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Rumored Iran envoy gets big boost after smear campaign tries to take him down

Hundreds of experts have signed a letter supporting Rob Malley after Iran deal opponents try to torpedo his appointment.

Analysis | Middle East

Two hundred foreign policy professionals and 29 organizations issued an open statement on Thursday in support of Robert Malley’s rumored appointment as special envoy to Iran, marking the latest salvo in a proxy war over the Biden administration’s policy towards the Middle East.

Jewish Insider first reported last week that President Joe Biden was considering appointing Malley, a veteran diplomat and CEO of the International Crisis Group, as a special envoy to Iran. The rumors set off a smear campaign among hawks who oppose diplomatic engagement with the Iranian government.

“The Biden administration has affirmed its interest in diplomatic re-engagement, including a return to the original 2015 nuclear agreement with the Islamic Republic, but proponents of what has proved to be a failed strategy appear intent already to undermine these efforts,” the Thursday statement supporting Malley says. “Those who accuse Malley of sympathy for the Islamic Republic have no grasp of — or no interest in — true diplomacy, which requires a level-headed understanding of the other side’s motivations and knowledge that can only be acquired through dialogue.”

Organizations including the Center for International Policy, J Street, and the Project on Middle East Democracy have signed on. Responsible Statecraft’s parent organization, the Quincy Institute, has also signed the letter.

The letter comes after Sen. Tom Cotton (R–Ark.) shared a Bloomberg Opinion piece attacking Malley on Twitter last Thursday, and accused the former diplomat of “sympathy for the Iranian regime & animus towards Israel.” 

A group of Iranian diaspora activists and three former hostages of the Iranian government published an open letter last Thursday opposing Malley’s appointment and accusing him of failing to “engage with Iranian human rights activists” while he “singularly focused on cultivating close relationships with Iranian government officials.”

This week's letter shoots back at that line of attack directly, charging that “[h]uman rights defenders inside Iran, who see diplomacy, reviving the nuclear agreement, and the de-escalation of tensions as critical components to advance core human rights goals need to be heard.”

Others have also defended Malley’s appointment.

Hostage negotiator Mickey Bergman wrote on Twitter that “Rob Malley was eager to volunteer his access to help” rescue Xiyue Wang, one of the signatories of the Thursday letter attacking Malley.

Hossein Derakhshan, a journalist who had been imprisoned by the Iranian government for six years, simply stated that he supports Malley because he favors engagement with Iran.

Sens. Bernie Sanders (I–Vt.) and Chris Murphy (D–Conn.) issued their own statements of support for Malley, as did Rep. Ro Khanna (D–Calif.) and former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro.

Malley is no stranger to controversial, high-stakes diplomacy. He had served as an official for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks under the Clinton administration, and later met with a variety of different groups as a researcher for the International Crisis Group.

Malley’s research led to his ouster from Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008; he stepped down after critics brought up meetings he held in the course of his work with the Palestinian militant group Hamas. “My job with the International Crisis Group is to meet with all sorts of savory and unsavory people and report on what they say,” Malley told MSNBC at the time. “I've never denied whom I meet with; that's what I do.”

But Malley returned to Obama’s inner circle when his expertise became an asset. In 2014, Obama appointed Malley to his National Security Council, where he helped oversee the military campaign against the Islamic State and negotiate the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, a 2015 nuclear nonproliferation deal with Iran.

Another expert in Obama’s orbit was not so lucky. Charles “Chas” Freeman, former U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, withdrew his name from consideration as chairman of the National Intelligence Council in 2009 after what he called a smear campaign over his prior criticisms of Israel.

The debate over Freeman’s appointment had been kicked off when controversial pro-Israel advocate Steven J. Rosen wrote a blog post accusing Freeman of holding views “you would expect in the Saudi Foreign Ministry” rather than the U.S. government. It may be more than a decade ago, but the same tactics are being used to torpedo Malley’s appointment today.

“Diplomatic engagement is as critical with foes as it is with friends,” the Thursday letter supporting Malley states. “It is no surprise that those who reject the primacy of diplomacy as a tool of statecraft see engagement with adversaries as appeasement.”

United States Secretary of State John Kerry walks to lunch with members his negotiating team, including Robert Malley (L) from the U.S. National Security Council, following a meeting with Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif over Iran's nuclear program in Lausanne March 20, 2015. REUTERS/Brian Snyder
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