By Azin Sahabi

Robert Malley: More demanding for Tehran to deal with

January 30, 2021 - 10:17

TEHRAN- U.S. President Joe Biden’s decision to appoint Robert Malley as special envoy for Iran was reported on January 28 by The New York Times, citing two senior State Department officials. A senior State Department official confirming earlier reports, reassured the Associated Press of the appointment, too

U.S. President Joe Biden’s decision to appoint Robert Malley as special envoy for Iran was reported on January 28 by The New York Times, citing two senior State Department officials. A senior State Department official confirming earlier reports reassured the Associated Press of the appointment, too

As the State Department official clarified, it seems that Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s key picks for decision making on Iran are old-handed experts with diverse point of views. In fact, Malley, as the leading figure in this regard, has notable records not only on Iran but also the broader West Asia, including Arab-Israeli conflict. The official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, referring to Blinken, said:

 “Secretary Blinken is building a dedicated team, leading that team as our Special Envoy for Iran will be Rob Malley, who brings to the position a track record of success negotiating constraints on Iran’s nuclear program."

He adds: “The secretary is confident he and his team will be able to do that once again."

Malley is a veteran West Asia expert

Biden pick for this demanding position in the Department of State has been president and CEO of the International Crisis Group since 2018. The Washington-based think tank writes vastly on various issues regarding Iran’s domestic and international affairs in English, Persian, and Arabic.

In addition, Malley has held numerous senior positions in the Democratic administrations of Obama and former President Bill Clinton. His area of expertise are West Asia and the Persian Gulf policymaking. He advised Biden's team during the 2020 campaign on the above issues. Moreover,  Malley, the son of an Egyptian-born Syrian Jew journalist, was an informal adviser to Obama’s 2008 campaign but resigned after it emerged he had met representatives of the Palestinian group Hamas while working for the International Crisis Group. Malley was later brought into the Obama administration as a top West Asia adviser.

Malley as a top national security official in the Obama administration played an effective role in brokering the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China) Germany and the European Union. 

Also, under the Clinton and Obama administrations, Malley helped organize the 2000 Camp David summit as a special assistant to Bill Clinton.

Malley’s pros and cons

Despite his rich record in West Asia affairs, when Malley's name first grabbed the headlines as a leading candidate succeeding Elliott Abrams, the former neoconservative Trump’s envoy for Iran, some GOP figures and pro-Israel groups criticized the choice. They expressed concern that he would be soft on Iran and tough on Israel vis-à-vis a number of foreign policy veterans praising him as a respected, even-handed diplomat.

Given Biden's interest to re-enter JCPOA, some U.S. and foreign Iran hawks, opposing the approach, have been vocal in criticizing Malley.

For example, on Jan. 21, Eli Lake, a conservative journalist blamed Malley in Bloomberg News for ignoring “Iran's human rights abuses and regional terror."

Also, Tom Cotton, a Republican Senator from Arkansas retweeted Lake's piece and said: "Malley has a long track record of sympathy for the Iranian regime & animus towards Israel.”

Along this, Joel Pollak, a conservative political commentator and current senior-editor-at-large for Breitbart News is opposing Malley, too.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Yaakov Amidror, a former Israeli major general and Israeli national security advisor have expressed opposition to Malley's appointment. Amidror has stated that if the U.S. re-enters the JCPOA, Israel may take military action against Iran.

On the other hand, more than 200 groups and foreign policy experts have defended Biden’s reported front-runner for special envoy to Iran. They signed an open seven pages letter published on January 28 of in which some self-proclaimed pro-democracy U.S. think tanks and groups such as Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED),  the Quincy Institute, the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), and J Street have described Malley as having the diplomatic chops needed for “fixing our broken policy towards Iran.”

The above organizations supportive of  Malley while stressing Biden’s rejoining to the JCPOA, argue that since Trump left the nuclear deal, "Iran's civil society is weaker and more isolated, making it harder for them to advocate for change."

A brief content analysis of the letter reveals the authors’ overt hostility towards the Islamic Republic of Iran. Like their counterparts, they accuse Iran of human rights abuse, praising Malley as an effective figure shaping the JCPOA which  “significantly curbed Iran’s nuclear program.”

With regard to praise of Malley apart from overt admiration of Trump’s policy towards Tehran expressed by Biden’s team can signal the hypothesis that the likely approach of the new envoy can be a modified copy of his predecessors, Brian Hook and Elliott Abrams. But maybe his strategy will be killing with a cushion.  

Biden’s likely architect of JCPOA 2: A demanding challenge

Blinken, who is known to be more interventionist than his last boss, President Obama, expressed harsh remarks on Iran during his confirmation hearings. While Malley had been a critique of Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA as well as his maximum pressure campaign against Iran, he firmly believes in military essence of Iran’s nuclear program. While condemning Trump's approach towards Tehran, he denounced the JCPOA and explained that throughout Trump's presidency "Iran's nuclear program grew, increasingly unconstrained by the JCPOA. Tehran has more accurate ballistic missiles than ever before and more of them. The regional picture grew more, not less, fraught." 

Therefore, it is expected that the leading figure of Blinken’s team will be one of the primary architects of a possible JCPOA 2. Also, this is worth considering that perhaps dealing with Malley will be more challenging for Tehran because the Oval Office under Biden seems determined to shape a deal to reach broader goals such as curbing Iran’s missile program besides letting Arab regional actors participate in the negotiation process. 

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