U.S. Special Envoy for Iran Placed on Unpaid Leave

Malley believes it is important to reach a new agreement with Iran, but it is unclear if any change to his position will lead to a substantial change in U.S. policy.
Robert Malley, the Biden administration's special envoy for Iran (Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP)
Robert Malley, the Biden administration's special envoy for Iran (Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP)

WASHINGTON DC, United States (Kurdistan 24) – Robert Malley, the U.S. Special Envoy for Iran under the Biden administration, who was also a key figure in securing the Iranian nuclear deal under Barack Obama, has been placed on unpaid leave, The New York Times reported on Thursday.

Malley had been on paid leave, pending a review of his security clearance, prompted by a question about how he had handled classified information. However, that changed on Thursday. “It is unclear what prompted that change,” the Times said. 

State Department Spokesperson Matthew Miller issued a statement confirming that Malley was on leave, but provided no other details, except to say that his deputy, Abram Paley, “is serving as acting Special Envoy for Iran and leading the department’s work in this area.”

Malley, a lawyer by training who clerked for the Supreme Court from 1991 until 1992, has served in every Democratic administration since Bill Clinton, when in 1994, he became Director for Democracy, Human Rights, and Humanitarian Affairs on the National Security Council (NSC) staff. 

Subsequently, he became the NSC’s Director for Near East and South Asian Affairs, as well as Clinton’s Special Assistant for Arab-Israeli Affairs, despite having little evident experience in the region.

To be sure, Malley is not the first senior U.S. official in that situation. One expects the NSC’s Director for Russian Affairs to be well-versed in the history, politics, and culture of Russia. The same applies to China. But when it comes to the Middle East, it is not uncommon for senior figures to have little real knowledge of the region, beyond their experience in government, which can be rather narrow and limited.

Iran Negotiations

Malley was the lead U.S. negotiator for the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA.) 

Those negotiations were driven, in part, by Obama’s opposition to the 2003 war with Iraq that ousted Saddam Hussein and his regime.

As it prepared for war with Iraq after the 9/11 attacks, the George W. Bush administration had a poor understanding of the challenges it would face in Iraq. It was far too optimistic and did a poor job of explaining why it launched that war.

Indeed, as a senior Pentagon official subsequently told this reporter, “We should have argued why that war was necessary and not that it would be easy.”

Thus, Obama, as president, in focusing on securing a nuclear agreement with Iran, believed he was saving Americans from another, ill-advised war that some intemperate Republican president, like Bush, might launch in the future.

Malley assumed a similar role in the Biden administration, as he had under Obama. He led the talks to restore the JCPOA, from which Donald Trump had withdrawn in 2018.

Those talks were held in Vienna. Notably, Iran refused to speak directly to the U.S. So indirect talks were held, with the European Union acting as an intermediary.

However, those discussions appeared to reach a dead-end last summer—“just as officials thought they had made a breakthrough, after what Western officials called new Iranian demands that seemed designed to sabotage the process,” the Times reported.

Those demands included “a guarantee that a future U.S. president would not again renege on a nuclear deal,” as Trump had done, it said.

Such a binding commitment could only be made, if the U.S. and Iran concluded a treaty. However, a treaty requires approval by two-thirds of the U.S. Senate. Yet Congress has a dim view of the talks with Iran, and it would have been impossible to secure Senate approval.

At the same time, in the early fall of 2022, widespread unrest erupted in Iran, following the death, in the custody of Tehran’s so-called “morality police,” of the young Kurdish woman Zhina (Mahsa) Amini. Iranian forces were harsh in suppressing the unrest.

Finally, Russia’s unprovoked assault on Ukraine continued, and Tehran grew ever-closer to Moscow. 

All those factors caused Washington to end the JCPOA talks.

Read More: US: Deepening Iran-Russia alliance is ‘profound threat,’ as JCPOA proves elusive

Yet the Iranians are outstanding negotiators. “Bazaar”—the Middle East market, where prices are negotiated—is a Persian word.

It was not long before the Biden administration was, again, talking to the Iranians! The new set of talks were held in relative secrecy. Few people knew about them.

Malley “maintained a direct channel of communications to Iran through its ambassador to the United Nations,” The Washington Post reported.

In addition, the administration developed a second channel to Iran, through Oman, and Brett McGurk, NSC Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, led the talks in Oman, the Post said.

Malley believes that it is important to reach a new agreement with Iran, but it is unclear if any change to his position would lead to any significant change in U.S. policy.

Behnam Ben Taleblu, a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, thinks not. 

“With or without Malley at the helm, Biden’s Iran policy sadly reads as the same: another hope and wish that cash will moderate the clerics and sway them to not weaponize on his watch,” Ben Taleblu told Kurdistan 24.

“For Tehran the incentive to take advantage of any speed-bump, political or otherwise, is high,” he added. 

Ben Taleblu also noted the incongruity between loosening restrictions on Iran at the same time that Iran is supporting Russia in its assault on Ukraine—which has raised tensions between the U.S. and its European allies, on the one hand, and Moscow, on the other, to heights not seen since the worst days of the Cold War.

Ben Taleblu noted “Iran’s deepening ties with Moscow,” which he said, “were on full display, as the regime in Tehran backed Vladimir Putin amid the recent Wagner Group upheaval and then followed its rhetorical support with a visit to Moscow by its chief of police and an invitation for the Russian Defense Minister to come to Tehran.”

“That this has not been sufficient to sway the U.S. to change course toward Iran is particularly alarming,” he concluded.