A top aide to the US special representative to Iran departed the team conducting discussions with representatives of Iran’s government in Vienna, Austria in what is now the third such departure of those with hawkish views from the group.
The Wall Street Journal first reported the exit of Richard Nephew, deputy special envoy and the second-highest-ranking official on the team, on Monday. Mr Nephew remains at the State Department, but is no longer directly involved in negotiations with Iran’s government.
The development comes after the departure of two other members of the team, according to the Journal, in recent weeks reportedly over similar concerns with the direction that talks were heading.
The Journal suggested the three had been urging a tougher approach in the talks.
“Personnel moves are very common a year into an administration,” a senior State Department official told the newspaper in a statement about Mr Nephew’s departure from the team, adding: “We are not going to get into specifics of our internal policy discussions.”
Negotiations on Iran, the official added to the Journal, “requires many difficult, closely balanced decisions on which there can be reasonable disagreement.”
“The senior-most levels of our Government have given careful consideration to these choices, weighed multiple views, and settled on a policy,” they said, adding that “Special Envoy [Rob] Malley and his team are diligently and professionally executing that policy.”
Their dissatisfaction comes a little less than two months after talks resumed, though the Biden administration has differed little from the hardline stance against Iran taken by the Trump administration. Sanctions snapped back into place after the US exited the Iran nuclear accord have largely remained in place; the US lifted a handful of measures on former officials and companies involved in Iran’s oil industry last June, but at the same time levied additional sanctions on roughly a dozen entities accused of involvement with Iran’s support for Houthi rebels in Yemen.
The Biden administration has signalled that the US will continue to urge Iran back into compliance with the 2015 nuclear agreement signed under the Obama administration, suggesting that the White House and State Department will not seek to renegotiate the deal as many supporters of tough economic punishments and maximum pressure on Iran’s government have called for.
Supporters of more pressure on Tehran like Maryam Rajavi of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) have called for the Biden administration to clearly spell out its goals for US-Iran relations and be firm in efforts to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
“There is a need for a correct and responsible policy, which is to exert decisiveness against the regime and stand with the Iranian people,” said Ms Rajavi in a recent address.
“Do Western governments want religious fascism and the central banker of terrorism to arm itself with nuclear weapons?” she added.
Former Congressman Eliot Engel, a centrist Democrat who headed the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told The Independent in an interview in the fall that he hoped the US would negotiate “a new deal, a better deal, one that brings Iran closer to democracy” under President Biden’s leadership.