Biden’s First Foreign Policy Blunder Could Be on Iran

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President Joe Biden has done a good job so far of calming the anxieties of allies that the U.S. will rush into negotiations to re-enter the flawed 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. Appointing Robert Malley as special envoy to Iran could change that.

On Iran, other Biden advisers have been reassuring. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said last month that it was “really up to Iran” whether the U.S. would re-enter the deal, meaning Iran must be in compliance with it before the U.S. lifts sanctions. Biden’s nominee for secretary of state, Anthony Blinken, told the Senate that he wanted a “longer and stronger” nuclear deal with Iran and pledged to consult regional allies such as Israel and the Arab Gulf monarchies if and when negotiations with Iran resumed.  

These signals have been noticed in the Middle East. As Yousef al-Otaiba, the United Arab Emirates ambassador to the U.S., told me: “We are encouraged to hear the Biden team recognizes the Middle East has fundamentally changed from 2015 to 2021.”

So it’s strange that, according to the Jewish Insider, Biden is considering Robert Malley, the former Middle East director for Barack Obama’s National Security Council, to be his special envoy to Iran. Unlike Sullivan, Blinken and for that matter Biden himself, Malley seems to believe that engagement with rogues is the only way to tame them.

It’s been a theme in Malley’s career. After Israeli-Palestinian peace talks collapsed at the end of the Clinton administration, Malley, who engaged in those talks, publicly dissented from Clinton’s own view that the talks failed because of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s failure to make a counter-offer. In 2008, he stopped advising the Obama presidential campaign on foreign policy after reports emerged that he had met with leaders of Hamas, an organization the U.S. and Israel consider to be terrorists.

Malley, of course, is not the first or only person to support diplomacy with America’s adversaries. Indeed, the Trump administration itself explained its maximum pressure policy on Iran as a means to coercing the regime to submit to a better deal. But Malley’s public advocacy out of government undercuts the message of Sullivan and Blinken that they seek a stronger deal than the one Malley helped negotiate.

In a 2019 interview with the Intercept, for example, Malley said former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s 12 conditions for lifting sanctions on Iran were tantamount to a policy of regime change and that there was “no way” any Iranian leader could agree to them.

Yet Pompeo’s demands were not unreasonable. They pointedly did not include making internal democratic reforms or releasing political prisoners. Rather, Pompeo’s conditions sought to end Iran’s own aggressive behavior, such as its support for terrorist groups, its development of missiles and its hostage-taking of foreign nationals.

More important, the notion that Iran’s regime does not respond to pressure is a talking point of the Iranian regime, especially Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. It also happens to be false. Obama’s maximum pressure campaign between 2011 and 2013 ultimately coerced the regime to enter open nuclear negotiations with the U.S., China, Russia, France, Germany and the U.K.

Wang Xiyue, who was unjustly imprisoned in Iran between 2016 and 2019 as he was doing research for his doctorate, told me that appointing Malley as the envoy would undermine Blinken’s own assurance that the Biden administration sought to strengthen the 2015 nuclear deal. “If I were Javad Zarif, I would not believe Blinken if Malley is appointed as the envoy.”

Xiyue is one of 12 former Iranian hostages and human-rights activists who have signed a letter to Blinken asking him not to appoint Malley. Appointing him “would send a chilling signal to the dictatorship in Iran that the United States is solely focused on re-entering the Iran nuclear deal, and ignoring its regional terror and domestic crimes against humanity,” they write. “It would also send a signal to Iranians, Syrians, Iraqis, Lebanese, and all others that are being repressed by the Iranian regime and its proxies that the Biden administration does not care about their human rights.”

Biden himself during the campaign has said he would support targeted sanctions to punish Iran for human rights abuses, developing ballistic missiles and support for terrorism. And Blinken and Sullivan have committed to working with regional allies to press Iran to change its ways. What message would it send if the administration’s envoy to Iran believes no Iranian leader could ever agree to stop making war on its neighbors?

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.

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