the way forward as the attempt to restore the deal intensifies.
Richard Nephew is “no longer serving as” deputy special envoy for Iran, a senior State Department official said in a statement e-mailed to RFE/RL on January 24. The official did not give a reason for the change, saying, “We are not going to get into specifics of our internal policy discussions.” The Wall Street Journal earlier reported that Nephew left after differences of opinion within the U.S. negotiating team. The newspaper said he had advocated a tougher posture in the current negotiations. The State Department official said personnel moves were “very common” a year into an administration, and said Nephew was still a “highly valued” State Department employee.

The departure comes at a critical time in the talks, which resumed almost two months ago in Vienna. The U.S. and European allies last week said there were just weeks to salvage the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, formally called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
Iran’s nuclear expertise atomic has advanced significantly since the United States withdrew from the deal, and diplomats have said that the longer Iran remains outside the deal, the more knowledge it will gain. The Biden administration and its partners in the U.K., France, and Germany have made clear that “advances in Iran’s nuclear program will soon make it impossible for us to return to the deal,” the senior State Department official said. “But we have not quite reached that point, and until we do, [we] are going to continue urgent negotiations to get back into the JCPOA.” State Department spokesman Ned Price repeated on January 24 that the U.S. remains open to meeting with Iranian officials directly after Iran's foreign minister said Tehran would consider direct talks with the U.S. "We have consistently held the position that it would be much more productive to engage with Iran directly on both JCPOA negotiations and on other issues," Price told reporters. Speaking at a press conference in Tehran on January 24, Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian rejected reports that Iran and the United States already are directly negotiating in the European-mediated talks in Vienna.

But he added that “if we get to a stage where reaching a good deal with strong guarantees necessitates direct talks with the United States, we will consider it.”
The 2015 deal, which lifted crippling Western economic sanctions in exchange for curbing Tehran's nuclear ambitions, began to unravel in 2018 after then-President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew the United States and reimposed the sanctions. That led Iran to start rolling back its commitments and restart some uranium enrichment activity, pushing the deal to the verge of complete collapse. Negotiations to restore the agreement began last year but were put on hold in June to allow for Iran’s presidential election, which brought an ultraconservative government led by President Ibrahim Raisi to power. U.S. negotiators have participated in the talks indirectly, with European mediators shuttling between them and Iranian negotiators. After eight rounds of talks, key issues remain the speed and scope of lifting sanctions on Tehran, including Iran’s demand for a U.S. guarantee it will not violate the agreement again.

The U.S. envoy for Iran, Robert Malley, said on January 23 that it is unlikely that Washington would strike a nuclear agreement unless Tehran releases four U.S. citizens.
"Even as we're conducting talks with Iran indirectly on the nuclear file we are conducting, again indirectly, discussions with them to ensure the release of our hostages," Malley said. Price said the United States had not made the release of the Americans a condition of reaching an agreement. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said on January 24 that the release of prisoners Iran could not be a precondition, although he left open the option of a prisoner swap.

With reporting by Reuters

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