Robert Malley, U.S. special envoy for Iran. | Florian Schroetter/AP Photo

With help from Daniel Lippman

Welcome to National Security Daily, POLITICOs newsletter on the global events roiling Washington and keeping the administration up at night. Im Alex Ward, your guide to whats happening inside the Pentagon, the NSC and D.C.s foreign policy machine. National Security Daily arrives in your inbox Monday through Friday by 4 p.m.; subscribe here.

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ROBERT MALLEY, the man President JOE BIDEN has tasked with putting the United States back into the Iran nuclear deal, isnt supremely confident hell succeed in his mission.

Its just one big question mark, he told NatSec Daily during an exclusive interview in his State Department office. Rejoining the multinational accord is not something that we can fully control, he said, citing a lack of engagement from the Iranians.

Negotiations between the United States, Iran and five world powers have proceeded fruitlessly since April. Tehrans side wont even speak directly with Washingtons and instead prefers working through intermediaries while in Vienna. That dance was complicated by the arrival of new Iranian President EBRAHIM RAISI, a hardliner who experts suspect is more skeptical of the diplomatic effort than his pact-signing predecessor. No open bargaining has taken place since Raisi came to power in mid-July.

Moments after pointing to a portrait of former Secretary of State MIKE POMPEO unceremoniously stashed at the bottom of his closet (a joke apparently played by staff), Malley repeatedly refused to assign a percentage chance to Americas reentry into the deal. I wouldnt be helping you much if I gave you a percentage, he insisted, saying the unknown variables are about what the Iranians will and wont do. But, he added, we are prepared to resume the talks, which we wouldnt do if we didnt think [a deal] was possible.

Should the United States and Iran fail to agree on terms in the coming months, the envoy says his team is preparing some contingencies. One is that Washington and Tehran sign a wholly separate deal, complete with different parameters than the current accord. Another is a suite of punitive responses in coordination with European allies, though Malley didnt specifically detail what those would be.

Malley does say that, in his mind, its only logical that a return to the deal is in the cards, since both the United States and Iran even under Raisi have said thats what they want. The delay, he claimed, is due to mistrust sowed during the Trump administrations maximum pressure campaign and the political transition in Iran.

But there is absolute justification to have a question mark, because if you havent reached [a deal] yet, the talks drag on. If Irans nuclear advances progress, and Iran continues to take provocative nuclear steps, not even mentioning their regional provocations that pulls in the other direction meaning away from an agreement, Malley told NatSec Daily.

It at least makes us very aware of the fact that it is certainly not a done deal, that its a legitimate question whether we will be able to come back, and that we have to be prepared for a world in which Irans intentions are not to go back into the [pact], at least not in a realistic way, he said.

The Inbox

OK, now back to your regularly scheduled Afghanistan programming.

EVACUATION FLIGHTS NOT GUARANTEED TO BE FREE: Even though U.S. officials tell NatSec Daily and others that evacuation flights from Kabul will be free, people trying to catch a plane in the Afghan capital say differently. One person said State Department staff were seeking large payments up to $2,000 from American passengers and even more from non-U.S. citizens.

When we relayed what this person told us to the State Department, a spokesperson didnt deny that this is happening.

U.S. law requires that evacuation assistance to private U.S. citizens or third country nationals be provided on a reimbursable basis to the maximum extent practicable. The situation is extremely fluid, and we are working to overcome obstacles as they arise, the spokesperson said.

In other words, the Biden administration may request payments for evacuation flights.

JOE AND GEORGE ON THE WITHDRAWAL: If you havent watched or read Bidens interview with ABC News GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS from last night and this morning, then here are the highlights.

Biden would have withdrawn from Afghanistan without the Trump-Taliban deal.

Stephanopoulos: So would you have withdrawn troops like this even if President Trump had not made that deal with the Taliban?

Biden: I wouldve tried to figure out how to withdraw those troops, yes. Because look, George, there is no good time to leave Afghanistan. Fifteen years ago wouldve been a problem. Fifteen years from now. The basic choice is, am I going to send your sons and your daughters to war in Afghanistan in perpetuity?

Biden says U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan until all Americans are out.

Biden: Were going to do everything in our power to get all Americans out and our allies out.

Stephanopoulos: Does that mean troops will stay beyond Aug. 31 if necessary?

Biden: It depends on where we are and whether we can get ramp these numbers up to 5,000 to 7,000 a day coming out. If thats the case, theyll all be out.

