President Joe Biden and his top foreign policy aides have promised to move carefully to achieve one of his main diplomatic goals: restoring the 2015 international agreement to limit Iran’s nuclear program, which former President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from in 2018.
Iran hawks like Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) are determined to quickly stymie Biden’s plans. And this week they picked their first target: Rob Malley, a former White House official who is being considered for a role as a special envoy to Tehran.
A motley crew of hard-liners ― including Cotton, hawkish Iranian-Americans, conservative commentators and a number of Americans formerly detained in Iran ― are involved in a smear campaign against Malley, who worked on Mideast issues at the National Security Council under Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. These critics argue, with scant evidence, that Malley sympathizes with the Iranian regime and disdains U.S. ally Israel, which sees Iran as its chief threat.
In response, a chorus of well-respected voices on global affairs, from multiple senators to former U.S. and foreign officials and powerful advocacy groups, responded with affirmations of Malley’s professionalism, expertise and commitment to peace-building and U.S. security.
It’s increasingly clear that the dispute is about much more than Malley’s personal views and credentials. Skeptics of negotiations with Iran don’t just want to block one specific appointment; they want to influence the Biden administration’s broader approach and make it harder for the president’s team to shore up the nuclear deal. Biden won the election, but many Republicans and their partners are pushing him to continue his predecessor’s aggressive policy toward Iran.
“It’s not about Rob ― it’s about opposing diplomacy. It’s about trying to see if they can, early on, pick a fight and get Biden to fold.””
By creating a controversy like this, hard-liners can see how the Biden administration reacts and learn how best to shape its future calculations. And they can assess the extent to which old complaints about such diplomacy, which dominated the last few years of Obama’s presidency, resonate in the news cycles of 2021. For all their expressions of concern, for their purposes it is mostly irrelevant whether or not Malley ultimately gets the job: Biden will pursue talks with Iran anyway, and they will remain focused on spoiling any agreement they see as too soft.
“It’s not about Rob ― it’s about opposing diplomacy,” said one person familiar with the Biden team’s thinking who sought anonymity to preserve relationships. “It’s about trying to see if they can, early on, pick a fight and get Biden to fold.”
J Street, a prominent Jewish group supportive of both Israeli defense concerns and talks with Tehran, noted that the assault on Malley struck a familiar tone.
“We are... dismayed to already be witnessing the same kind of character assassinations and false accusations being leveled against people who have committed their careers to advancing diplomacy and peace in the Middle East (in this case Malley) and the unfounded accusations of hostility to Israel and/or Jewish interests,” the organization tweeted. “Along with nearly 3/4 of American Jewish voters, we strongly support a return to the [deal] and a negotiated solution on the Iranian nuclear issue [and] broader regional conflicts.”
The way for Biden’s team to successfully manage the kerfuffle is to stand its ground and avoid ceding leverage to figures who are likely to criticize any diplomatic effort, the person said. “The smart play is build your team and do what you did during the campaign: Ignore Twitter.”
A White House spokesperson declined to comment on Malley’s potential appointment. Malley did not respond to a request for comment.
The Real Debate: Politics, Not Personnel
On Jan. 20, Jewish Insider reported that Malley ― currently the president of the nonprofit International Crisis Group ― was being considered for the Biden administration’s Iran envoy job. The Insider noted that Malley had criticized the assassination of a top Iranian nuclear scientist in November as unhelpful for diplomacy ― a view shared by an array of foreign policy experts.
The same day, a little-known Iranian-American group called the National Union for Democracy in Iran published a message urging Biden to reject Malley, saying that he didn’t sufficiently prioritize the Islamic Republic’s human rights abuses in interacting with Iranian officials and that he lacks relationships with Iranian civil society. The letter’s signatories included Mariam Memarsadeghi, an activist who wants the U.S. to bolster “an impending transition” in Iran’s leadership, and Xiyue Wang, an American graduate student who spent three years imprisoned in Iran before being released in December 2019.
