Robert Malley, Biden administration special envoy for Iran, testifies about the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) during a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Capitol Hill, May 25, 2022

Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

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What Happened to Robert Malley?

The downfall of the White House’s favorite Iran whisperer is a mystery wrapped inside a cover-up

Lee Smith
July 24, 2023
Robert Malley, Biden administration special envoy for Iran, testifies about the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) during a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Capitol Hill, May 25, 2022

Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

In late June, reports started circulating that White House heavy Robert Malley had been suspended from his job in the Joe Biden administration. That was surprising. Before he was pushed out, Malley had been seen as the visionary architect of the Democratic Party’s Middle East policy. He’d been Barack Obama’s conduit to Iran before Biden named him to do the same thing for his White House. For someone in his position to lose that job amid renewed talks with Iran was notable, but the most intriguing detail, hidden by the Biden team for months, was the reason why he was sidelined: He had reportedly mishandled classified documents.

So what was Malley doing that compelled the Bureau of Diplomatic Security to open an investigation on him before passing it to the FBI? Security clearances are a kind of currency in Washington and it’s unusual for a senior official to lose access to his colleagues’ secrets, especially a policymaker of Malley’s status. Had he been amassing boxes of documents in his home like former President Donald Trump? Had he taken classified documents from secure facilities and moved them to private work and residential spaces like Biden?

A large part of Malley’s work was to circulate information throughout the U.S.-based Iranian diaspora that eventually found its way to Tehran. According to Iran press reports that have foreign policy circles talking, those contacts are what got him in trouble. And the fact that the details about Malley’s suspension are coming from Iranian rather than U.S. media is a big clue that something big is missing from the White House’s highly minimized account.

At the beginning of July the Tehran Times, an Iranian regime English-language media outlet, published an article with insider details but no definite answer to the central mystery. According to the article, Malley’s clearance was suspended on April 21, two months before the news went public. Since then he’s met with CIA Director William Burns and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan to try to resolve his situation but, according to the article, has not yet been granted an audience with Secretary of State (and high school classmate) Antony Blinken.

The story hints at a bureaucratic turf war. “The collection of opinions and news published about Robert Malley’s removal indicates extensive and coordinated subterfuge at the highest levels of the U.S. government.” The Tehran Times doesn’t identify any sources by name, but the details suggest that the account comes from Malley’s associates. Curiously, the reporter concludes that the same group likely responsible for leaking the details that appear in the article is the one that got Malley in trouble: “Malley’s overly close proximity to his non-official Iranian assistants and advisers created the ground for the fall of this experienced diplomat.”

A follow-up story identifies those around Malley who play the role of “broker and middleman between Iran and the Democratic administration of the U.S.”: Vali Nasr, a former Obama policymaker and Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies professor; Trita Parsi, founder of the National Iranian American Council and currently the executive vice president of the Quincy Institute; and Ali Vaez, Iran project director at the International Crisis Group, which Malley headed before joining the Biden administration. Also, according to the Tehran Times, Malley held “secret talks” with Iran’s U.N. ambassador, Saeid Iravani.

Except these are exactly the people he was hired to engage to revive the JCPOA. Vaez, for instance, has relayed his former boss’s insights and information to the media. Malley must have shared something really bad with his Iranian associates because otherwise the Tehran Times account makes no sense.

Perhaps more to the point, the White House that hired Malley doesn’t care about keeping American secrets unless the failure to do so can be used as an instrument to hurt political opponents. Biden hoarded classified documents for decades and kept them in his garage. Unlike Trump, he never had the executive authority to declassify the documents he collected as senator and then vice president, but it was Trump who was indicted on charges related to holding classified materials. The Justice Department handled Biden’s classified documents case the same way it managed evidence of his son Hunter’s alleged crimes—by burying it under a phony investigation.

The Biden administration’s open contempt for the rule of law is just a security regime acting like a security regime. In this context, using law enforcement authorities to prosecute enemies and exculpate allies is normal. The ruling party fights to control all levers of power inside and outside the government to reward loyalists—for instance, the party’s top donor, George Soros, supports Malley’s work at ICG with more than $75 million. What’s not normal is sidelining the party’s leading Middle East strategist with the same premise used to target Trump.

Biden appointed Malley shortly after his inauguration and made him responsible for restoring the Iran nuclear deal, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). It was Barack Obama’s signature foreign policy initiative but then Donald Trump withdrew from the agreement in 2018. Trump implemented a maximum pressure campaign that included hard-biting sanctions and the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force, the terror unit attached to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). To get back into the deal, the Biden team brought back many of the officials who pushed it through the first time but none as important as Malley.

