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Ex-Obama aide Malley named as top US Iran envoy

Robert Malley (International Peace Institute/WikiCommons)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Veteran diplomat Robert Malley will serve as the U.S. special envoy for Iran, White House press secretary Jen Psaki confirmed on January 29.

U.S. officials had said on January 28 that Secretary of State Antony Blinken will name Malley, a top national-security aide to former President Barack Obama, as the administration’s point person on Iran.

Malley was a key member of Obama’s team that negotiated a landmark nuclear deal between Iran and world powers, an agreement that Trump abandoned in 2018, arguing that the 2015 accord did not go far enough.

The Trump administration also imposed crippling sanctions on Iran as part a “maximum pressure” campaign aimed at forcing Tehran to negotiate a new agreement that would also address the country’s missile programs and its support for regional proxies.

In response, Iran has gradually breached parts of the pact, saying it is no longer bound by it, despite international calls for Tehran to return to full compliance.

State Department spokesman Ned Price said Malley is building “a dedicated team” of “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.

Earlier this week, Blinken said the Biden administration was willing to return to commitments under nuclear agreement if Iran returned to “full compliance.”

“Then we would use that as a platform to build, with our allies and partners, what we call a longer and stronger agreement and to deal with a number of other issues that are deeply problematic in the relationship with Iran,” Blinken said on January 27, adding, “But we are a long ways from that point.”

Jake Sullivan, the White House national-security adviser, on January 29 told a Washington-based think tank it was a critical early priority for President Biden to deal with what he called an escalating nuclear crisis with Iran as Tehran gets closer to having enough fissile material for an atomic bomb.

“From our perspective, a critical early priority has to be to deal with what is an escalating nuclear crisis as [Iran] moves closer and closer to having enough fissile material for a weapon,” Sullivan told an online program sponsored by the U.S. Institute of Peace.

Iranian officials insist that the United States should make the first move by returning to the nuclear pact, which eased international sanctions in exchange for curbs on Iran’s disputed nuclear program.

They also say the country’s missile program and regional policies are off the table.

Speaking at a news conference during a visit to Istanbul, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said the demand that Tehran reverse an acceleration of its nuclear program before Washington lifts sanctions “is not practical and will not happen.”

Iran denies pursuing atomic weapons, saying its nuclear program is for civilian purposes.

After Malley’s name first surfaced in news reports as a leading candidate for the post, a number of foreign-policy veterans praised him as a respected, even-handed diplomat.

However, he has also drawn criticism from Iran hawks and pro-Israel groups that expressed concern that he would be soft on mainly Shi’ite Muslim Iran and may be willing to sacrifice the security of Israel and Sunni-ruled Arab states in the Persian Gulf to do so.

Malley who served as the president and CEO of the International Crisis Group, a nonprofit organization focused on global conflict, announced on January 29 that he is stepping down to be the new special envoy.

He has held numerous senior positions in the Democratic administrations of Obama, in which Biden served as vice president, and Bill Clinton with a focus on Middle East and Persian Gulf policy making.