Biden Appoints Rob Malley as Iran Envoy, Despite Right-wing Allegations of 'anti-Israel Bias'

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Then-Secretary of State Kerry, Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz and Robert Malley wait to start a meeting with Iranian officials at the Beau Rivage Palace Hotel in Lausanne, March 29, 2015.
Then-Secretary of State Kerry, Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz and Robert Malley wait to start a meeting with Iranian officials at the Beau Rivage Palace Hotel in Lausanne, March 29, 2015.Credit: Brendan Smialowski/Reuters
Ben Samuels
Ben Samuels

WASHINGTON – U.S. President Joe Biden has appointed Robert Malley as his administration's special envoy on Iran, a senior official told Reuters on Thursday, giving the veteran diplomat a leading role in one of most daunting and politically divisive foreign policy challenges facing the new administration.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki confirmed Malley's appointment on Friday. She also reiterated the Biden administration's approach to Iran, specifically that Iran must resume compliance under the 2015 deal and that the U.S. should seek to lengthen and strengthen nuclear constrains while addressing Iran's ballistic missile program and regional activity. 

She noted that the U.S. will work with its partners and allies in moving forward, but the first step is for Iran to comply with the 2015 deal's constraints.

Malley's appointment, initially reported last week by Jewish Insider and expected to be officially announced as early as Friday, drew criticism from opponents of the Iran deal, slammed Malley's alleged anti-Israel bias while accusing him of having ties with the Iranian regime, Hamas and Syria's Bashar Assad. 

J Street, the left-wing pro-Israel political organization, lauded Malley's appointment, saying that "his distinguished career and impressive talents make him the perfect choice to take on such a vital role at a critical time."

Robert Malley in a 2004 photo.Credit: THOMAS COEX / AFP

Malley was a key member of former President Barack Obama's team that negotiated the 2015 nuclear accord and is currently heads the International Crisis Group.

He will be the Biden administration's point person as the U.S. mulls when and how to re-engage with Iran on potential re-entry into the nuclear deal, an agreement that former president Donald Trump abandoned in 2018 despite strong opposition from Washington's European allies.

The Biden administration is seeking a longer and stronger deal with Iran, though officials have stated that Iran must come back into compliance with the previous deal before any potential re-entry.

Critics of the Iran deal, including several Republican lawmakers – most notably Sen. Tom Cotton – have used Malley's nomination as a proxy fight over the administration's Iran policy.

The criticism prompted figures such as Dennis Ross, former Middle East envoy and founder of the United Against Nuclear Iran advocacy group, to defend Malley against the "simply wrong-headed" comments.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken is greeted by staff as he arrives at the State Department in Washington, January 27, 2021.Credit: Carlos Barria/Pool Photo via AP

Malley previously served as the National Security Council's coordinator on the Middle East and North Africa under the Obama administration, and advised the Clinton administration on the failed Camp David peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians in 2000.

He wrote an article following the talks placing some of the burden of their failure on former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, despite a general understanding in American politics at the time that PLO leader Yasser Arafat was primarily to blame.

Malley has long been a target of the right-wing for his alleged anti-Israel bias, and was forced to cut ties with Obama's 2008 presidential campaign after reports emerged that he had met with members of Hamas. His former colleagues in the Clinton administration strongly defended him at the time, decrying “vicious, personal attacks” that were “unfair, inappropriate and wrong.”

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken defended Malley's relationship with Israel in 2014, saying that “I can’t think of anybody outside government who has a stronger set of relationships with the Israelis, as well as with people throughout the region.”

Politico recently reported that Malley told Blinken he would want the job if he had a team that represented a broad diversity of viewpoints on how best to renegotiate the Iran nuclear deal.

"Secretary 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 State Department official told Reuters.

"The secretary is confident he and his team will be able to do that once again," the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, added.

Malley's expected appointment comes as Biden and his foreign policy aides move to craft their approach to Iran. Malley is expected to report directly to Blinken, a source familiar with the matter said.

Biden's top diplomat on Wednesday stuck to the new administration's stance that Tehran must resume complying with the Iran nuclear deal before Washington would do so.

Making his first public comments on Iran as secretary of state, Blinken reiterated Biden's policy "that if Iran comes back into full compliance with its obligations under the JCPOA, the United States would do the same thing," referring to the agreement's formal title.

But Iran's foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, said on Twitter on Thursday that the United States should make the first move by returning to the nuclear pact.

The nuclear deal was struck by Iran and six major powers and committed Iran to restricting its nuclear program in return for sanctions relief from the United States and others. Israel and Gulf Arab states strongly opposed the deal as not stringent enough on Tehran.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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