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Source: Bloomberg

Jul 1, 2023

Biden Should Reset His Failed Iran Policy

Controversy over the security clearance of Robert Malley should mark an end to the White House’s pointless negotiations.

By Bobby Ghosh

Rumors are swirling in Washington, a city that likes nothing so much as a scandal, about the possible reasons for Robert Malley’s fall from grace.

What we know for certain is that President Joe Biden’s point man on Iran is on leave while his security clearance is under review. The White House has offered no explanation, but CNN is reporting that the State Department has launched a security investigation into his possible mishandling of classified information.

“I have been informed that my security clearance is under review,” Malley said in a statement to Bloomberg News. “I have not been provided any further information, but I expect the investigation to be resolved favorably and soon. In the meantime, I am on leave.”

Clearance reviews are not unheard of, but it is highly unusual for an official of Malley’s seniority and closeness to the White House to face such scrutiny. And it could hardly come at a more inopportune moment for the Biden administration, which was on the verge a breakthrough in negotiations with Iran for the release of at least three Americans being held hostage by the Islamic Republic.

The families of Siamak Namazi, Morad Tahbaz and Emad Shargi, all imprisoned on trumped-up charges of espionage, will hope that they will be released regardless of Malley’s troubles. Namazi has been detained since the fall of 2015, Tahbaz since early 2018, and Shargi since late 2020.

In addition to negotiating their release, Malley’s parleys in New York with Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations were part of a wider effort to reach a new agreement to limit Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for an easing of economic sanctions.

Those penalties were imposed by the US five years ago after President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from a nuclear deal struck in 2015. Biden administration officials and Iranian diplomats have quietly conducted indirect talks in Oman  —  raising alarms in Congress, where a bipartisan group of lawmakers is anxious that Biden may be trying to circumvent their oversight of any nuclear bargain.

Malley’s troubles should sharpen the focus, inside and outside the administration, on Biden’s Iran policy. It is long overdue for a reset.

Upon taking office, the president made the revival of the 2015 agreement — known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — a top foreign-policy goal. He entrusted the task to Malley, a key player in the negotiations by President Barack Obama’s administration that led to the JCPOA.

(That pact was a poor bargain: At best, it postponed for a few years Iran’s nuclear ambitions in exchange for the lifting of comprehensive sanctions imposed by the UN.) In addition to Biden’s backing, Malley had strong political connections: He went to high school with Secretary of State Tony Blinken and law school with Obama.  


But after two and half years, it is plain that Malley’s mission has failed. The JCPOA is, to all intents and purposes, a dead letter. Biden maintains he is determined to prevent the theocrats in Tehran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, but Iran has accelerated its enrichment of uranium, greatly expanded its stockpile, and is thought to be only weeks from having enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon.

At the same time, lax imposition of sanctions by the US has allowed Iran to greatly increase its exports of oil, mostly to China, and of military drones to Russia.

This has given its supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, the confidence to set impossible terms for a new deal: Tehran keeps its nuclear infrastructure and the US drops its sanctions. It is clear, as Malley himself has acknowledged, that Iran hasn’t made the “fundamental decision” to return to the JCPOA.

Meanwhile, spooked by the likelihood of Iran reaching the nuclear threshold, US allies in the Arab world are seeking a separate accommodation with the Islamic Republic, further weakening Biden’s hand. Israel is giving the White House a different kind of vexation: Administration officials say the Israelis have been leaking information about the indirect US-Iran talks to the press.

Among other things, this makes it harder for the president to execute an end-run around Congress on any potential agreement.  

Even if Malley emerges unscathed from the investigation, the policy he has been pursuing for the president has been proven pointless. Biden should begin anew, starting with stiffer imposition of existing sanctions and the announcement of new ones as penalty for Iran’s assistance to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

This would send a cautionary signal to Tehran and a reassuring one to America’s friends in the Middle East. Whatever comes of Malley's security review, it's clearly past time for a reset.

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