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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

Go deeper

Updated Jan 28, 2021 - World

Biden reviews U.S. arms deals with Saudi Arabia and UAE

Trump struck several large arms deals with Mohammed bin Salman (L) and Saudi Arabia. Photo: Kevin Dietsch-Pool/Getty Images

The Biden administration has put on hold two big arms deals with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates which were approved in the final weeks of the Trump administration, a State Department official told Axios.

Why it matters: The sales of F-35 jets and attack drones to the UAE and a large supply of munitions to Saudi Arabia will be paused pending a review. That signals a major policy shift from the Trump era, and may herald sharp tensions with both Gulf countries.

55 mins ago - Technology
Column / Tech Agenda

The new digital extortion

Shoshana Gordon/Axios

If you run a hospital, a bank, a utility or a city, chances are you'll be hit with a ransomware attack. Given the choice between losing your precious data or paying up, chances are you'll pay.

Why it matters: Paying the hackers is the clear short-term answer for most organizations hit with these devastating attacks, but it's a long-term societal disaster, encouraging hackers to continue their lucrative extortion schemes.

1 hour ago - Health

CDC mask guidance sparks confusion, questions

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The CDC's surprise guidance last week freeing the fully vaccinated to go maskless sowed plenty of concerns across the country— even earning the "Saturday Night Live" treatment for all the questions it spurred.

Why it matters: With plenty of Americans still unvaccinated — and without any good way to confirm who has been vaccinated — some experts worry this could put many at increased risk.