Stephanopoulos: Because weve got, like, 10,000 to 15,000 Americans in the country right now, right? And are you committed to making sure that the troops stay until every American who wants to be out

Biden: Yes.

Stephanopoulos: is out?

Biden: Yes.

Biden says some military aides didn’t advise him to keep troops in Afghanistan.

Stephanopoulos: But your top military advisers warned against withdrawing on this timeline. They wanted you to keep about 2,500 troops.

Biden: No, they didnt. It was split. That wasnt true. That wasnt true.

Stephanopoulos: They didnt tell you that they wanted troops to stay?

Biden: No. Not in terms of whether we were going to get out, in a timeframe, all troops. They didnt argue against that.

Stephanopoulos: So no one told your military advisers did not tell you, No, we should just keep 2,500 troops. Its been a stable situation for the last several years. We can do that. We can continue to do that.

Biden: No. No one said that to me, that I can recall.

AMERICANS NOT IN KABUL CURRENTLY S.O.L.: When Biden and administration officials say U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan until all Americans are evacuated, what they really mean is, as of this moment, they will stay until all Americans in Kabul are evacuated.

Multiple officials NatSec Daily spoke to are enraged theres no effort right now to rescue Americans who cant make it to the capital for an evacuation flight. An alert sent yesterday by the U.S. Embassy in Kabul stated emphatically: THE UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT CANNOT ENSURE SAFE PASSAGE TO THE HAMID KARZAI INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT.

There are multiple reports of Americans and Afghans struggling to get past the Taliban and beyond the barbed wire surrounding militants checkpoints. Some even detail attacks by the Taliban on people trying to get in.

The administrations defenders point to a tweet by national security adviserJAKE SULLIVAN, in which he states that getting all Americans out of Afghanistan is exactly what well do. But so far, no one can or will detail such a plan, including other top administration officials.

The forces that we have are focused on the security of the airfield, Defense Secretary LLOYD AUSTIN said during a Wednesday news briefing. I dont have the capability to go out and extend operations currently into Kabul. And where do you take that? I mean, how far can you extend into Kabul, you know? And how long does it take to flow those forces in to be able to do that? However, Gen. MARK MILLEY, the Joint Chiefs chair, did say immediately after that therell be another time when we can discuss future operations.

In the meantime, Maj. Gen. WILLIAM TAYLOR announced Thursday that U.S. warplanes are flying over Kabul to ensure the security of those rushing to the airport. The F-18 jets are flying continuously in support of the U.S. efforts to evacuate Americans and allies from Afghanistan, he said.

ITS THURSDAY: Thanks for tuning in to POLITICOs newsletter on the national security politics roiling Washington. NatSec Daily is for the top U.S. and foreign officials, the lawmakers, the lobbyists, the experts and the people like you who care about how the natsec sausage gets made. Please share this subscription link with a colleague or friend. Follow the whole team here: @alexbward, @QuintForgey, @nahaltoosi, @woodruffbets, @politicoryan, @PhelimKine, @BryanDBender, @laraseligman, @connorobrienNH, @paulmccleary, @leehudson, @AndrewDesiderio and @JonnyCustodio.

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Blowing Up

RAAB-ID REACTION OVER MISSED AFGHANISTAN CALL: Calls for U.K. Foreign Minister DOMINIC RAAB to resign intensified after he had his deputy take a call from Afghanistans top diplomat while the Taliban advanced. Instead of discussing how to evacuate Afghan translators who assisted NATO troops during the war, Raab opted to continue his vacation in Crete.

Raab says he wont step down, and U.K. Defense Minister BEN WALLACE is backing up his colleague. Last Friday, the Afghan government was melting away quicker than ice. And a phone call to an Afghan minister at that moment in time would have not made a difference, Wallace told BBC Radio. You can speculate whether the phone call should or shouldnt have been made, but it wouldnt have made a blind bit of difference.

Keystrokes

SOCIAL MEDIA STRUGGLES TO REGULATE TALIBAN: As the militant group cements control in Afghanistan, enforcement against Taliban-based content and accounts remains inconsistent across major social media platforms, and tech companies are grappling with how to handle the spread of such dangerous information online, per our own ALEXANDRA S. LEVINE.

For example, the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism an industry group launched by Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Microsoft to prevent terrorists and violent extremists from exploiting digital platforms has not announced a position on whether to let the Taliban take over the Afghan governments official social media handles or verify the accounts of its leaders, and how to address the regimes communications on encrypted platforms like WhatsApp.

