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Photo illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Iran's elections in June are not a factor in the Biden administration’s decision-making for how to proceed with nuclear talks, State Department Iran envoy Rob Malley told me in his first interview since taking office.

Why it matters: Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Mohammad Javad Zarif, who pushed for the 2015 nuclear deal and supported engagement with the U.S., are not running in June's elections and will finish their terms in August. The next Iranian president is likely to be more skeptical of nuclear diplomacy with the U.S.

  • "We don’t intend to base the pace of our discussions on the Iranian elections — the pace will be determined by how far we can get consistent with defending U.S. national security interests," Malley said.
  • "In other words, we won’t rush or slow things because of the Iranian elections."

Driving the news: Malley said the U.S. has made clear to Iran it is ready to engage in a serious diplomatic process to achieve a mutual return to compliance with the nuclear deal. 

  • “Our view is that direct talks are more effective and less prone to misunderstanding, but for us, the substance is more important than the format," Malley said.

The big picture: The Biden administration will be ready to consider some sanctions relief for Iran only after talks between the parties resume and only as part of a reciprocal process, senior State Department officials tell me.

  • “Possible U.S. steps with regard to sanctions can be on the table but we need to get into a conversation with Iran, whether direct or indirect," a senior State Department official said.
  • "The president will not take unilateral steps when it comes to removing sanctions. Any substantial move by the U.S. will have to be part of a process in which both sides take actions."

The other side: So far, U.S. efforts to re-engage with Iran have met with a cool response from Iranian leaders.

  • The Iranians are demanding that the U.S. make the first move, but President Biden isn't prepared to meet their demands for unilateral sanctions relief before Iran returns to full compliance with the nuclear deal.
  • Flashback: The Trump administration made several requests to meet with their Iranian counterparts, but Iran made clear it would not meet until the U.S. provided some sanctions relief.
  • “That remains their position” under Biden, a senior State Department official told me.

Behind the scenes: The Biden administration wasn't surprised by Iran's tough position, the senior official says.

  • The official added that the Iranians were surprised and disappointed that Biden hadn't moved more quickly to lift sanctions and re-enter the deal.
  • Nevertheless, Biden's position remains the same: The U.S. is prepared to resume full compliance with the deal if Iran does, “and we are ready to engage in meaningful diplomacy to get there,” the official said.

What’s next: Once talks with Iran resume, State Department officials believe one of the sticking points will be the sides' different interpretations of what it means to get back to full compliance.

  • “Those will have to be negotiated. That’s why we expect there could be difficult talks, even as we both agree on the goal, and even as we agree on a road map to get there,” the State Department official told me.

Meanwhile, the State Department's Iran team is slowly taking shape. Malley recruited nuclear weapons and sanctions expert Richard Nephew — a member of the U.S. negotiating team during the talks that led to the 2015 deal — as his deputy.

  • Another member of the team is Jarrett Blanc, who led the implementation of the deal under Barack Obama. More members are expected to be added.
  • Malley told me the internal discussions on the way forward include a range of views. “For every person I speak to who agrees with me I try to speak to another person who does not,” he said.

Go deeper

Updated 8 mins ago - Sports

U.S. swim team wins 6 Tokyo Olympics medals, including 1st gold

Chase Kalisz of Team United States celebrates after winning the Men's 400m Individual Medley Final on day two of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre in Tokyo, Japan. Photo: Al Bello/Getty Images

Swimmer Chase Kalisz has become the first Team United States Olympian to win gold at the Tokyo Games.

The big picture: The Rio 2016 silver medalist's winning time in the men's 400 meters Individual Medley Final was 4 minutes 9.42 seconds. His teammate Jay Litherland took silver, .86 seconds behind him.

Golfer Bryson DeChambeau will miss Olympics after testing positive for COVID

Bryson DeChambeau of the United States on the 18th tee during Day Two of the 149th Open at Royal St George’s Golf Club on July 16 in Sandwich, England. Photo: Andrew Redington/Getty Images

Golfer Bryson DeChambeau has tested positive for COVID-19 and will miss the Tokyo Olympic Games, USA Golf announced late Saturday.

What's happening: "Patrick Reed will replace DeChambeau and is undergoing the requisite testing protocol" Sunday and Monday before his expected departure for Japan, per a USA Golf statement.

In photos: Scenes from some of the worst fires raging in the U.S.

A home explodes into flames as the Dixie Fire rips through the Indian Falls neighborhood of unincorporated Plumas County, California, on July 24. The blaze started near the origin of the deadly 2018 Camp Fire and has churned burned over 185,000 acres. Photo: Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images

Out-of-state crews went to Montana to tackle a wildfire that wounded five firefighters as Australia sent a large air tanker to help Californian firefighting efforts, as 88 large blazes raged in the U.S. Saturday.

The big picture: Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte (R) tweeted his thanks to Utah and California for sending crews over the weekend, as the two states battle their own blazes. The Australian tanker arrived in Calif., this week, where Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) proclaimed a state of emergency for four northern counties Friday.