Former Obama aide to be tapped as Iran envoy, angering hawks

January 29, 2021 GMT
Secretary of State Antony Blinken is greeted by staff as he arrives at the State Department in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021. (Carlos Barria/Pool Photo via AP)
Secretary of State Antony Blinken is greeted by staff as he arrives at the State Department in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021. (Carlos Barria/Pool Photo via AP)

WASHINGTON (AP) — A top national security aide to former President Barack Obama will be tapped as U.S. envoy for Iran, a senior State Department official said late Thursday.

The senior official and several other people familiar with the decision said Secretary of State Antony Blinken will name Rob Malley as the Biden administration’s point person on Iran. The appointment is to be formally announced Friday. The official and the others were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

The official 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.”

Rumors of Malley’s potential new post have roiled the insular but highly polarized community of 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 from. They fear President Joe 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. The hawks regard Malley as less than fully supportive of Israel.

Iran deal supporters have praised Malley for his expertise and 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.

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 the Iran negotiations.

Like Biden, Blinken has said repeatedly that the U.S. would resume its obligations under the Iran deal by easing sanctions if Iran 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.”