Does Iran envoy in Biden administration open a window for diplomacy?

February 14, 2021 - 17:35

TEHRAN - Robert Malley, the son of a leftist, Jewish, Egyptian-born journalist, is appointed as Iran envoy in Biden’s administration. He is the focal point for President Biden’s diplomacy towards West Asia, and the Iran nuclear deal, according to the New York Times.

Robert Malley spent years as a staff aide in the Clinton and Obama administrations, where he was widely admired as a learned student of West Asia.

President Biden forged his foreign policy team with remarkably little trouble. He picked the heads of State and Defense Departments, and filled senior intelligence posts, without much controversy and almost no Republican opposition.

But a political crossfire raised when the Biden administration announced the appointment of Robert Malley as Iran envoy. The choice of Malley, a longtime diplomat and conflict mediator, immediately provoked an intense Washington debate about the 2015 Iran nuclear deal which the U.S. withdrew from it during Trump’s administration. It also inflamed the sensitive politics of Israel and, for good measure, served as a test case for the influence of progressives in Biden’s new foreign policy team.

As Benjamin J. Rhodes, a former deputy national security adviser to President Barack Obama joked, “Rob is a proxy for everything.”

Although he has been accused of holding dangerous views about West Asia, Malley may seem an unlikely source of controversy. Malley, the son of a Jewish Arab leftist, is a well-known advocate for engaging with groups and governments — including, over the years, Hamas, Hezbollah and President Bashar al-Assad of Syria — widely considered enemies of the United States and Israel. He is widely criticized on the ground that he is very skeptical of American power and overly sympathetic to foreign actors including Iran and the Palestinians. 

The critics claim Malley is seeking for a new deal with Tehran that will concede too much to Iran in the name of reconciliation. When his appointment first announced in the news media, Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, condemned “radicals like Malley” who, he said, holds “a long track record of sympathy for the Iranian regime” and “animus towards Israel.”

Mark Dubowitz, the chief executive of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and another opponent of negotiating with Iran, expressed his concern in more soft terms. “The appointment of Rob Malley may be a clear indication that the Biden administration is prioritizing a return to the JCPOA over a policy of deploying American power to get a more compressive and permanent agreement,” he noted. “Malley is not a believer in American power,” he added.

Defenders of Malley, whose position does not require Senate confirmation, say that he has become a convenient target for the Israeli lobbies intended to warn the Biden administration against working with Tehran on another nuclear deal like the 2015 accord that became one of the most bitter foreign policy battles of the Obama years.

Aaron David Miller, a West Asia peace negotiator in several U.S. administrations, who worked with Malley, said, “Most of the judging of Rob comes from people who do not know him and who choose to believe that he has no conception of American national interests, and that it’s all about trying to find a way at any costs to reconcile with our enemies.” 

Miller said that whatever Malley’s views, he would not be making policy himself, and that critics were using him to pressure Biden and his new secretary of state, Antony J. Blinken, both politicians widely trusted in Israel’s security establishment.

Largely unspoken on the right is a suspicion that Robert Malley may have inherited too much political sensibility from his father, Simon Malley, an Egyptian-born, Jewish journalist and “an Arab nationalist of the fiercely secular, anti-Zionist sort,” as the younger Malley put it in a 2008 lecture. It was his father who “awoke in me an interest in his part of the world,” he said.

The Obama presidential campaign fired Robert Malley as a foreign policy adviser after an uproar over reports he had met with members of the Palestinian Hamas group. Malley, then working at the International Crisis Group, a conflict mediation think tank, made no apology for the contacts, saying they were vital to his work and not secret.

Malley eventually joined Obama’s administration as its top official for Middle East (West Asia) affairs, becoming the White House’s chief negotiator, alongside Secretary of State John F. Kerry, for the 2015 nuclear agreement with Tehran and several other nations that capped Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. Obama later placed Malley in charge of coordinating the U.S. campaign against the Islamic State.

After Cotton’s tweets, many Democrats rose to Malley’s defense, seeing a crucial test case against the reflexes of a foreign policy establishment they view as too hawkish. In this regard, a dozens of foreign policy professionals argued, “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.”

At a time when progressives are calling for a humbler U.S. foreign policy, they see in Malley a valuable ally. Progressive Democrats who see Malley as an ally were pleased that Biden did not back down under pressure and proceeded with the appointment. But after watching Biden assemble a mostly centrist foreign policy team, they are impatient to see more of their own win jobs.

If direct talks with Tehran should begin again, he is also likely to resume dialogue with Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, whom he knows well from negotiating the Obama-era deal.

A report on the JCPOA released last month by the International Crisis Group, shortly before Malley left for the Biden administration, recommended that the United States and Iran move quickly to revive the nuclear agreement through reciprocal steps.


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