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Intel: Progressives defend Robert Malley as Biden's possible Iran envoy

Critics accuse the former Obama official of overlooking Iran's human rights record.

More than 200 progressive groups and foreign policy experts have come to the defense of President Joe Biden's reported front-runner for special envoy to Iran, Robert Malley, whose detractors accuse him of being an apologist for the regime.

Malley, currently president and CEO of the Washington-based International Crisis Group, would bring hands-on experience to the role. He was among the top negotiators of the 2015 Iran nuclear accord when he served as the Middle East director for President Barack Obama’s National Security Council. 

The signatories to the open letter published Thursday, which include the Project on Middle East Democracy, the Quincy Institute, the National Iranian American Council and J Street, describe Malley as having the diplomatic chops needed for “fixing our broken policy towards Iran.”

“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,” they wrote. 

The opposition to Malley emerged last week when Jewish Insider reported that the veteran negotiator was under consideration for the Iran job. In a much-discussed Bloomberg opinion piece that followed, columnist Eli Lake wrote that Malley’s appointment as special envoy would be a “foreign policy blunder” that would undermine Biden’s Iran messaging. 

Arkansas Republican Sen. Tom Cotton then accused Malley on Twitter of having “sympathy for the Iranian regime & animus towards Israel." Several oher Republican lawmakers, as well as former political prisoners held in Iran, added their voices to the wave of criticism.

Why it matters: Tapping Malley, a staunch critic of the Trump administration’s "maximum pressure" approach to Iran, for the post of special envoy wouldn’t win Biden any goodwill among congressional Republicans already opposed to revived diplomacy with Tehran and restored relations with the Palestinians. 

Malley has in the past drawn criticism from pro-Israel circles, particularly over his meetings with officials from Hamas, a Palestinian militant group considered a terrorist organization by the United States. Malley, who worked on Arab-Israeli affairs in the Clinton administration, defended the dialogue as necessary for his work at the International Crisis Group. 

The open letter from progressive groups Thursday said Malley’s track record of diplomatic engagement would be an asset to any future talks with Iran over its nuclear ambitions or human rights record. 

“It is no surprise that those who reject the primacy of diplomacy as a tool of statecraft see engagement with adversaries as appeasement,” they wrote. 

What’s next: Biden has said that if Tehran returns to full compliance under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the United States will rejoin the multilateral pact as a starting point for follow-on negotiations aimed at crafting a stronger deal.  

Biden administration officials have lowered expectations that a return to the JCPOA is imminent. Secretary of State Antony Blinken stressed to reporters Wednesday that it would take time for Iran to reverse its many violations under the deal, adding “we’re not there yet to say the least.” 

Know more: Both Iran and the Biden administration say they’re willing to reenter the deal — but only if the other side makes the first move. Al-Monitor’s Andrew Parasiliti breaks down the standoff and explains why Iran has a limited window for diplomacy. 

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