Biden Taps Obama Administration Diplomat as New Iran Envoy

Robert Malley, who has faced sharp criticisms from Republican lawmakers, will be tasked with trying to get Iran back to the negotiating table on its nuclear program.

By Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and Jack Detsch, Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
Rob Malley, former U.S. negotiator during the Iran nuclear program negotiations and current president and CEO of the International Crisis Group
Rob Malley, former U.S. negotiator during the Iran nuclear program negotiations and current president and CEO of the International Crisis Group, poses in his office in Washington on May 7, 2018. Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

President Joe Biden has tapped Robert Malley to be his special envoy for Iran, signaling his goal to return to nuclear negotiations with Tehran even as the longtime U.S. rival expands its enrichment of uranium in violation of the Obama-era nuclear deal and comes closer to being able to build a nuclear weapon.  

Malley, the current head of the International Crisis Group, a think tank, played a leading role in negotiating the 2015 Iran nuclear deal backed by European powers, Russia, and China, and was present at the outset of talks with Iranians in Oman that eventually led to the deal. His appointment drew fierce pushback and criticism from Republican lawmakers who are critical of Biden’s plan to reopen negotiations with Iran and Malley’s role in crafting the 2015 nuclear deal. 

Malley now has the difficult task of convincing Iran to return to the negotiating table as the 2015 nuclear deal hangs by a thread. After former President Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the deal in 2018, Europeans tried to prop up the agreement with Iran, but their efforts were overshadowed by the U.S. president’s so-called maximum pressure strategy of isolating Tehran diplomatically and economically with crushing sanctions. The role of Iran special envoy does not require Senate confirmation. 

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, a State Department spokesman told Foreign Policy. The Secretary is confident he and his team will be able to do that once again.

But several U.S. and European officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that it’s unclear whether Biden and his diplomatic team can convince Iran to return to the limits on uranium enrichment imposed by the 2015 nuclear deal. Iran in early January resumed enriching uranium to 20 percent, drastically shortening the amount of so-called breakout time it would take to produce weapons-grade uranium. Some experts saw the move as an opening salvo directed at the Biden administration to gain leverage ahead of new negotiations. Iran on Friday said that it would not return to compliance with the limits on uranium enrichment until U.S. sanctions are lifted, setting the stage for a diplomatic standoff.

Speaking to reporters on Friday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Iran would have to begin to comply with the nuclear deal again before Biden would be able to contact Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, but she did not provide a timeline for fresh negotiations. 

Blinken told reporters on Wednesday that Trump-era sanctions on Iran will remain in place until the new administration sees whether Tehran will come back into compliance with the 2015 deal. “We are a long ways from that point. Iran is out of compliance on a number of fronts,” he said. “And it would take some time, should it make the decision to do so, for it to come back into compliance in time for us then to assess whether it was meeting its obligations.”

While the Biden administration has brought many top officials involved in the talks with Iran back to top national security roles, such as Blinken, Malley, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, and Deputy Secretary of State-designate Wendy Sherman, the United States would be facing a different cast of characters on the other side of the negotiating table. Iran is set to elect a new president in June, as Rouhani, who was in power when the nuclear deal was first signed, is term-limited after eight years in office, and he could be replaced by a more hard-line voice. 

Writing for Foreign Policy last month, Malley criticized the Trump administration’s policy that included exiting the Iran nuclear deal and imposing widespread sanctions that “devastated Iran’s economy but achieved little else,” and instead allowed the nuclear program to grow. 

“The U.S. and Iranian governments will need to agree on a sequencing of steps between sanctions relief and nuclear restraints and also on which sanctions should be lifted,” Malley wrote, adding that the June election could give the United States a short negotiating window. “But if they return to the JCPOA, the larger challenge will be to address the regional tensions and polarization that, left to fester, will continue to jeopardize the deal and could trigger conflict. European governments are exploring the possibility of prompting Iran and Gulf Arab states to engage in a dialogue to reduce regional tensions and prevent an inadvertent outbreak of war; the Biden administration could put its full diplomatic weight behind such an effort.”

But while the move to bring on Malley, who served as an advisor to Sen. Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign ahead of the 2020 election, is likely to delight progressives who pushed for his appointment, the former Obama administration official became a magnet for attacks from conservative lawmakers and media outlets over concerns that he was too soft on Iran and too hard on Israel. 

“Malley has a long track record of sympathy for the Iranian regime & animus towards Israel,” Sen. Tom Cotton, who was a close ally of Trump and supported the last administration’s maximum pressure campaign against Iran, tweeted last week after Malley was criticized in a Bloomberg editorial. “The ayatollahs wouldn’t believe their luck if he is selected.”

“Appointing radicals like Malley gives the lie to all of President Biden and Tony Blinken’s rhetoric of unity,” Cotton added

Some veteran diplomats have pushed back. “I have [seen comments] about Rob Malley that are simply wrong-headed,” Dennis Ross, a former diplomat who worked on Middle East peace issues under multiple administrations, tweeted in response to some of the criticisms. “He is serious,  thoughtful and knows what is important.”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch