Why all the mudslinging against Biden's new Iran envoy, Robert Malley?

Why all the mudslinging against Biden's new Iran envoy, Robert Malley?
Comment: Biden's pick signals a determination to get negotiations with Iran back on track, despite objections from vocal Iran hawks in Washington and the Middle East, writes Giorgio Cafiero.
5 min read
29 Jan, 2021
Robert Malley was one of the architects of the Iran nuclear deal [Getty]

One of the most toxic political fights that has taken place in Washington, DC since President Joe Biden's inauguration has been over Robert Malley, whom Biden announced last night will serve as Iran envoy.

With figures and special interest groups in Washington seeking to undermine the new administration's potential to restore diplomacy to US foreign policy vis-à-vis Tehran, Malley has been their number one target.

After Jewish Insider's Melissa Weiss reported on Biden's plans to pick Malley as his special envoy to Tehran, Iran hawks began throwing the kitchen sink at this former Obama administration official. Republican Senator Tom Cotton tweeted that Biden's mere consideration of Malley for his administration's Iran envoy is "deeply troubling" and that Iran's "ayatollahs wouldn't believe their luck if he is selected."

Writing for Bloomberg, Eli Lake, a vocal opponent of the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA), wrote a 
hit piece against Malley. And to stir up further opposition, the neoconservative pundit Bret Stephens falsely claimed in his New York Times column that Malley once argued "that massive [2019] public protests in Iran justified Tehran's paranoia about an Israel-Saudi-US plot". 

For those who want to see the new American leadership pursue a diplomatic path with Iran, the fact that Biden picked Malley despite all the pressure not to bodes positively for the future of US-Iran relations following the past several years of Trump's failed campaign of "maximum pressure".

Israel's government is terrified by the potential for Biden's administration to reach a new understanding with Iran

Malley, who was a Rhodes Scholar at Magdalen College, Oxford and began serving as the International Crisis Group's CEO in 2018, has an impressive resume. As a seasoned diplomat, Malley is well aware of the challenges of the Middle East and Washington. Prior to heading the International Crisis Group, he served in the National Security Council, playing critical roles for Obama's administration as a lead negotiator on the JCPOA talks and as Obama's special Islamic State group advisor.

"Nobody knows the issue, the agreement and the region better than Rob Malley," said Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who previously served as a State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator for multiple US presidents.

"He understands the JCPOA's strengths and limitations, and more important is very close to both [Secretary of State Antony] Blinken and [National Security Advisor Jake] Sullivan. It will be a tough go, dealing with Iran and the Israelis. But Malley's smart and tough enough to handle both."

Managing alliances and partnerships

There is no denying that Israel's government is terrified by the potential for Biden's administration to reach a new understanding with the Iranians. In recent weeks, various cabinet ministers in Netanyahu's government have been threatening to take military action against Iran if Washington returns to the nuclear deal.

assassination of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh on November 30 was likely part of this plan to make diplomacy with Iran impossible for Biden to pursue. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself has even voiced concerns about Malley, along with others whom Biden has selected for top positions in his administration such as Wendy Sherman, the former Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs who was a lead JCPOA negotiator. 

Those Gulf states that lobbied hard for "maximum pressure" throughout Trump's presidency are perhaps more nervous about having a bad start with the Biden administration, and as a result less vocal about their concerns. Nonetheless, Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and Manama join Israel is having vested interests in the US staying out of the JCPOA, at least in its 2015 form.

Five days before Biden's inauguration, Bahrain's ambassador to the US Abdulla Bin Rashid Al Khalifa spoke at a virtual event held by the neo-conservative Foundation for Defense of Democracies. As Ambassador Al Khalifa explained, "Bahrain has always stood with the US government's decision to withdraw from the JCPOA and apply a different approach with the Iranian regime."

The nuclear deal, according to him, disregarded GCC states and Israel's security concerns while resulting in Tehran spending more money on its "dangerous proxies in the region, its asymmetric warfare, [and] its ballistic missile programme".

expressed Bahrain's hopes that Biden's administration "will recognise that Iran's malign activities and ballistic missile capabilities are equally as troublesome to Iran's neighbours as its nuclear programme is" and that "any return to the JCPOA should take into consideration the concerns of Iran's neighbours, including the Gulf and Israel, those that have been on the forefront of Iranian aggression for 40 years now." 

As a seasoned diplomat, Malley is well aware of the challenges of the Middle East and Washington

The uncertain future of Washington's Iran policy

Malley clearly represents a huge contrast to Elliot Abrams, Trump's Iran envoy who was a staunch advocate of the "maximum pressure" agenda. Biden appointing Malley and not capitulating to pressure from the neo-conservatives in the Beltway is a sign that the new president will not allow the cheerleaders of Trump's Iran policies to undermine important aspects of Biden's foreign policy agenda that he promoted while on the campaign trail last year. 

Now Biden, Blinken, and Malley must roll up their sleeves and not miss what the Iranian regime spokesperson Ali Rabiyee called a "very limited" window for Washington to return to the nuclear deal that Malley played a lead role in negotiating. Biden's administration, which has a "long road" to travel before there is a new understanding between Washington and Tehran on the Iranian nuclear file, will benefit greatly from Malley's expertise and leadership.

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics,  a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy.

Follow him on Twitter: @GiorgioCafiero

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.