Biden point person on Iran talks put on leave amid security clearance review

Rob Malley, who championed nuclear deal, under investigation over alleged mishandling of classified documents, expresses confidence that matter will be resolved shortly

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Robert Malley, the Biden's administration special envoy for Iran, waits to testify about the Iran nuclear deal during a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations on Capitol Hill in Washington, on May 25, 2022. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/File)
Robert Malley, the Biden's administration special envoy for Iran, waits to testify about the Iran nuclear deal during a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations on Capitol Hill in Washington, on May 25, 2022. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/File)

US special envoy for Iran Rob Malley said Thursday that he was on leave from the Biden administration due to a review of his security clearance.

Malley has led administration efforts to revive the faltering Iran nuclear deal and resolve issues related to detained Americans in Iran, but has not been active in his job for weeks.

Two State Department officials said the agency’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security was leading the inquiry, which revolves around Malley’s handling of classified documents. The officials said they learned of Malley’s change in status from paid to unpaid leave on Thursday, shortly after questions about his status were raised at the State Department’s regular afternoon briefing.

CNN reported Thursday that Malley’s security clearance was suspended earlier this year amid the investigation into possible mishandling of classified material.

The departure comes as indirect talks had recently intensified between the US and Iran, which has gradually escalated its uranium enrichment amid the collapse of the nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

State Department spokesperson Matt Miller confirmed Thursday afternoon only that Malley was on leave and that his deputy, Abram Paley, is serving as acting special envoy for Iran.

In a text sent to several reporters, Malley said, “I have been informed that my security clearance is under review. I have not been provided any further information, but I expect the investigation to be resolved favorably and soon. In the meantime, I am on leave.”

Robert Malley, US special envoy for Iran (R) and Stephan Klement, EU ambassador and European external action service special advisor on Iran, talk in front of the Hotel Imperial near the Grand Hotel Vienna where closed-door nuclear talks took place in Vienna, Austria, June 20, 2021. (AP/Florian Schroetter)

Malley’s whereabouts have raised questions since he skipped a classified congressional briefing on Iran on May 16. At the time, State Department officials told lawmakers that Malley was on “extended personal leave” and suggested that his absence might be related to a family health issue.

It was unclear when exactly Malley’s clearance was suspended. According to CNN, he remained on the job for a period of time afterward, while being barred from accessing classified information.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, right, visits an exhibition of Iran’s nuclear achievements, at his office compound in Tehran, Iran, June 11, 2023. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader, Via AP)

One of the architects of the JCPOA — the multilateral deal inked in 2015 by then president Barak Obama, which his successor Donald Trump vacated in 2018 — Malley was seen as one of the strongest voices in the administration pushing for diplomacy on the Iran nuclear issue.

The stance made him a target of ire from Israeli officials, who have accused him and the administration of seeking a restoration of the nuclear deal at any cost.

As special envoy, he was willing to engage with controversial figures, reportedly including Iran’s Ambassador to the UN Amir Saeid Iravani.

During former president Bill Clinton’s administration, Malley served as a special adviser to the president and as a member of the 2000 Camp David peace team.

A close personal friend of Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Malley had worked for the International Crisis Group during the Trump administration. In that job, he met on several occasions with Iranians and Palestinian officials with whom US officials are barred from having contact.

Malley’s January 2021 appointment as special envoy for Iran led to speculation in Israel that the Biden administration was committed to reviving the JCPOA.

Despite reports of contacts ramping up in recent weeks via Oman, US officials say a deal with Iran is not in the cards for now, amid Tehran’s expanded supply of weapons to Russia for use against Ukraine.

“There is no agreement in the offing, even as we continue to be willing to explore diplomatic paths,” Blinken said Wednesday.

AP contributed to this report.

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