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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.

Dave Lawler, author of World
1 hour ago - World

Americans increasingly see China as an enemy

One in three Americans, and a majority of Republicans, now view China as an enemy of the United States, according to a new survey from Pew Research Center.

By the numbers: Just 9% of Americans consider China a "partner," while 55% see Beijing as a "competitor" and 34% as an "enemy."

Scoop: Leaked HHS docs spotlight Biden's child migrant dilemma

A group of undocumented immigrants walk toward a Customs and Border Patrol station after being apprehended. Photo: Sergio Flores/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Fresh internal documents from the Department of Health and Human Services show how quickly the number of child migrants crossing the border is overwhelming the administration's stretched resources.

Driving the news: In the week ending March 1, the Border Patrol referred to HHS custody an average of 321 children per day, according to documents obtained by Axios. That's up from a weekly average of 203 in late January and early February — and just 47 per day during the first week of January.