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It's unclear whether the U.S. and Iran will return to the 2015 nuclear deal

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

The Biden administration's point person on Iran says the only real solution to the nuclear issue is diplomacy. But after a year of talks, it's not clear that the U.S. and Iran will get back to the deal that the Trump administration left. All the while, Iran is making advances to its nuclear program, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: U.S. envoy Robert Malley says a return to the 2015 nuclear deal is tenuous at best. But he says the administration believes it is worth it, and he says European partners want the U.S. to make the effort.

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ROBERT MALLEY: They tell us - and I'm sure that if you had them here, they would tell you - the last thing they want, particularly today when we're dealing with the crisis in Ukraine, is have a nuclear crisis in the Persian Gulf.

KELEMEN: But Malley faced a lot of skepticism from both sides of the aisle in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Republican Jim Risch points out that the Biden administration came to office raising hopes for a, quote, "longer and stronger" deal with Iran.

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JIM RISCH: That train has left the station a long time ago. It isn't longer, and it isn't stronger, and it doesn't even exist. In fact, what we're hearing about is it will be shorter and weaker, if indeed you do wind up getting into an agreement, which I, for one, certainly hope that you don't.

KELEMEN: The problem is, Malley says, without a deal, Iran faces no constraints to its nuclear program.

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MALLEY: Iran has been accumulating sufficient enriched uranium and made sufficient technological advances to leave the breakout time as short as a matter of weeks, which means Iran could potentially produce enough fuel for a bomb before we can know it, let alone stop it.

KELEMEN: Chairman Bob Menendez, a Democrat who opposed the nuclear deal, said the U.S. should be focused on stepping up sanctions and cracking down on Iranian oil sales to China rather than lamenting the Trump administration's decision to leave the deal. He's raising doubts that the 2015 agreement can be revived.

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BOB MENENDEZ: Why is it that we are still keeping the door open, even though the secretary of state said that it wasn't much benefit anymore? What is your plan B?

KELEMEN: Malley says all options are on the table, but a military strike would only slow down Iran's nuclear program, not stop it, and he says diplomacy is the only way to resolve this. Another Democrat, Tim Kaine, encouraged him to stay on course.

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TIM KAINE: There are some on this committee who are basically telling you, stop dialogue right now. Don't accept that advice. Do your best, and then if you find a product that you think is better than what's going on right now, bring it to Congress and let Congress own it. Let Congress own whether the U.S. is a diplomatic nation or whether we reject diplomacy.

KELEMEN: The State Department's Iran envoy is promising to submit any deal to Congress for review, and he says the U.S. will reject Iranian demands that go beyond the deal. Iran wants the U.S. to lift sanctions on the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. Today, the U.S. imposed new sanctions to crack down on an oil smuggling network linked to the IRGC.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.