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Returning To The Iran Nuclear Deal Is Essential For Biden's Foreign Policy Agenda

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Iran and world powers resume talks in Vienna today about Iran's nuclear program. In a sign of progress, they agreed to keep talking next week. The U.S. government wasn't directly involved in the discussions but had a delegation in Vienna and was watching closely. That's because President Biden's foreign policy agenda has a lot riding on the results. Here with more is NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez.

And, Franco, first, what came out of the talks this week?

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Well, Audie, both sides are talking positively about progress. The State Department said today that there are still questions about how serious Iran is about returning to the deal. But there are some positive signs. And going into this, it was really unclear how this first week of talks would go. There was no, you know, significant plan for a second week, and now the administration says the indirect talks will continue. It's, of course, just a first step, but it is a critical one for President Biden, who wants to contain this issue and turn to other foreign policy goals.

I spoke more about this with Ilan Goldenberg, who served at the State Department and Pentagon during the Obama administration. He says much of Biden's agenda rests on a quick return to the nuclear deal.

ILAN GOLDENBERG: If we're going to focus more on China, we need to be able to get back into the agreement. If we're going to be moving forces out of the Middle East and to moving them elsewhere in the world - much easier to do when we're back in the agreement. If we're going to spend less time obsessing about the Middle East and doing less senior-level meetings, much easier to do when we're back in the agreement - if we're going to rebuild our relationship with Europe.

ORDOÑEZ: Now, of course, all those foreign policy goals can be worked on without rejoining the nuclear pact, but it would be a lot easier if the United States was not worrying about Iran getting closer to having a nuclear weapon.

CORNISH: Now, the president has spent time talking about China and Russia. What has he been saying about Iran?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, yes, he has talked about China and Russia more. His advisers say the goal is, though, to put Iran quote, "in a box." There is a clear desire to make a shift in strategy away from the Middle East and toward competition with rivals like China and Russia. But Michael Singh, who is former President George W. Bush's top Middle East adviser in the White House, he told me, you know, quote, "The enemy gets a vote." And he says Iran may not be a great competitor, but you also can't ignore it.

MICHAEL SINGH: Responsibly, you can't ignore a state like Iran or North Korea, which is trying to develop a nuclear weapon, which ultimately could pose a serious threat to the United States.

ORDOÑEZ: And he says that's where the language about putting Iran in a box comes from. It's about finding the right balance so that it doesn't swamp Biden's foreign policy agenda.

CORNISH: There's been a lot of pushback from critics of the Iran nuclear deal about the Biden administration returning to it. What are some of their concerns?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, the concern is whether the United States is just kicking the can down the road, while allowing Iran to get even more powerful. Richard Goldberg advised former President Donald Trump on Iran. He told me that without more accountability from Iran, the deal isn't actually going to limit their progress.

RICHARD GOLDBERG: Unfortunately, a return to the old nuclear deal is not putting Iran's nuclear program in a box; it's sort of putting it in a box with a trap door that Iran gets to leaves in a few short years.

ORDOÑEZ: You know, Audie, and this is a view held by many Republicans in Congress, that entering back into the deal, entering in back into the deal too quickly, would allow Iran to get even more dangerous. And in essence, they say, that is the opposite effect of what they want. I mean, both sides want a longer, stronger deal. The real question they have and difference they have is how to get there.

CORNISH: NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez, thanks for your reporting.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.