On Thursday, the State Department placed President Biden’s envoy for Iran, Robert Malley, on unpaid leave during a review of his security clearance.
“I have been informed that my security clearance is under review,” Malley said in an email. “I have not been provided with any further information, but I expect the investigation to be resolved favorably and soon. In the meantime, I’m on leave. »
Mr. Malley, a longtime Middle East diplomat and analyst, is well known as an advocate for dialogue between the United States and Iran. As a senior Obama White House official, he was instrumental in negotiating the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which limited Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for easing economic sanctions.
President Donald J. Trump unilaterally withdrew from the deal, urging Iran to ramp up its nuclear program. Mr. Malley has spent most of his tenure in the Biden administration trying to resurrect the deal.
After little progress toward restoring the pact, the Biden administration is seeking a much more limited and informal understanding with Tehran to avert a potential war and free several Iranian Americans imprisoned in Iran.
A person familiar with the situation confirmed that Mr Malley had been placed on unpaid leave on Thursday afternoon, following a period of paid leave. It is not clear what prompted this change.
The State Department has provided only a one-line statement addressing the issue.
« Rob Malley is on leave and Abram Paley serves as special envoy for Iran and leads the department’s work in this area, » department spokesman Matthew Miller said in the statement.
Prior to news of his dismissal, some foreign officials had noted that Mr. Malley appeared to play a lesser role in US policy toward Iran in recent months. A congressional official said Mr. Malley had been conspicuously absent from an Iran briefing for members of Congress in mid-May and administration officials had implied he was on personal leave.
When the Biden administration conducted indirect talks with Iranian officials in Oman this spring, it was the White House’s top Middle Eastern official, Brett McGurk, who played the lead role. Mr McGurk is seen as taking a harder line on Tehran and what could be achievable through negotiations than Mr Malley.
Talks to restore the nuclear deal – spearheaded by Mr Malley – collapsed last summer just when officials thought they had made a breakthrough, after what Western officials called new Iranian demands that appeared designed to sabotage the process. Iran’s demands have included a guarantee that a future US president would not again renounce a nuclear deal as Trump has done; Biden officials say it’s impossible to promise.
The Times reported this month that the United States and Iran were discussing an agreement under which, in part, Washington would release billions of dollars in frozen Iranian assets for highly limited humanitarian use.
In return, Iran would agree not to enrich uranium for bombmaking — a move the United States has warned could trigger military action — and to take other steps, including expanded cooperation with international nuclear inspectors. and a pledge not to sell ballistic missiles to Russia, Iranian officials said.
Mr. Malley’s political experience in the Middle East dates back to the Clinton administration and he served as a senior National Security Council official under President Barack Obama, including as its coordinator for fighting the Islamic State terrorist group. During the Trump era, Malley ran the International Crisis Group, a non-profit political organization dedicated to resolving global conflicts.
Mr Malley has long been a target of Iranian hawks and political opposition figures inside Iran who view him as dangerously conciliatory towards the Iranian regime. He has long argued that a strategy to crack down on economic and political pressure on Iran is bound to fail and that the United States must establish a productive dialogue with its leaders, however nasty they may be.
Mr. Malley is a childhood friend of Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken; the two attended the same high school in Paris when their families lived in France.