The appointment of Robert Malley as US Envoy to Iran is a step in the wrong direction for Joe Biden, writes Sayeh Yousefi. 

 

In the first few weeks of his presidency, Biden was met with a critical and prescriptive decision to appoint the U.S.’s envoy to Iran. Rumors circulated that he would pick Robert Malley, one of the lead negotiators on the Iran nuclear deal under the Obama administration. Malley, however, is a controversial pick for the role of the U.S. Envoy to Iran. He has been widely criticized for his support for the Iranian regime. His appointment would indicate that the U.S. is reverting to Obama’s approach to Iran, a cause for Iranians’ concern.

While an effort to reinvigorate the Obama-era relations with Iran on the surface and in comparison to four years of Trump’s mishandling of the U.S. relations with Iran, may seem like a good move, it is seriously misguided. 

Just last year, Iranians took to streets to protest against the Islamic Republic in unprecedented numbers, calling for the fall of the Islamic Republic and its Supreme Leader. Iranians want change, not a return to the status quo. Returning to the nuclear deal with Iran and lifting sanctions against the Islamic Republic, without placing new terms on Iran regarding its nuclear arsenal and human rights record, can only further empower Khamenei to oppress Iranians. Even if we put aside the concerns of reverting to an Obama-era approach to Iran, the appointment of Malley is cause for serious concern.

Since the rumors first started milling about Malley’s appointment, the Islamic Republic’s sympathizers and lobbyists in North America have been quick to voice their support for Malley. This list includes the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), whose one of the founders Trita Parsi has close personal ties with the Islamic Republic leaders;  Negar Mortazavi, a journalist best known for spreading pro-Iran propaganda, among other members of the Iranian propaganda engine. 

This outpouring of support from regime lobbyists in the U.S. and Canada for Malley’s appointment is a glaring red flag. The same people who openly support the Iranian regime are overwhelmingly in favor of Malley. Why is that? The appointment of Malley suggests a U.S. move towards negotiating with Iran, but dealing with Iran does not mean negotiating for the Iranian people. It means that whatever negotiations come to, it will be in the regime’s interest.  

Malley shared controversial comments about the 2019 Iran Protests. In a panel interview with a French TV station, he joined a discussion about the series of uprisings in the Middle East at the time, namely Iraq, Lebanon, and Iran. When asked what his opinions were of the state of mind that Iranians were in, he responded saying, “I think what is happening now has only confirmed their paranoia…sometimes these paranoias are justified to some extent, that there is a conspiracy against them. I said this today and discussed it recently as well, [they] are convinced that the US, Saudi Arabia, and Israel are doing everything to weaken Iran”. 

This comment angered Iranians, as Malley suggested that the 2019 protests were possibly instigated by foreign powers – a claim repeatedly used by Iran’s leaders to delegitimize the protests. Insinuating that the protests were a “foreign conspiracy” is an incredibly problematic claim for the U.S. envoy to Iran to make, one that is an affront to the Iranians who risked their lives, and those who lost their lives to protest the regime. It is worrying, to say the least, that the person who President Biden has chosen to lead the U.S.’s relationship with Iran going forward not only feeds into the regime’s conspiracies, but seems to agree with them.

Supporters of Malley have argued that these comments were taken out of context and that Malley was not supporting Iran’s response to the protests. First and foremost, this is a straw-man argument. The criticisms of Malley in this video have been focused on his allegation that Iran’s paranoia about foreign meddling in the protests was to some extent justified, an allegation that belittles the protestors who joined the uprisings, and the thousands who lost their lives. 

The people defending Malley are saying he never supported the regime’s response to protestors – which is true. But no one is saying that Malley supported the regime’s response. They’re criticizing the other things he said.

The video clip that went viral shows minutes of a 20-minute long interview, is it fair to say that Malley’s words were taken out of context? I was open to the possibility. I watched the entire video and translated it myself, just in case YouTube’s automated subtitles were misinterpreting his words as they often can. 

The verdict? Malley’s comments were not taken out of context. In the interview, the moderator brings up the comments made by Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei, when he said that the uprisings in the Middle East were purely the result of foreign meddling in the region, efforts by the West to destabilize Iran and its allies. The moderator then asked whether Khamenei has reason to think that the U.S. is behind these efforts “to destabilize the region”? Malley responded by first saying that Khamenei is right that in Iran, the situation is much worse because of Trump’s sanctions after the U.S. left the nuclear deal. 

This is one of the most common tropes used by regime sympathisers and apologists to defend the Islamic Republic. Any time the Islamic Republic does anything wrong, whether it is shooting down a passenger plane last January and killing 176 innocent civilians, violently repressing the November 2019 protests, or mismanaging the COVID-19 outbreak and killing more Iranians, Iran lobbyists chant the all-too familiar refrain that sanctions are to blame. Whether it was intentional or not, by agreeing with Khamenei that U.S. sanctions have destabilized Iran, Malley is strengthening Iran’s narrative – that the regime is always innocent and the only thing to blame is U.S. sanctions.

The comments about Iran’s paranoia being justified followed shortly. The moderator noted that Malley, given his experience as one of the negotiators on the nuclear deal, has “rubbed shoulders” with many Iranians. 

She asked him what his opinion was on what state of mind they were in, “What has happened only confirms their paranoia”, Malley responded. Malley’s comments were not taken out of context, and in fact, watching the entire video paints an even more worrying image about Malley’s perceptions of Iran. 

Another glaring detail in Malley’s past that indicates serious concern about his intentions and moral compass is that before he joined Obama’s administration, Malley had openly had talks with members of Hamas, a terrorist organization. This gained uproar, and Malley resigned from working with Obama’s campaign at the time. Further, Xiyue Wang, a former political prisoner detained in Iran has voiced criticisms of Malley’s appointment, arguing that “if he is appointed, it’d suggest releasing US hostages from Iran won’t be a priority..”

Rather than responding to these criticisms about Malley’s very controversial comments about the 2019 Iran protests, regime lobbyists have simply shut them down as “fake news”. Maral Karimi, an Iranian author and academic, duly noted that “anyone who disagrees with Rob Malley as Iran envoy” is being portrayed as the right-wing. These accusations very conveniently gloss over the many Iranian human rights activists, dissidents, and academics who have voiced concerns over Malley’s commitment to human rights. While Malley does not ever say he supports or defends the regime’s violent response to protestors, he does feed into a dangerous narrative of deferring blame from the regime onto the U.S., a narrative the IR depends on to maintain legitimacy.

This issue ultimately does not boil down to hawks versus doves or sanctions versus diplomacy. The main problem here is that negotiation with Iran should not, and can not, come at the expense of human rights. If the U.S. yields to Iran’s demands for easing of sanctions, and does not require that Iran release its political prisoners, it is saying that human rights are secondary. 

This is a mistaken first step for the Biden administration to make that will result in a loss of faith for Iranian people who had hoped Biden would support them.