US Congress demands info on suspension of security clearance for envoy to Iran

Chairman of US House Foreign Affairs Committee asks Blinken if lawmakers were misled over Rob Malley, who is under investigation for alleged mishandling of classified documents

US special envoy to Iran Robert Malley in Vienna, Austria, June 20, 2021. (Florian Schroetter/AP)
US special envoy to Iran Robert Malley in Vienna, Austria, June 20, 2021. (Florian Schroetter/AP)

The chairman of the US House Foreign Affairs Committee demanded Friday that the State Department produce more information about the suspension of the US special envoy for Iran’s security clearance.

Rep. Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican, said the Biden administration owed Congress a full explanation for the suspension of envoy Rob Malley’s clearance and his being placed on unpaid leave.

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.

“These reports raise serious concerns both regarding Malley’s conduct and whether the State Department misled Congress and the American public,” McCaul said in a letter to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

“While the suspension of Special Envoy Malley’s clearance is independently troubling, our concern is compounded by the State Department’s failure to respond to the committee’s efforts to conduct oversight of its negotiations with and policy toward Iran,” he said.

Chairman Michael McCaul asks a question during the House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing, May 17, 2023, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Mariam Zuhaib)

McCaul also noted that the initial explanation for Malley’s absence from the job, and his failure to appear at congressional hearings on Iran policy, turned out to be incorrect.

“Senior State Department officials informed the committee that Special Envoy Malley was unable to testify or brief because he was on personal leave due to the illness of a close family member, for which my staff expressed sympathy,” McCaul said.

“At no point did the department indicate that Special Envoy Malley’s security clearance was suspended or under review, or that he was being investigated for potential misconduct,” he added.

The State Department had no immediate comment on McCaul’s letter.

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.

One of the architects of the JCPOA — the multilateral deal inked in 2015 by then US 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 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.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a Pride Reception at the State Department, June 29, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

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.

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