By Matt Spetalnick and Arshad Mohammed
WASHINGTON, Jan 28 (Reuters) – President Joe Biden has named Robert Malley as special U.S. envoy for Iran, a senior official said on Thursday, giving the veteran diplomat a leading role in one of most daunting and politically divisive foreign policy challenges facing the new administration.
Malley was a key member of former President Barack Obama’s team that negotiated the 2015 nuclear accord with Iran and world powers, an agreement that former president Donald Trump abandoned in 2018 despite strong opposition from Washington’s European allies.
“Secretary Blinken is building a dedicated team, drawing from 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 State Department official said.
“The Secretary is confident he and his team will be able to do that once again,” the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said, referring to Biden’s Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
When Malley’s name first surfaced in news reports as a leading candidate for the post, he drew criticism from some Republican lawmakers and pro-Israel groups that expressed concern that he would be soft on Iran and tough on Israel. But a number of foreign policy veterans rushed to his defense, praising him as a respected, even-handed diplomat.
The post would make Malley the point person in Biden’s efforts to deal with Iran after years of worsening relations under Trump, who, after pulling out of the 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran, reimposed crippling economic sanctions.
The Diplomatic news website was first to report on Malley’s expected appointment.
He held numerous senior positions in the Democratic administrations of Obama and former President Bill Clinton with a focus on Middle East and Persian Gulf policymaking and informally advised Biden’s team during the 2020 campaign.
Most recently, he was the president of the International Crisis Group, a non-profit organization focused on global conflict.
CRAFTING IRAN POLICY
Malley’s expected appointment comes as Biden and his foreign policy aides move to craft their approach to Iran. Malley is expected to report directly to Blinken, a source familiar with the matter said.
Biden’s top diplomat on Wednesday stuck to the new administration’s stance that Tehran must resume complying with the Iran nuclear deal before Washington would do so.
Making his first public comments on Iran as secretary of state, Blinken reiterated Biden’s policy “that if Iran comes back into full compliance with its obligations under the JCPOA, the United States would do the same thing.”
But Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, said on Twitter on Thursday that the United States should make the first move by returning to the nuclear pact.
The nuclear deal, formally called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was struck by Iran and six major powers and committed Iran to restricting its nuclear program in return for sanctions relief from the United States and others. Israel and Persian Gulf Arab states strongly opposed the deal as not stringent enough on Tehran.
Malley, the son of an Egyptian journalist and Iran expert, was an informal adviser to Obama’s 2008 campaign but resigned after it emerged he had met with representatives of the Palestinian militant group Hamas while working for the International Crisis Group.
Malley was later brought into the Obama administration, in which Biden served as vice president, as a top Middle East adviser.
(Reporting by Matt Spetalnick and Arshad Mohammed; Additional reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Alistair Bell, Cynthia Osterman, Peter Cooney and Raju Gopalakrishnan)