Meanwhile, human rights experts and digital activists warn that inconsistent applications of content rules could make matters worse including by inadvertently blocking posts from other users that reveal human rights atrocities.

Further complicating the situation, the Taliban are entrenched on social media, and despite the groups propensity for propaganda, some of its recent public messaging has included calls for calm and pledges to respect womens rights.

The Complex

NORTHCOM CHIEF CALLS RUSSIA TOP THREAT TO HOMELAND: Air Force Gen. GLEN D. VANHERCK, commander of U.S. Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command, considers Russia to be the greatest military threat to the United States, per USNI News JOHN GRADY.

Theyve developed capabilities that didnt exist 20 years ago very low radar cross-section cruise missiles [and] submarines on par with our submarines, VanHerck said at a Center for Strategic and International Studies online forum. He also warned that Moscows advanced cruise missiles are capable of striking the American homeland even when launched from inside Russia.

On the Hill

REPUBLICANS SPLIT ON AFGHAN REFUGEES: Congressional Republicans plus GOP candidates and commentators are split over whether to welcome to the United States thousands of Afghan nationals who aided the two-decade American war effort, per our own MARC CAPUTO.

Signs of the intra-party schism first emerged last month, when a small group of House Republicans railed against a measure to expand special visas for Afghan interpreters and other U.S. allies.

Former President DONALD TRUMP has released seemingly contradictory statements on the matter, as some of his former administration officials including STEPHEN MILLER and KEN CUCCINELLI have made comments seemingly arguing against the admittance of more refugees.

Rep. MICHAEL WALTZ (R-Fla.) summarized the debate this way: When were talking merit-based immigration, I cant think of anybody who has deserved it more than those who stand and fight with us and were willing to take a bullet. They absolutely agree. Its just, what kind of backstop is there on the back end when we start talking parole, refugees, asylum, family members? And thats where they really have pause.

DEMS DEMAND BLINKEN PUSH FOR GAZA AID: Reps. MARK POCAN (D-Wis.) and DEBBIE DINGELL (D-Mich.) and more than 50 of their colleagues sent a letter to Secretary of State ANTONY BLINKEN on Wednesday, urging him to press Israel and Egypt so millions in humanitarian aid can flow into Gaza.

The ongoing humanitarian crisis in Gaza is untenable, they wrote. Ensuring that Palestinians residing in Gaza receive humanitarian aid is vital to securing the wellbeing of Gazas 2.1 million residents.

Israel and Egypt have enforced a blockade on the Strip since 2007 after the terrorist group Hamas took control of it.

Broadsides

SASSE SAYS TO SEND TROOPS OUT OF KABUL TO RESCUE AMERICANS: As weve already detailed, the administrations current plan is to evacuate all Americans in Kabul, not those who are stuck somewhere else in Afghanistan. That strategy is insufficient for Sen. BEN SASSE (R-Neb.), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Give American troops the power to push back the airport perimeter and create safe, American-controlled corridors to the airport. We cannot wait for Americans to find their own way. Go get them. Its the duty of the commander-in-chief, he said in a statement Thursday.

NatSec Daily reached out to JAMES WEGMANN, Sasses spokesperson, to see if the senator would support sending U.S. troops outside of Kabul to rescue American citizens in other Afghan cities. We received a one-word response: Absolutely.

Transitions

FIRST IN NATSEC DAILY SECNAVY STAFFS UP:DEBORAH LOOMIS is now senior adviser for climate change to Navy Secretary CARLOS DEL TORO. She most recently was assistant environmental counsel at Naval Sea Systems Command at the U.S. Navy.

IVORY TOWERS:MARK MOYAR is now the William P. Harris chair of military history at Hillsdale College. He is the former director of the office of civilian-military cooperation at USAID in the Trump administration.

Be a Policy Pro. POLITICO Pro has a free policy resource center filled with our best practices on building relationships with state and federal representatives, demonstrating ROI, and influencing policy through digital storytelling. Read our free guides today.

What to Read

National Review:Why Did the United States Abandon Bagram Airfield?

Newsweek:After Afghan Withdrawal Debacle, Bidens Counterterrorism Plan Draws Fire

NPR:One Of These Men Is Likely To Be Afghanistan’s Next Ruler

TOMORROW TODAY

The Peterson Institute for International Economics, 9 a.m.:Switzerland’s future as an international financial center

Have a natsec-centric event coming up? Transitioning to a new defense-adjacent or foreign policy-focused gig? Shoot us an email at [email protected] or [email protected] to be featured in the next edition of the newsletter.