The Biden administration has tapped Robert Malley, a progressive foreign policy expert who served on the Obama administration’s negotiating team for the Iran nuclear deal, as its new top envoy for Iran.
In a harbinger of the fight the administration is likely to face over Iran, Malley’s appointment was preceded by attacks from conservative lawmakers and Iran hawks. A contingent of progressive think tankers and NGO officials and government alumni released a statement in support of Malley in response to the criticism.
State Department spokesperson Ned Price said that on Iran, Secretary of State Antony Blinken “is building a dedicated team, drawing from clear-eyed experts with a diversity of views.”
“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. The Secretary is confident he and his team will be able to do that once again,” Price said.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki also confirmed Malley’s appointment during a White House briefing Friday.
Malley will face the challenges of confronting a Tehran that increasingly breached its commitments under the landmark 2015 nuclear deal during the four years of the Trump administration. The prior administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign saw it abandon the nuclear deal and pursue a policy of sanctions aimed at crushing the regime.
Although President Joe Biden pledged during the campaign to rejoin the deal, Blinken and other officials have indicated that the United States is “a long ways” from potentially building out an agreement with Tehran.
Biden administration officials, including Blinken, have said Iran must first come back into “full compliance” with the deal before the US does the same. Iranian officials have indicated that this is a non-starter. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif called for the US to “unconditionally (remove), with full effect, all sanctions imposed, reimposed, or relabeled since Trump took office.”
However, national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Friday that “a critical early priority has to be to deal with what is an escalating nuclear crisis as they move closer and closer to having enough fissile material for a weapon, and we would like to make sure that we reestablish some of the parameters and constraints around the program that have fallen away over the course of the past few years.”
“Our view is that if we can get back to diplomacy that can put Iran’s nuclear program in a box, that will create a platform upon which to build a global effort, including partners and allies in the region and in Europe and elsewhere, to take on the other significant threats Iran poses, including on the ballistic missile issue,” Sullivan said at a US Institute for Peace event.
Malley will also have to navigate the strongly held and highly polarized views on the deal in the United States and on the global stage. Prior to the announcement of his appointment, some conservatives had already expressed concern and accused Malley, who served in the Obama and Clinton administrations, of being too soft on Iran.
A statement in support of Malley released Thursday pushed back on those accusations, saying, “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.”
His appointment has been welcomed by the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.
“Rob is a great pick, and it’s an encouraging sign of how the Washington foreign policy consensus has shifted in a pro-diplomacy direction. Rob has played a big role in helping shift it,” said Matt Duss, the foreign policy advisor to Bernie Sanders. Malley was an adviser to Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign.
Malley comes to the State Department from the International Crisis Group, a conflict prevention organization. He and Blinken have a long relationship. Not only did they work together during the Obama administration, they also were high school classmates in France.