With talks to restore the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran reaching a critical phase, differences have emerged in the U.S. negotiating team over how tough to be with Tehran and when to walk away, according to people familiar with the negotiations.
U.S. officials confirmed over the weekend that Richard Nephew, the deputy special envoy for Iran, has left the team. Mr. Nephew, an architect of previous economic sanctions on Iran, had advocated a tougher posture in the current negotiations, and he hasn’t attended the talks in Vienna since early December.
Two other members of the team, which is led by State Department veteran Robert Malley, have stepped back from the talks, the people familiar said, because they also wanted a harder negotiating stance.
Among the issues that have divided the team are how firmly to enforce existing sanctions and whether to cut off negotiations as Iran drags them out while its nuclear program advances, the people familiar with the negotiations said.
The divisions come at a pivotal time, with U.S. and European officials warning that only a few weeks remain to rescue the 2015 deal before Iran acquires the know-how and capability to quickly produce enough nuclear fuel for a bomb. Under the agreement, the U.S. lifted most international sanctions on Tehran in exchange for strict but temporary limits on Iran’s nuclear work. The Trump administration exited the agreement, seeing it as insufficient to restrain Iran, and the Biden administration is trying to reverse course.
Iran has refused to sit directly with the U.S. in the talks, though on Monday Iran’s foreign minister said Tehran would consider doing so if talks progress.
With no deadline set to end the talks, some Western diplomats doubt whether the Biden administration is prepared to call it quits. Doing so could trigger a crisis, with Iran accelerating its nuclear-enrichment program at a time of heightened tensions between Washington and Moscow over Ukraine. Iran says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.
A senior State Department official said that the administration at its highest levels has settled on a policy toward Iran after careful consideration of multiple viewpoints and that a return to the 2015 agreement offers an opportunity to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
The official confirmed Mr. Nephew’s departure from the negotiating team; he remains with the State Department. The official said another member of the negotiating team requested to be removed from the Vienna talks. No other team member has been sidelined, the official said, or departed for “anything other than normal personnel reasons.”
Strains within the U.S. team have been growing since the summer over a range of issues that have been debated—and sometimes decided—at the highest levels of the Biden administration, the people familiar with the negotiations said.
Some in the team urged leaving the talks in early December after a new Iranian negotiating team returned to Vienna and reversed most of the concessions the previous government made in the spring 2021, the people said.
Other tension points, the people said, included whether to get the United Nations’ atomic agency to censure Tehran last year for preventing inspectors from monitoring its nuclear work and its refusal to cooperate with a separate probe into nuclear material found in Iran. Differences also flared over how aggressively to enforce sanctions on Iran, especially with China over imports of Iranian oil.
Also debated, the people said, is at what point would it become impossible to restore a central aim of the 2015 deal—keeping Iran 12 months away from having enough nuclear fuel for an atomic weapon.
U.S. and European officials decided to plow on with the negotiations in December despite Iran’s toughening of its negotiating stance. They have also drawn back from taking action at the International Atomic Energy Agency board to censure Iran, a move that Tehran said could scuttle talks.
Mr. Nephew played a key role in designing the web of sanctions imposed on Iran from 2006-13 and was a senior member of the team that negotiated the 2015 nuclear deal. While he strongly backed that agreement, he has written that the use of broad sanctions was crucial in persuading Iran to negotiate seriously.
His appointment as deputy Iran envoy in March sparked criticism in Iran. A conservative Iranian newspaper, Vatan-e-Emrooz, photoshopped a poster from the 1997 horror film “The Devil’s Advocate,” in which an ambitious attorney becomes a lawyer for Satan. In the Iranian newspaper, Mr. Biden is depicted in the devil’s role, standing behind Mr. Nephew as the lawyer.
The talks in Vienna are aimed at agreeing on the steps Iran and the U.S. would take to re-enter the nuclear deal. A year after the Trump administration exited the deal in May 2018, Iran started expanding its nuclear program. It has now breached most limits in the 2015 accord, is producing near weapons-grade nuclear fuel and is thought to be just a few weeks from having enough highly enriched uranium for a bomb.
The Biden administration set restoring the nuclear deal as a foreign-policy goal, though it has kept almost all the Trump sanctions in place. Republicans and Democrats in Congress have criticized the administration for allowing Iran to build up its nuclear work even while the talks dragged on.