January 29, 2021
Robert Malley, CEO of the International Crisis Group and former National Security Council official during the Obama administration. (Source: Screenshot)
Robert Malley, the Obama administration's negotiator of the historic Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) deal with Iran who is also an expert on the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, is President Joe Biden's pick to be his special envoy for Iran, the NY Times reported Thursday citing two senior State Department officials.
According to the Times, Malley will be "responsible for trying to persuade Tehran to rein in its nuclear program — and stop enriching uranium beyond limits imposed by a 2015 deal with world powers — and agree to new negotiations before the United States lifts its bruising economic sanctions against Iran."
The Times then commented demurely: "It is far from clear if the strategy, as directed by Mr. Biden, will succeed."
And so, the Biden administration has succeeded in erasing President Trump from an entire section of US foreign policy, bringing the parties involved, including, most prominently, Israel, to the nightmarish summer of 2015, when the Obama White House elbowed its ways with false promises and outright lies into getting a majority in Congress to support JCPOA.
Robert Malley (L) with Secretary Kerry in meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif in Austria, June 27, 2015. (US Department of State)
Malley was the lead US negotiator on JCPOA, which was signed on July 14, 2015. Malley later and his partner in negotiations, diplomat and today VP Kamal Harris's Deputy National Security Advisor, Philip Gordon, wrote in a critical article attacking Trump in The Atlantic (Destroying the Iran Deal While Claiming to Save It): "The real choice in 2015 was between achieving a deal that constrained the size of Iran's nuclear program for many years and ensured intrusive inspections forever, or not getting one, meaning no restrictions at all coupled with much less verification."
"Having been closely involved in the JCPOA negotiations, we know it is not perfect; no negotiated deal ever has been or could be. Yet insisting on a 'better deal' and warning that one will otherwise walk away is not a recipe for that better deal, but for no deal at all," the two Biden administration officials wrote.
And they added this pearl of wisdom:
To be clear about one thing: The time-bound nature of some of the constraints is not a flaw of the deal, it was a prerequisite for it. To call it a flaw is like saying your employment contract is "flawed" because it requires you to work in order to get paid. In that respect, it is no more a "flaw" than, from Iran's perspective, the facts that almost all US national sanctions on Iran remain in place; the president has to waive sanctions every four months to keep the deal alive; and Washington can unilaterally "snap back" even international sanctions at any point in time. Iran's negotiators strongly opposed all of those outcomes, and many critics in Tehran faulted them for accepting them.
And this mindboggling excuse:
The same is true for the so-called sunsets: The US would have liked all restrictions to last in perpetuity, but that was never in the cards. During the years when the US position was "zero enrichment forever," after all, Iran mastered the nuclear fuel cycle, installed many thousands of centrifuges, and built a heavy-water reactor capable of producing enough plutonium to build multiple nuclear weapons (that reactor's core is now filled with concrete). The real choice in 2015 was between achieving a deal that constrained the size of Iran's nuclear program for many years and ensured intrusive inspections forever, or not getting one, meaning no restrictions at all coupled with much less verification.
On Thursday, Malley published on the website of his own think tank, the Crisis Group, an analysis of "Nineteen Conflict Prevention Tips for the Biden Administration." We scrolled down quickly to V. Iran: Return to the Nuclear Deal, and saw this myopic, learned-nothing, forgot-nothing frightening bit:
The Biden administration should pursue US re-entry into the 2015 nuclear deal, starting by revoking the 2018 order ending U.S. JCPOA participation and initiating a process of fully reversing Trump-era sanctions while Iran brings its nuclear program back into full compliance. As further confidence-building measures, Washington could support Iran's International Monetary Fund loan request as a sign of good-will in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and perhaps engage Tehran in discussions on a prisoner swap. Early discussions on ending the conflict in Yemen and supporting a dialogue between Iran and Gulf Arab countries could also help lower tensions.
Biden's team may be tempted to link rejoining the JCPOA to other issues, but that could put the whole deal at jeopardy. The objective should be a clean re-entry. Other issues, such as regional de-escalation and Iran's ballistic missile development, are critical, but best pursued subsequent to, not as a condition of, full restoration of the existing agreement.
In June 2015, the Obama White House publicized a letter signed by 36 generals and admirals praising the Iran deal. In response, in August 2015, a letter signed by 190 former generals and admirals was sent to Congressional leaders expressing opposition to the bill. They argued the deal put too many limitations on IAEA access to Iranian sites; they warned against providing Iran with $150 billion in sanctions relief — which they said would go to funding Iranian proxy groups in the Middle East (and you thought generals didn't know about these things); and they stated that American national security would be put at risk if the deal was not rejected.
