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Look away now, hawks: Biden’s pick for Iran envoy underlines change in Washington

Robert Malley served Obama and Clinton administrations and will seek to revive nuclear deal with Tehran

Borzou Daragahi
International Correspondent
Friday 29 January 2021 19:16 GMT
Robert Malley
Robert Malley (AFP via Getty Images)

Joe Biden’s administration has named a seasoned diplomatic troubleshooter as its primary envoy to Iran in a move that will alarm hawks in Washington DC but which signals renewed outreach to a nation that has been a western adversary for more than four decades.  

Robert Malley, 58, is a former Middle East official of the administrations of Presidents Obama and Clinton. For years he has also  been a leader of the Crisis Group, a conflict-resolution and mediation advocacy organisation based in Brussels and Washington.  

The US State Department formally announced on Friday that Mr Malley would helm a group of diplomats, “drawing from clear-eyed experts with a diversity of views” and answering to the secretary of state, Anthony Blinken. “Leading that team will be Rob Malley, who brings to the position a track record of success negotiating constraints on Iran’s nuclear programme,” the statement said. “The secretary is confident he and his team will be able to do that once again.”

Mr Malley will take on one of the toughest jobs in diplomacy: trying to revive the Iranian nuclear deal, which was abandoned by Donald Trump in 2018, by convincing Tehran to again roll back its atomic technology programme while also cajoling Washington to remove punishing sanctions on the Islamic Republic.  

At issue are matters of sequencing – whether Iran reduces its output or the US removes sanctions first – and worries that sunset clauses in the original nuclear deal mean that Washington should push to revise the agreement, called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).  

Mr Blinken told reporters on Wednesday that a return to the JCPOA is possible once Iran “comes back into full compliance with its obligations”, but his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, has countered that Washington must first lift sanctions.

Mr Malley must also assure US partners in the Middle East, such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, who are nervous that a revival of diplomacy between Washington and Tehran will come at their expense.  

Time is tight. Iranian elections in June could elevate a more hardline administration that may strike a harder bargain.

Mr Malley's appointment represents a foreign policy defeat for Washington neoconservatives. He has been criticised for what Iran hawks in Washington have described as sympathy for the regime in Tehran, and for his positions on Israel. He resigned from the campaign of Barack Obama – his former fellow Harvard Law School colleague – after Israel advocates denounced him for meeting with Hamas officials as part of his work with the Crisis Group.  

His opponents, who include the controversial far-right senator Tom Cotton, have been lobbying Mr Biden’s team not to hire him, launching a campaign of whispers, tweets and op-ed columns against him.  

“Malley has a long track record of sympathy for the Iranian regime [and] animus towards Israel,” Mr Cotton, who has repeatedly advocated bombing Iran, wrote on Twitter, calling Mr Malley a “radical”.

Iranian president Hassan Rouhani on ‘National Nuclear Day’ in 2018 (AP)

But his defenders have also come out in full force. More than two hundred scholars, Iran experts and former officials – as well as the actor Alyssa Milano – issued an open letter on Thursday defending Mr Malley.  

“Those who accuse Malley of sympathy for the Islamic Republic have no grasp of – or no interest in – true diplomacy, which requires a level-headed understanding of the other side’s motivations and knowledge that can only be acquired through dialogue,” the letter said.  

Mr Malley, who is regarded among diplomats, colleagues and journalists as amicable and generous with his time, has a long public record of interviews and statements, and the work of the Crisis Group, which steadfastly seeks to end armed conflicts, is publicly available. Those who have worked with him describe him as a nuanced thinker and a collaborative manager.  

“From my experience … Rob is a person who consults widely, taking in different points of view before charting a policy course that we as an institution can defend,” Joost Hiltermann, Middle East director at the Crisis Group, told The Independent. “It's an admirable quality, and an essential one in framing policy for the US government on issues as sensitive as relations with Iran.”

Mr Malley has advocated for a two-state solution in the conflict between Israel and Palestine, criticised US military interventions abroad, and spoken out for pluralism. 

Most independent scholars and diplomats say Mr Malley’s ideas put him squarely within the mainstream of the US Democratic Party as well as the Middle East policy spectrum in western Europe; like the secretary of state, Mr Blinken, he grew up in France and speaks fluent French.  

But in a mark of how far Washington has drifted to the right in recent decades, Mr Malley’s views and commitment to diplomacy are considered controversial within certain circles.  

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