A mysterious return - GulfToday

A mysterious return

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.


Robert Malley

US chief negotiator on the Iran nuclear deal Robert Malley disappeared months ago after being mysteriously stripped of security clearance and placed on unpaid leave. Although there has been no official explanation for his harsh treatment, he has reappeared as a lecturer at Princeton and Yale universities.

Writing in The Washington Post on Sept.6, Josh Rogin slammed the US government for criticising China for “the disappearance former foreign minister Qin Gang” while the State Department failed to explain “what’s going on with” Malley.

Well, the State Department and the US government were scooped by none other than Sadra Torabi in The Tehran Times on July 10 who reported that Malley’s clearance to access classified documents was suspended on April 21. To keep alive the fiction that he was still operational, he remained in contact with families of the five US prisoners in Iran whose release he had ben negotiating. On May 16, Malley was excluded without explanation, from a high-level confidential meeting of officials with senators on the state of negotiations with Tehran.

On June 29, US media carried reports of the Malley investigation while the State Department told the media he was still in his post although he had been placed on unpaid leave that very day. The State Department said Malley’s deputy Adam Paley would serve as acting Iran envoy. On July 7, Morgan Chalfant revealed in Semafor that the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was probing Malley over the alleged mishandling of classified information. The White House made no comment and referred the media to the State Department which refrained from comment. Malley issued a statement saying that his “clearance was ‘under review’ but that he expected the investigation to be resolved favourably and soon.’”

In the Chalfont’s view, “The FBI’s involvement raises the stakes of the investigation into a veteran, high profile, and sometimes controversial diplomat, and suggests that investigations are considering something beyond the lowest-level mishandling of documents.”

Malley met several times with Iranian UN ambassador Amir Saeid Iravani and relied on dual US-Iran citizens who were consulted during Obama and Biden administrations to consult with Iranian negotiators. These were the International Crisis Group’s Vali Vaez, John Hopkins University professor Vali Nasr, and the Quincy Institute’s Trita Parsi. The Tehran Times’s Torabi argued on July 16 that it “is certain is that Robert Malley, who has had secret access and security clearances at the highest levels of the US government for years, has been in full coordination with the US State Department in promoting this negotiation tactic.”

On Aug.28, The Tehran Times’ Alireza Akbari infuriated the US media by releasing the text of the “sensitive but unclassified” April memorandum which stated that Malley’s “continued national security eligibility is clearly not consistent with the interests of national security.” The memorandum stated that his suspension was due to his conduct, handling of confidential information, and use of information technology. Malley was told to return his ID card for State Department headquarters, and his diplomatic passport. He was granted the right to object.

The US secrecy over Malley’s case has increased Tehran’s mistrust of the Biden administration. Iran grew suspicious of the administration when President Joe Biden failed to renew US compliance with the 2015 agreement — the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA — limiting Iran’s nuclear programme in exchange for lifting sanctions. Donald Trump withdrew the US and imposed 1,500 new sanctions on Iran in 2018. Iran waited a year for other the other five JCPOA signatories to ease sanctions before breaching terms of the deal to put pressure on the US to re-enter it.

Tehran and pro-JCPOA US officials and commentators expected Biden to return the US to the JCPOA as soon as he took office by simply signing a decree — as he did on Trump’s other destructive actions. Biden’s choice of Malley as chief negotiator encouraged this belief. He served as the Obama administration’s lead negotiator on the JCPOA before heading the Brussels-based International Crisis Group which advocates for conflict resolution. Malley’s service in these posts engendered sharp criticism of Biden’s appointment of him from Republicans and the powerful anti-Iran and pro-Israel lobbies.

For critics and opponents, Malley’s background has always been a red flag. His parents were committed to anti-imperialist struggle, particularly in Algeria. Simon Malley, a Syrian-Egyptian Jewish journalist who grew up in Cairo, served as a correspondent for Egypt’s Al-Gomhuria newspaper, contributing articles on Afro-Asian liberation. Barbara Malley worke for the UN delegation of Algeria’s National Liberation Front. In 1969, the family moved to Paris where Robert Malley attended a prestigious bilingual school where he became friends with Secretary of State Antony Blinken. In 1980, the Malleys returned to the US after Simon Malley was expelled from France due to his criticisms of its Paris’ policies in Algeria.

Robert Malley graduated from Yale university, earned his doctorate at Oxford, and his law degree at Harvard. Malley became well-versed in the intricacies Palestinian-Israeli conflict. He attracted the attention of rightist and pro-Israeli critics by advocating US dialogue with Hamas and a negotiated settlement based on the 2002 Saudi sponsored plan which offered Israel peace in exchange for full withdrawal from Arab territory occupied in 1967. While the Clinton administration’s regional adviser, Malley contradicted President Bill Clinton and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak when they blamed the failure of the peace negotiations at the 2000 Camp David summit solely on Palestinian President Yasser Arafat. Malley, who was at the summit, contended Barack’s offer was unacceptable to Arafat. For Clinton, it was politically expedient to charge Arafat. Malley was castigated for taking this line which was later confirmed by other commentators.

It is ironic that in the absence of Malley and despite fierce opposition from Congressional Republicans and the Biden administration’s hesitancy in the run-up to the 2024 election, a US-Iran deal on the exchange of prisoners is currently in the process of implementation.

Photo: TNS

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