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A U.S. special envoy responds to Iran on nuclear talks, protests over a woman's death

Robert Malley, Biden administration special envoy for Iran, testifies about the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) during a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations on Capitol Hill May 25, 2022, in Washington, D.C.
BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI
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AFP via Getty Images
Robert Malley, Biden administration special envoy for Iran, testifies about the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) during a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations on Capitol Hill May 25, 2022, in Washington, D.C.

A U.S. envoy can't talk to Iran – but NPR did, and told him what they said. Here's a mediated conversation.

Robert Malley, President Biden's special envoy to Iran, has yet to negotiate directly with Iranians during a year and a half on the job. Iran's government refused to meet directly with their American counterparts as they negotiate the U.S. return to a nuclear agreement between the two countries; instead, they talk through intermediaries.

Iranian officials occasionally have agreed to interviews with NPR, and Iran's foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, spoke with us on Sept. 26. Less than two weeks later, we played portions of that interview to Malley, creating a rare exchange of views.

Malley is a longtime specialist on Iran's region, who knows leading players in Tehran even if they won't meet with him now. He's trying to rejoin a multinational agreement that President Obama negotiated, President Trump dropped, and President Biden would like to resume. Republicans loudly oppose any dealings with a U.S. adversary; Biden maintains that stopping Iran from building a nuclear weapon is worth the trouble.

Criticism has only grown in recent weeks as Iran's government has repressed citizens protesting the death of a woman in police custody. Morality police arrested Mahsa Amini on Sept. 13, alleging she had not dressed modestly enough. The U.S. still regards Iran as an adversary, and sanctioned Iranian officials on Thursday for their role in crushing the demonstrations. The U.S. has also loosened sanctions on tech companies that may help Iranian citizens evade their government's controls of the internet.

What follows are statements by Iran's foreign minister, and Malley's responses.

On Iran's protests

Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said he had a message for U.S. officials to not to get involved in the demonstrations: "I am assuring them that there is not a big deal going on in Iran. There's not going to be a regime change in Iran."

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian speaks to NPR's Steve Inskeep in New York City on Monday, Sept. 26, 2022
/ Sara Naomi Lewkowicz for NPR
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Sara Naomi Lewkowicz for NPR
Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian speaks to NPR's Steve Inskeep in New York City on Monday, Sept. 26, 2022

Robert Malley: "What the United States wants is a government in Iran that is respectful of the fundamental rights of its people. It's not a policy of regime change. It's a policy of backing... people who are protesting peacefully, because they want to be able not to wear a headscarf or to live their lives in ordinary ways, and yet they face an oppressive system... And, you know, we hear Iranian officials blame the U.S.. Blame Israel, blame others. They shouldn't look so far. They should look closer at home."

Amir-Adbollahian did blame foreign actors for stirring up violence, and said the U.S. should not "play to the emotions of the Iranian people."

Malley: "Nobody is demonstrating because of the United States. Nobody in Iran is angry at their government because of the United States. They're angry because of the policies of their government....And, you know, the Iranians did protest against the fact that we loosened our sanctions to allow free flow of information for Iran, for the Iranian people. And it probably is the first time, ironically, that we've heard Iran complain about our easing sanctions."

On nuclear negotiations

Amir-Abdollahian said the U.S., Iran and European nations were very near a nuclear agreement. "We're at a stage where there are just a couple of issues remaining on the table, but which are very significant and important."

Malley: "There was a deal on the table... and all the other participants were OK with it in March. Then again over the summer. Then again in August. And each time Iran has come up with some new requests, some new demands, most of the time either an unrealistic demand or one that was extraneous to the nuclear talks, something that had nothing to do with it."

Amir-Abdollahian said his country is seeking some guarantee that the U.S. will not withdraw from the agreement again, as President Trump did in 2018. "The American side has taken some steps toward giving us guarantees. We just need those guarantees to become a little more complete."

Malley: "We've told them since we started talking indirectly around March 2021... we can't control what the next president does... That was the deal... So if that's something that Iran insists upon, there's no point in negotiating."

On the release of U.S. citizens

Amir-Abdollahian said Iran was willing to release several U.S. citizens from Iranian prisons, but expected to receive something in return. "So if the U.S. is ready, we are ready without any delay." Days later, Iran released one American, Baquer Namazi, who has been in ill health.

Baquer Namazi speaks to the press upon his arrival to the Omani capital Muscat on Oct. 5, 2022 following his release.
- / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Baquer Namazi speaks to the press upon his arrival to the Omani capital Muscat on Oct. 5, 2022 following his release.

Malley: "There was no quid pro quo that they let Baquer Namazi live. He's an elderly man who needs medical attention... We are in indirect discussions with Iran to secure the freedom of the remaining citizens – Emad Shargi; Siamak Namazi, the son of Baquer; and Morad Tahbaz... But nothing was traded for the long-overdue release of Baquer Namazi... We're looking at what we can do on the humanitarian side, mutual steps to make sure that our citizens are in their home as soon as possible."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.