On Jan. 21, Bloomberg Opinion columnist Eli Lake, a longtime critic of diplomacy with Iran, published a piece suggesting that hiring Malley would be a “blunder” for Biden and undermine other officials, such as Secretary of State nominee Tony Blinken.
Hours later, Cotton tweeted out Lake’s story with a lengthy, disparaging comment accusing Malley of “animus towards Israel.”
“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 continued.
A classic Washington mini-scandal was born. But the dated feeling of the controversy limited its effect. For many national security observers, the process echoed the Obama years of arguing over Iran policy ― and it was easy to note that these fights had been fought before, with the hawks ultimately losing as Obama enacted his deal.
For one thing, Malley’s critics were heavily overstating his potential sway. No matter how influential Malley might become, he would not be making the final call on Iran as commander in chief ― something the Iranians know.
And the aspersions against Malley have already been publicly litigated before. Both articles noted that in 2008, Malley resigned from an informal role on Obama’s presidential campaign after The Times of London highlighted that he had met with representatives of Hamas, the armed Palestinian group. Lake also cited Malley’s statements that Israeli officials also held some responsibility for the failure of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks under Clinton and his recent comments in an interview that former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s list of demands for Iran made diplomacy near impossible.
Malley has stood by his actions, and peers in the foreign policy community have said they continue to hold him in high regard ― not least because of his willingness to try to reach some kind of common ground with difficult adversaries.
“We had our differences over the years, however they affected neither trust nor friendship,” tweeted Gilead Sher, who served in the Israeli government under former Prime Ministers Ehud Barak and Yitzhak Rabin and remains a reserve colonel in the Israeli armed forces. “Rob is exceptionally knowledgeable, and he knows bargaining [with] the devil won’t be an easy walk.”
Tamara Cofman Wittes, a former State Department official now with the Brookings Institution, connected the push against Malley to hawks’ fears of a turnaround from Trump’s policy of pressuring Iran in unprecedented ways.
“Trump’s Iran policy was reckless [and] left the world, our partners [and] us less safe,” she tweeted. “Republicans, and their allies in the commentariat, are engaging in outrageous personal smears of a good [and] smart man because they know they can’t win an argument on policy. Shameful.”
The Fights Ahead
Biden and his team have incentives to try to engage Iran soon. In December, Iranian lawmakers directed officials to bolster uranium enrichment and begin using more advanced centrifuges, boosting the country’s chances of building a nuclear bomb and increasing tensions with the U.S. in the coming months. And the country will elect a new president in June ― one who is expected to be far more wary of the U.S. than incumbent Hassan Rouhani.
Antiwar groups and arms control experts say Biden could signal good faith to hasten nuclear negotiations by rolling back some non-nuclear sanctions imposed by Trump and being clear that the U.S. will no longer block other international actors, such as European companies and the International Monetary Fund, from some cooperation with Iran.
Establishing a strong political foundation in Washington for diplomacy is crucial, too. The Malley dispute is an early test of whether Biden can achieve that.
The person familiar with the Biden team noted that even if hawks do not succeed in scuttling Malley’s appointment, their smears against him might have a lasting impact.
The hard-liners could push Biden administration officials to say Malley’s role is limited, boosting the perception pushed in Lake’s Bloomberg column that there is a divide in the new team on how to handle Tehran. They could also coax out repeated assurances from Biden appointees that they view Iran skeptically ― as Republicans already did this week in confirmation hearings for Blinken and Avril Haines, the newly confirmed director of national intelligence. That would help create public wariness around engaging Tehran.
“The biggest victory would be to get them to throw Rob over the side, but there are other victories short of that that could still be very damaging to the diplomatic effort,” said the person familiar with the Biden team’s thinking.
Biden’s allies hope he can avoid those traps by projecting confidence in his aides’ qualifications and a federal government under unified Democratic control.
“I think Joe Biden should pick his Iran envoy, not Tom Cotton,” tweeted Ben Rhodes, a former national security adviser under Obama. “Elections have consequences.”