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Some see Iran's assassination plots as yet another reason not to revive nuclear deal


Opponents of the Biden administration's goal to revive the nuclear deal with Iran got an unexpected, if dangerous, boost for their argument recently. The FBI said Iran had plans to assassinate former U.S. officials. And this week, a group seeking to oust the Iranian regime hosted an event including one of those officials as they made their case. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: One of the targets of the alleged assassination plot was John Bolton, who was Trump's national security adviser when the U.S. left the Obama-era nuclear deal.


JOHN BOLTON: It's delusional to believe that a regime that you're about to enter into a significant arms control agreement with can be depended on to comply with its obligations or is even serious about the negotiation when it's plotting the assassination of high-level former government officials and current government officials.

KELEMEN: Officials who may have been involved in the U.S. drone strike that killed Qasem Soleimani, a top Iranian general. Iran vowed revenge for that assassination. Bolton says Iran was also behind a plot against an Iranian-American woman in New York and likely the recent attack on author Salman Rushdie, though Iran denies that.


BOLTON: They do not fear the government of the United States. They do not think they're going to be held accountable for their actions, and they can get away with it. And if they can get away with it on the terrorist front on American soil, they can sure get away with it on the nuclear front on their own soil.

KELEMEN: Bolton was speaking at the luxurious Willard Hotel in Washington, at an event organized by the National Council of Resistance of Iran. It's a group that includes the MEK, which used to be on a U.S. terrorism blacklist and wants to overthrow the Iranian government. The panelists all argued that regime change is the best way to keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Iran watcher Karim Sadjadpour says the U.S. can't count on that.

KARIM SADJADPOUR: Regime change is an aspiration. It's not a strategy. It's not something you can hang your hat on.

KELEMEN: Sadjadpour, who's with the Carnegie Endowment, says the Obama administration had hoped that the 2015 nuclear deal would transform the region. He says the Biden administration has no such illusions but still sees this as a priority.

SADJADPOUR: Because if this Iranian regime gets its hands on a nuclear weapon, then all of the other behavior that we talk about, whether it's destabilizing regional activities or plots to assassinate their opponents, Iran will feel even more a cloak of immunity if it gets a hold of a nuclear weapon.

KELEMEN: State Department spokesperson Ned Price says that's why it's important to revive the nuclear deal known as the JCPOA.

NED PRICE: In the years in which we have not had a JCPOA, since May of 2018, Iran's nuclear program has galloped forward in a way that is deeply concerning and alarming.

KELEMEN: But even if that deal is revived, Sadjadpour says the U.S. needs a broader strategy, something like the U.S. approach to the Soviet Union.

SADJADPOUR: There was a component of that that was supporting Russian dissidents. We strengthened our allies against Russian expansionism. And I think we have to view Iran similarly.

KELEMEN: He says it can't just be one arms control deal. Former national security adviser John Bolton doesn't think there should be any deal at all.


BOLTON: We've got to stop this artificial division when dealing with the government of Iran between its nuclear activities on the one hand and its terrorist activities on the other. Maybe we're capable of that analytical abstraction, but in Iran, these are all instruments of the ayatollah's power.

KELEMEN: To revive the deal, the U.S. would have to lift sanctions. Proponents say that's worth it to put Iran's nuclear program back in a box. Critics like Bolton argue that more money will just lead to more bad behavior.

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

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.