The Biden Administration faces a potential confrontation with a longtime rival that is better armed and more hard-line than at any time in its modern history.
Shortly after his Inauguration, Joe Biden appointed Rob Malley to be his special envoy for Iran. Malley, who is fifty-eight, grew up in France and was in the same high-school class in Paris as Secretary of State Antony Blinken. He graduated from Yale and Harvard Law School, won a Rhodes Scholarship, and clerked for Supreme Court Justice Byron White. Ruth Bader Ginsburg officiated at his wedding.
Malley has long experience with the Middle East. His father was a French journalist known for his support of anti-colonialist movements. Working on the National Security Council during the Clinton Administration, Malley participated in the Camp David peace talks. After they collapsed, in 2000, he broke with the conventional analysis that the summit had failed because of Yasir Arafat’s intransigence. Malley published detailed insider accounts about how the Israelis shared the blame, for making proposals difficult for Arafat to accept. Critics declared Malley rabidly anti-Israel. Former colleagues publicly called the attacks on Malley “unfair, inappropriate, and wrong.” After Clinton left office, Malley worked on Iran at the International Crisis Group, which tracks global conflicts. As part of his job, he met with Iranian officials and travelled to Tehran.
The agreement survived for only two years. Influenced by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and by Republican hawks, President Donald Trump abandoned the deal in 2018. He also imposed more than a thousand sanctions on Iran. They targeted the Supreme Leader, the Foreign Minister, judges, generals, scientists, banks, oil facilities, a shipping line, an airline, charities, and allies, such as the President of Venezuela, for doing business with Tehran. Trump also designated the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the country’s most powerful military branch, as a terrorist group—an action that the U.S. had never taken against another nation’s military, even the Nazi Wehrmacht.
During the Trump years, Malley was appointed president of the International Crisis Group. He kept in touch with some of his Iranian contacts. But when he became Biden’s envoy the Iranian diplomats he’d known for decades refused to meet with him. During talks in Vienna this past spring, the Americans stayed at the Hotel Imperial. The Iranians were eight blocks away, at the InterContinental. Enrique Mora, a Spanish diplomat for the European Union, carried proposals back and forth. Delegations from the other five nations consulted at a third hotel.
Malley compared proxy talks to a Woody Allen story, “The Gossage-Vardebedian Papers.” In it, two men play chess by mail. A letter goes “missing.” Moves are lost. Both players claim that they are winning. Infuriated, they stop playing before the game is finished. The Russian envoy, Mikhail Ulyanov, described the Vienna process as one of the strangest in modern diplomacy. “The aim isn’t to update an agreement or elaborate a new one,” he tweeted. “The goal is to restore a nearly ruined deal piece by piece. Was there a similar exercise in the history of international relations? I can not recollect anything like that. Can you?”
The bizarre diplomacy, Malley told me, took on unprecedented urgency in November. “We’ve seen Iran’s nuclear program expand, and we’ve seen Tehran become more belligerent, more bellicose in its regional activities,” he said. “They are miscalculating and playing with fire.”
The stakes extend well beyond Iran. The world’s nuclear order, already perilous, is now at risk of unravelling. Nuclear pacts hammered out in the last century are dated or fraying, as the U.S., Russia, and China modernize their arsenals. The Pentagon estimates that China could have at least a thousand bombs by 2030. The talks with Tehran are designed to prevent a tenth nation—the latest was North Korea, in 2006—from getting the bomb.
In the Middle East, Israel has had a nuclear weapon since the late nineteen-sixties. Saudi officials have also threatened to pursue the bomb if Iran obtains one. “The Iranian nuclear crisis can’t be viewed in a vacuum,” Kelsey Davenport, of the Arms Control Association, told me. “The broader nuclear order is in chaos.” The collapse of the talks with Iran—Biden’s first major diplomatic foray—would have consequences worldwide.
Both Washington and Tehran are violating the deal. A year after Trump abandoned the accord and launched his “maximum pressure” campaign, Tehran began breaching its obligations. It installed IR-6 centrifuges—which are much faster than the IR-1s allowed by the deal—and developed even more efficient models, including the IR-9. Centrifuges are tall tubes that enrich a gaseous form of uranium. They spin at supersonic speeds several thousand times faster than the force of gravity. Iran also increased enrichment from under four-per-cent purity—the limit in the agreement, and a level used for peaceful nuclear energy or medical research—to sixty per cent. “Only countries making bombs are reaching this level,” Rafael Grossi, the chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said in May. Weapons grade is ninety per cent, which, for Israeli officials, is a decisive juncture. “We don’t want to reach a point where we will have to ask ourselves how Iran was allowed to enrich to ninety per cent,” Zohar Palti, the former director of intelligence at Mossad, who is now at the Israeli Ministry of Defense, told me. The so-called “breakout” time for Iran to produce enough fuel for a bomb has plummeted, from more than a year to as little as three weeks. “It’s really short, and unacceptably short,” a senior Administration official said. “Every day they spin centrifuges, and, for every day they stockpile uranium, the breakout time continues to shrink.” Additional steps—including weaponizing the enriched uranium, marrying it to a warhead, and then integrating it with a delivery system, such as a missile—are required to field a bomb.
Israel has tried to slow Iran’s progress. In late 2020, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the father of Iran’s nuclear program, was assassinated as he drove with his wife and bodyguards to a weekend home. From more than a thousand miles away, the killer used artificial intelligence and a satellite connection to trigger a machine gun mounted on a parked pickup truck, spraying Fakhrizadeh with bullets. Tehran retaliated with a law that limited international inspections by blocking access to surveillance footage at nuclear sites. Experts fear that Iran may be considering a “sneak-out”—a covert path to a bomb. Tracking Iran’s facilities has become like “flying in a heavily clouded sky,” Grossi said.