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The Trouble with Biden’s Iran Envoy

Critics of Robert Malley worry about his pro-Iran sympathies. They should worry more about his outdated views.
February 8, 2021
The Trouble with Biden’s Iran Envoy
Robert Malley, the Biden administration’s special envoy for Iran, photographed in 2017. (Riccardo De Luca / Anadolu / Getty)

One of the first moves by Secretary of State Antony Blinken upon assuming office was appointing Robert Malley, whom he has known since they went to high school together, to be the new special envoy for Iran. Malley’s appointment portends a major—and troubling—shift in U.S. policy toward Iran.

It is hard to imagine two people more starkly different in their politics than Malley and the man he succeeds. Donald Trump’s special envoy for Iran, Elliott Abrams, is an avowed advocate for regime change in totalitarian states and an Iran hawk. By contrast, critics have charged that Malley is soft on, and even sympathetic with, the Islamic Republic. That’s a problem, and worth discussing, but it’s not the biggest problem with his appointment. The main problem is that Malley’s bias about Middle Eastern societies—that they are inevitably anti-Western—reflects what Iran’s leaders say about their people but doesn’t reflect the Iranian people.

Malley’s appointment quickly attracted justified criticism. Senator Tom Cotton accused him of “sympathy for the Iranian regime.” New York Times columnist Bret Stephens cited a French TV appearance in which (as Stephens described it) Malley suggested that the “massive public protests in Iran justified Tehran’s paranoia about an Israeli-Saudi-U.S. plot.” While it is true that this is one fair interpretation of Malley’s remarks in that French interview, a more charitable viewer could perhaps interpret them differently.

Malley’s critics are mostly right, but not completely. He certainly has a track record of partiality toward repressive regimes in the region and a habit of making tactical blunders. Consider three episodes from Malley’s career in politics:

  • In 2001, Malley, who had worked on Arab-Israeli issues under President Clinton, blamed Israel’s prime minister, Ehud Barak, for the failure of the talks with Yasser Arafat that Clinton had mediated—when in reality, the talks collapsed because Arafat was not negotiating in good faith since he was corrupt and profited from the conflict.
  • In 2008, Malley had to leave Barack Obama’s presidential campaign when reports emerged that he had met with representatives from Hamas. (Six years later, Obama quietly brought Malley back into the fold, putting him on the National Security Council staff with a portfolio involving Iran and eventually also ISIS.)
  • In the midst of the Syrian civil war, Malley clashed with Secretary of State John Kerry, who had called for Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad to step down.

Simply put, the most controversial acts in Malley’s career have involved siding with Arab pariahs who have ties with Iran. It is perfectly reasonable to find his appointment worrisome.

Malley’s portfolio as Iran envoy goes beyond Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions, but that issue is on the top of the agenda. As Jake Sullivan, President Biden’s national security advisor, explained, the hope is to address the problem as quickly as possible, putting it “in a box” so the administration can move on to addressing Iran’s malign behavior across the region. Malley will surely play a central part in attempting to resuscitate the Iran nuclear deal or negotiating a new one. But Iran is a country in turmoil. Given Malley’s career—his writings and his past work in government—in what ways can we expect him to shape U.S. policy toward Iran?

Serious though Malley’s past misjudgments are, they are not the primary reason he is the wrong person for the job. Much worse is his fundamental ignorance of Iran.

Malley has built his career on the notion that third world regimes in the Middle East and North Africa are legitimate due to their resistance to foreign powers. (His father, a prominent activist-journalist, was also an outspoken advocate for independence movements in the third world.) Malley’s Oxford doctoral dissertation, which he turned into a book, identified anti-colonialism, anti-Westernism, and liberation movements as sources of legitimacy for third world regimes. It is unclear how fully Malley understands that this has changed—that the power of liberation movements and anti-Westernism has faded over time. The end of colonialism and the demographic youngness of third world populations mean that lived memories of foreign occupations no longer have the political potency they once did. The Arab Spring, despite its failure, showed that young Arabs consider their own leaders, not foreign bogeymen, responsible for their problems. Recurring protests in Iran affirm that this is also the case there.

To the extent that Malley still holds those views, they will not help him understand or deal with Iran. Iran is one of the very few third world countries that has never been colonized. Anti-foreign-powerism has a long history in Iran but directed at Russia and the United Kingdom (with China quickly replacing the United Kingdom). The anti-Americanism that was a force behind the 1979 revolution was a fluke—like a stock that rose quickly and fell even faster, despite the regime’s desperate efforts to prop it up. Bernard Lewis once observed that Middle Eastern societies are divided into those who hate America because it supports their governments and those who love America because it opposes their governments. This is nowhere more true than in Iran, where the nation’s youth hold their miserable present in contrast with their glorious past and blame the Islamic Republic but also Islam for their problems. (Which explains the high rate of secularism and conversion out of Islam in Iran.)

And the matter of anti-Westernism is not the only area where Malley needs to revisit his thinking. He is a Middle East expert, but—as with all Middle East experts who work on Iran—he must lock all of his conceptions about the Middle East, be they right or wrong, in a box and throw away the key. Iran may geographically be a part of the Middle East, but its unique heritage means it defies the stereotypes. The best evidence for this is that while nationhood for most Middle Easterners is intertwined with Islamic heritage, patriotism in Iran is for most people either separate from Islam or antithetical to it.

Malley’s primary experience with Iran comes from his time as a lead Iran negotiator under Kerry when the 2015 nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) was produced. But Malley’s new role as Iran envoy entails much more than nuclear weapons negotiations. He will need to understand Iran’s regime and Iran’s people as two separate entities, both extraordinarily complicated, which have puzzled even lifelong students of the country. For instance, almost 42 years since the revolution, nobody can say with certainty whether the supreme leader is a Stalin-like figure with unlimited power, a figurehead controlled by the oligarchs, or something in between.

In the French TV interview that Stephens cited, Malley is right to observe that Iran’s leaders are paranoid about a foreign plot to oust them. And he is right, as are Iran’s leaders, to assume that there is such a plot. The collapse of the Islamic Republic is a dearly held wish of Israel and Saudi Arabia, not to mention a great many Americans of both political parties. But the real reason that Iran’s leaders are, and should be, “paranoid” is because any such plot would have the support of a large number of their own people. The Islamic Republic has lost all basis for legitimacy among Iranians. That’s the real source of the regime’s vulnerability.

In Iran, most people look to the United States as a potential ally against their oppressors—and not as a source of their miseries. In essence, it is the Islamic Republic that is the colonizer. To the extent that there is an “anti-colonial” liberation movement in Iran, it is directed against the alien regime that came to power against the society’s grain and heritage and has been trying to erase Iran’s national heritage. The best representation of this contrast is the perennial clashes between the people who want to celebrate Cyrus Day every year and the authorities who see Cyrus the Great as incompatible with their vision for Iran. Which explains why the video that Malley’s predecessor, Elliott Abrams, produced celebrating Cyrus Day was widely popular among Iranians.

For Iranians, foreign powers in the free world, especially the United States and increasingly Israel, are allies against the illegitimate regime, not the oppressors that make the regime legitimate. Will Malley’s intellectual background and foreign policy beliefs leave him unable to see and act upon this fact?

Shay Khatiri

Shay Khatiri studied Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He’s an immigrant from Iran and writes the Substack newsletter The Russia-Iran File.