Jan 29, 2021 - World

Biden picks Rob Malley as envoy for Iran

Malley (L) during Iran deal negotiations in Vienna, 2015. Photo: Siamek Ebrahimi/Anadolu Agency/Getty Image

Rob Malley will serve as the Biden administration's special envoy for Iran, working out of the State Department, White House press secretary Jen Psaki announced on Friday.

Why it matters: Malley, a former Middle East adviser to Barack Obama, took part in the negotiations over the Iran nuclear deal and is a strong supporter of a U.S. return to the agreement. Reports of his likely selection led to sharp criticism from opponents of the deal like Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), while former colleagues from the Obama administration rallied to Malley's defense.

  • Malley, a longtime Middle East expert, is currently president and CEO of the International Crisis Group think tank.
  • He'll serve as the top U.S. negotiator as Biden begins the delicate process of attempting to salvage the existing nuclear deal — which would mean lifting sanctions if Iran unwinds its recent nuclear acceleration — while trying to negotiate a broader and longer-lasting agreement.

What they're saying: Psaki said at Friday's press briefing that Iran needs to take the first step and return to full compliance with its nuclear deal commitments.

  • Iranian officials say just the opposite — they'll return to compliance once the U.S. lifts sanctions.
  • Officials from Israel and Gulf countries, which oppose the nuclear deal, have told Axios in recent days that they're concerned about Malley's appointment because they consider him a dove on Iran.
  • French President Emmanuel Macron said Friday in a briefing with reporters that any future talks on a deal with Iran must include Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries in order to avoid the mistakes of 2015, when those countries were not consulted. 
  • Secretary of State Tony Blinken has already given assurances that the Gulf countries and Israel will be consulted.

Flashback: Malley told Axios earlier this month that a lasting deal with Iran would be more achievable by first returning to the previous agreement, and that it could be easier to reach a preliminary agreement before Iran's presidential elections in June.

  • But he cautioned that the process would be difficult, and he said the direction of travel in Iran would ultimately be set by the supreme leader.
  • “Some steps that Iran could take could backfire," Malley added. "I think there comes a point at which more pressure might mean that the Biden administration will change course as well."

Go deeper: Biden's nuclear deal dilemma

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