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Biden set to name Obama aide Malley as Iran envoy; hawks reportedly ‘aghast’

Veteran Middle East expert helped negotiate 2015 Iran nuclear accord, 2000 Camp David peace talks; critics said to fear he’s not fully supportive of Israel

Robert Malley in 2018 (YouTube screenshot)
Robert Malley in 2018 (YouTube screenshot)

US President Joe Biden has selected Robert Malley, a veteran Middle East official, as his administration’s special envoy for Iran, according to Thursday reports.

Malley was previously a top national security aide to former US president Barack Obama.

Meanwhile Hady Amr, a former deputy special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in the Obama administration, was appointed Thursday as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Israel and Palestinian Affairs in the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs.

Amr was involved in ultimately failed efforts to broker a Middle East peace deal in 2013-14.

Biden’s decision to appoint Malley was reported on Thursday night by The New York Times, citing two senior State Department officials, confirming earlier reports. A senior State Department official confirmed it to the Associated Press.

Earlier Thursday, three people, including two congressional aides, also said new Secretary of State Antony Blinken planned to name Malley as the Biden administration’s point person on Iran.

Rumors of Malley’s potential new post roiled the insular but highly polarized community of American Iran experts in recent days.

Malley currently runs the International Crisis Group. Iran hawks are “aghast,” believing Malley to be a key architect of the 2015 nuclear deal that former president Donald Trump withdrew the US from in 2018, AP said without citing named sources. These hawks are said to fear Biden “wants to rejoin the Iran deal at any cost and may be willing to sacrifice the security of Israel and the Gulf Arab states to do so,” AP reported. The hawks, it said, regard Malley as less than fully supportive of Israel.

Iran deal supporters have sprung to Malley’s defense, praising him as a measured, longtime Middle East hand who has served multiple presidents and who has significant expertise in the region. Malley was one of several senior national security council officials involved in both the 2000 Camp David peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians and the 2014-15 Iran deal negotiations.

The State Department official who spoke to AP said Malley would head “a dedicated team” of “clear-eyed experts with a diversity of views.” The official added that Malley has “a track record of success negotiating constraints on Iran’s nuclear program” and that Blinken is confident he “will be able to do that once again.”

Antony Blinken speaks during his confirmation hearing to be secretary of state before the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, on January 19, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Alex Edelman-Pool/Getty Images/AFP)

Blinken, to whom Malley would directly report, has been coy about how he will pursue any engagement with Iran and has refused to discuss specific personnel he would want to lead such an effort. Others have noted that several previously named Biden administration officials — Wendy Sherman, the nominee for deputy secretary of state, and Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser — played major roles in Obama’s Iran negotiations.

Like Biden, Blinken has said repeatedly that the US would resume its obligations under the Iran deal by easing sanctions if Iran first returns to full compliance with the accord. Only at such a point would the administration return to the deal or embark on an effort to lengthen and strengthen it.

“If Iran comes back into full compliance with its obligations under the [deal], the United States would do the same thing and 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 Wednesday. “But we are a long ways from that point.”

In terms of personnel, Blinken would say only that he and Biden “will build a strong team of experts and we will bring to bear different perspectives on the issue.”

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif responded Thursday to Blinken’s comments by saying Blinken needed a “reality check” and blaming the US for the deal’s deterioration.

Tensions have heated in the Middle East in recent weeks, both before and after Biden assumed control of the White House.

Iran and the Trump administration exchanged a steady stream of threats before Trump’s term ended earlier this month, and Iran carried out fresh breaches of the nuclear agreement.

Iran’s aggressive moves were believed to be partially aimed at increasing its leverage ahead of negotiations with Biden.

The US on Wednesday flew a nuclear-capable B-52 bomber over the Middle East in a show of force directed at Iran. The Trump administration made two similar flights earlier this month.

Iran said Thursday it plans to install 1,000 new centrifuges at the Natanz nuclear facility and that its scientists had exceeded previous goals for uranium enrichment.

Centrifuge machines in the Natanz uranium enrichment facility in central Iran, November 5, 2019. (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran via AP, File)

The Biden administration has pledged to consult with Israel and its other Middle East allies before making decisions regarding Iran, but its policy toward Tehran is expected to be a point of contention between Washington and Jerusalem.

Israel, along with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, are all seeking to dissuade the Biden administration from returning to the Iran nuclear agreement in its original form.

Israeli officials have warned the US against rejoining the nuclear deal, and have also issued threats against Iran in recent weeks.

IDF chief Aviv Kohavi issued a rare public criticism of the US plans on Tuesday and said that he had ordered the military to develop operational plans for striking Iran’s nuclear program. Defense Minister Benny Gantz later appeared to rebuke Kohavi for the comments.

Ties between the Biden administration and Israel have moved forward in recent days, although the new president has still not spoken to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Gantz spoke Thursday evening with newly appointed US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, discussing the Iranian threat to regional stability and the defense cooperation between the two allies.

Thursday’s phone call came the day after Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi spoke with Blinken. The two discussed “expanding the circle of peace, the Iranian threat and other issues,” the Foreign Ministry said.

The head of the US military’s Central Command landed in Tel Aviv on Thursday for a two-day visit, his first since the Pentagon announced that Israel was moving under his command’s purview. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie was scheduled to meet with the IDF top brass on Friday to discuss the threats in the region that they will now work together to confront, specifically those posed by Iran, according to the IDF.

In another diversion from the Trump administration, Washington on Wednesday temporarily suspended its sale of F-35 fighter jets to the United Arab Emirates — a deal clinched after the Gulf state agreed to forge ties with Israel

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