The Trump administration was critical of the Ayatollah's regime and the Iran nuclear deal. Donald Trump repeatedly attacked the deal, and in 2016, in a speech to AIPAC, he said dismantling the Iranian nuclear deal was his first priority. In his presidential debate with Hillary Clinton, he said it was a "horrible deal." National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster — who turned out to be very critical of Trump — called the Iran deal "fundamentally flawed," warning that the holes in the deal "could give the regime cover to advance a nuclear program." On May 8, 2018, President Trump announced he was withdrawing from JCPOA.
Pakistani journalist Murtaza Hussain tweeted on Thursday: "I looked into some of the allegations raised against Rob Malley's and his appointment to Biden's NSC. I found them to be either unfounded or made in bad faith. If you dislike a certain policy there is no need to engage in character assassination...."
Joseph Cirincione, a fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and previous head of the Ploughshares Fund, said the attacks on Malley are "standard operating procedure for the pro-Likud right wing. This is how they operate. They traffic in bullying and lies as the main elements of their policy operation. They'd like to defeat Rob Malley and nail it as another scalp on the wall, but second, they would like to impose a cost on Biden and show that if he wants to move forward on his Iran policy, it will be difficult. Malley is the direct victim of the attacks, but Biden is the target."
Both of them referred to responses such as Senator Tom Cotton's tweet from a week ago that said: "Appointing radicals like Malley gives the lie to all of President Biden and Tony Blinken's rhetoric of unity."
Appointing radicals like Malley gives the lie to all of President Biden and Tony Blinken's rhetoric of unity.— Tom Cotton (@SenTomCotton) January 22, 2021
There was also Xiyue Wang, an American academic imprisoned by the Iranian government for three years and all but ignored by the Obama administration. He tweeted:
During my imprisonment, Mr. Malley was a senior White House official. He played no positive role in facilitating my release, a view shared by present and past hostages and their families. If he is appointed, it'd suggest releasing US hostages from Iran won't be a priority.
More importantly, Malley's appointment will convey to Tehran that Sec. Blinken's principled remarks on strengthening the JCPOA, working with regional partners, and standing up for human rights in Iran were merely empty words.
Pres. Biden has said, personnel is policy. Malley has long opposed pressure against Iran & its regional proxies and apathy about Iran's human rights abuse. It's telling that official Iranian media are already celebrating his potential appointment.
America's Iran policy requires balance. There are lessons to be learned from both Obama and Trump's approaches to Iran. Mr. Malley's appointment signals to Tehran that the US is simply lurching from one extreme policy to another.
8. Pres. Biden has said, personnel is policy. Malley has long opposed pressure against Iran & its regional proxies and apathy about Iran's human rights abuse. It's telling that official Iranian media are already celebrating his potential appointment. https://t.co/KptDxI3gf0— Xiyue Wang (@XiyueWang9) January 22, 2021
Nuff said? Not quite. After feasting on Malley's fifth recommendation to his new boss, I couldn't help myself (could you?) and scrolled down even further, to: VII. Israel-Palestine: Put Palestinian Rights at the Center.
In trying to create the conditions for a successful future negotiation, the Biden team should work on leveling the playing field. The administration almost certainly will make clear that a two-state solution is its preferred political framework, echoing the international consensus reflected in former Secretary of State John Kerry's 28 December 2016 speech. But in reaffirming this preference, it should insist that if Israel continues to obstruct the establishment of a fully sovereign and viable Palestinian state, any alternative to the two-state solution will have to respect the right to full equality and enfranchisement of all those in any space controlled by Israel. It should also resist any impulse to be drawn into a peace process just to maintain the illusion of progress. Its energies would be better spent focusing instead on establishing the conditions for meaningful talks while protecting those whose rights are being violated in Israel and the occupied territories.
Of course, as part of these efforts, there are steps that the administration should take to repudiate damaging Trump-era legacies — starting with a disavowal of the January 2020 Trump plan. At the same time, it should refrain from actions that shield Israel from the costs of its occupation and make peace more difficult to achieve, such as vetoing UN Security Council resolutions when doing so would undermine U.S. policy (for example, by undermining the two-state solution) or international law. Finally, it should encourage the Palestinians to undertake their own political renewal, advance internal reconciliation and give breathing space to non-violent strategies for achieving their goals.
In short, as explained so eloquently by The Big Bang Theory character Leonard Hofstadter: we are attached to another object by an inclined plane, wrapped helically around an axis.