Malley has served in three Democratic administrations over the last four decades, handling high-profile, sensitive diplomacy such as the Arab-Israeli peace process and the Syrian war. After leaving the Clinton administration, he joined the International Crisis Group where, as he told me for a 2010 Tablet profile, his “mandate” was “to come up with ideas about how to prevent or resolve deadly conflict.” This brought him into contact with organizations like Hamas, a relationship that forced candidate Obama to remove him from his advisory role with the 2008 presidential campaign.

But it’s precisely Malley’s willingness to deal with the hard men of the Middle East that sets him apart from other U.S. diplomats. Where others who work in the region prefer to engage moderates, cultivate them with cash incentives, or invent them out of whole cloth, Malley makes no apologies for dealing with the men who really run the show. Accordingly, Obama named him lead negotiator in 2014 to bring the JCPOA home.

The fundamental untruth about the deal is that it was designed to stop Iran from getting the bomb. The agreement’s so-called “sunset” clauses tell the real story. These are the provisions restricting Iran’s nuclear activities that are scheduled to expire after only a few years, at which point Iran’s nuclear weapons program becomes entirely legal. From the beginning, the purpose of the JCPOA was to get the world to accept a terror state’s nuclear weapons program.

With Malley at the helm, the U.S. foreign policy establishment assumed he’d revive the JCPOA in short order. But his appointment signaled something else to the Iranians.

For the 2015 agreement, the U.S. side negotiated with Javad Zarif, the slick-talking diplomat lionized by the D.C.-based Iran lobby, including the Malley associates identified in the Tehran Times stories. It’s unclear whether Zarif’s U.S.-based friends project any power inside Tehran’s political circles, but by tying their influence inside the Beltway to Zarif, Malley’s Iranian associates earned the contempt of rival factions.

One of those factions came to power when Ebrahim Raisi was made president of Iran in June 2021. Almost immediately the new leadership started messaging against Zarif, whom they accused of giving away too much to the Americans. The Raisi crew also began attacking Zarif’s U.S.-based interlocutors, in particular the International Crisis Group. The English-language vehicle of choice for those attacks was the Tehran Times.

In an opinion article days after Iran’s presidential election, the Tehran Times wrote: “The Crisis Group began spreading rumors that Iran’s elections will be rigged, presenting Raisi as a pre-announced winner, estimating that the participation would be very low. The high voter turnout and competitive election changed the direction of the Crisis Group. Now they have focused on obstructing the process of reviving the JCPOA, implying that the president-elect will throw immovable obstacles on the way of reviving the nuclear deal.”

This broadside served two purposes. First, it was meant to inculpate Zarif, whose D.C. allies, according to the Tehran Times, had brought talks to a standstill. Ali Vaez mocked the paper’s assessment on social media, prompting the Tehran Times to ask him directly if the ICG was responsible for trying to “strengthen” the JCPOA—that is, deny Iran its rightful place as a nuclear power. Because Vaez didn’t validate his interpretation of reality, the reporter assessed that he “dodged our question about the role of the Crisis Group in the negotiations.”

But the article was also a warning to Malley, without naming the U.S. negotiator, that if he expected to revive the JCPOA, he’d have to agree to all of Iran’s demands. Malley hardly needed the hint: He came to the job prepared to give the Iranians everything in his power to give.

The problem, I believe, is that the Iranians wanted what was beyond Malley’s ability to grant: a guarantee that Biden’s successors wouldn’t withdraw from the deal and reimpose sanctions as Trump had. Tehran also wanted the IRGC taken off the foreign terrorist blacklist and the U.S. agreed, provided Tehran called off the hit squads detailed to kill Trump administration officials it blamed for assassinating Soleimani: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the State Department’s Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook, and National Security Adviser John Bolton.

According to Vaez, Tehran wouldn’t budge. “It is politically impossible for the Iranians to publicly close the file on taking revenge for Soleimani.”

The Iranians would have been pleased to see accounts of how much money the Americans spent on security details to protect the three Trump aides, with Diplomatic Security watching out for Pompeo and Hook and the Secret Service guarding Bolton. Reports of Hook’s wife crying in fear for her husband’s life amused at least one former Iranian official. If Malley couldn’t guarantee the next administration would stay in the deal, the Iranians could incentivize a future White House by threatening American diplomats who’d dared to reimpose sanctions on Tehran. On hearing that their foreign interlocutors were planning to murder Americans, other U.S. diplomats would have walked away from negotiations. But Malley didn’t flinch.

Naturally Iran’s ruling faction would be happy to advance the theory that Malley’s relationship with Zarif’s vain and careless Beltway crew led to the fall of America’s Iran whisperer. And thus the Tehran Times account of the Malley affair appears to be a feint to shape it as a nonstory: Malley was talking to his friends—what’s the big deal? It seems the real story, whatever it is, is bad enough that Malley’s Iranian associates had no choice but to use a rival Iranian faction that despises them to put Malley in the clear.

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