Explained: Two sides of the debate over the new US Iran envoy Robert Malley

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Robert Malley, a former top Iran adviser in President Barack Obama’s administration, has been appointed as US envoy to Iran, the White House confirmed on Friday. His appointment drew mixed reactions.

Malley served on the Obama team that negotiated the Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action (JCPOA) - an agreement that former President Donald Trump abandoned in 2018, imposing crippling sanctions on Tehran as part of his “maximum pressure” campaign.

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Most recently, Malley served as president and CEO of the Washington-based International Crisis Group, a non-profit organization focused on global conflict.

On Jan. 20, the Jewish Insider reported that Malley was being considered for a position as special envoy on Iran, sparking a fierce debate online between critics and supporters of Malley.

Malley’s arrival has been welcomed by pro-Tehran figures and proponents of the JCPOA, while Iranian dissidents and rights activists, as well as some Republicans, have expressed concern over the appointment.

Malley’s critics say he is too lenient with the Iranian regime and worry he would overlook Tehran’s human rights abuses in order to reach agreements, while his supporters say he is the ideal choice for diplomatic re-engagement with Iran.

Support for Malley

Hesamoddin Ashena, a senior advisor to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, welcomed reports that US President Joe Biden was considering Malley as US Iran envoy, tweeting on Jan. 22: “Robert Malley’s possible appointment carries a clear message about an efficient approach to resolving the conflict quickly and effectively.”

In an article published on Jan. 22, Iranian Revolutionary Guards-affiliated news agency Tasnim described Malley’s critics as “anti-Iranian extremists.”

Reza Nasri, a Tehran-based foreign policy analyst and a supporter of the nuclear deal, also described Malley’s critics as “anti-Iranian,” tweeting on Jan. 22: “The appointment of Robert Malley [as Iran envoy] seems to create a good atmosphere for diplomacy and a kind of detente.”

On Jan. 28, hundreds of supporters of the JCPOA who opposed the previous administration’s “maximum pressure” policy issued a statement of support for Malley.

“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,” the statement, signed by former US officials, academics and Iranian-Americans, read.

They claim that Malley is the target of a coordinated smear campaign by proponents of Trump’s “failed” Iran policy.

Malley’s critics

Critics of Malley argue that his appointment signals to Tehran that Washington’s main priority is to rejoin the JCPOA, and that issues such as Iran’s human rights abuses and regional activities are less of a priority for the new administration.

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On Jan. 20, a number of Iranian activists and former prisoners in Iran wrote to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, urging him against appointing Malley as Iran envoy.

Malley’s “track record goes counter to an administration that has pledged to promote human rights and democracy … Malley’s appointment 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,” the letter read.

“During his tenure in the Obama administration, Mr. Malley did not engage Iranian human rights activists nor did he seem at all interested in pursuing a dialogue or consultation. Instead, he focused on consulting former officials of the Islamic Republic,” the letter added.

Wang Xiyue, a Chinese-American researcher who was imprisoned in Iran from 2016 to 2019 on espionage charges, is one of the letter’s signatories.

“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,” he wrote on Twitter.

“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,” Xiyue added.

One Iranian dissident said endorsements for Malley from within Iran are cause for concern.

“When higher echelons of power in Iran approve of Malley’s appointment, there’s indeed reason to be worried about,” Vahid Yucesoy, a researcher on Iran and Turkey at the University of Montreal, wrote on Twitter, referring to Ashena’s tweet on Malley.

“The Biden administration had promised to prioritize human rights in its Middle East policy. Malley’s appointment means appeasement of dictators, not human rights,” Yucesoy added.

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