A Test Case for Biden’s Commitment to Diplomacy

Medea Benjamin and Ariel Gold say that Biden should pick one of the nation’s foremost experts on the Middle East to be his Iran envoy.   

Rob Malley. (National Press Club)

By Medea Benjamin and Ariel Gold
Common Dreams

President Joe Biden’s commitment to re-entering the Iran nuclear deal — formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA — is already facing backlash from a motley crew of war hawks both domestic and foreign. Right now, opponents of re-entering the deal are centering their vitriol on one of the nation’s foremost experts on both the Middle East and diplomacy: Robert Malley, who Biden might tap to be the next Iran envoy.

On Jan. 21, conservative journalist Elli Lake penned an opinion piece in Bloomberg News arguing that Biden should not appoint Malley because Malley ignores Iran’s human rights abuses and “regional terror.” Republican Senator Tom Cotton retweeted Lake’s piece with the heading: “Malley has a long track record of sympathy for the Iranian regime & animus towards Israel. The ayatollahs wouldn’t believe their luck if he is selected.”

Pro regime-change Iranians such as Mariam Memarsadeghi, conservative American journalists like Breitbart’s Joel Pollak, and the far-right Zionist Organization of America are opposing Malley. Benjamin Netanyahu has expressed opposition to Malley getting the appointment and Maj. Gen. Yaakov Amidror, a close adviser to the prime minister, said that if the U.S. reenters the JCPOA, Israel may take military action against Iran. A petition opposing Malley has even started on Change.org.

What makes Malley such a threat to these opponents of talks with Iran?

Malley is the polar opposite of Trump’s Special Representative to Iran Elliot Abrams, whose only interest was squeezing the economy and whipping up conflict in the hopes of regime change. Malley, on the other hand, has called U.S. Middle East policy “a litany of failed enterprises” requiring “self-reflection” and is a true believer in diplomacy.

Under the Clinton and Obama administrations, Malley helped organize the 2000 Camp David Summit as special assistant to President Bill Clinton; acted as President Barack Obama’s White House coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa, and the Gulf region; and was the lead negotiator on the White House staff for the 2015 Iran Nuclear Deal. When Obama left office, Malley became president of the International Crisis Group, a group formed in 1995 to prevent wars.

June 27, 2015: Rob Malley, far left, with U.S. and Iranian diplomatic teams. (State Department)

During the Trump years, Malley was a fierce critic of Trump’s Iran policy. In an Atlantic piece he coauthored, he denounced Trump’s plan to withdraw and refuted critiques about the sunset clauses in the deal not extending for more years. “The time-bound nature of some of the constraints [in the JCPOA] is not a flaw of the deal, it was a prerequisite for it,” he wrote. “The real choice in 2015 was between achieving a deal that constrained the size of Iran’s nuclear program for many years and ensured intrusive inspections forever, or not getting one.”

He condemned Trump’s maximum pressure campaign as a maximum failure, explaining that throughout Trump’s presidency, “Iran’s nuclear program grew, increasingly unconstrained by the JCPOA. Tehran has more accurate ballistic missiles than ever before and more of them. The regional picture grew more, not less, fraught.” 

While Malley’s detractors accuse him of ignoring the regime’s grim human rights record,  national security and human rights organizations supporting Malley said in a joint letter that since Trump left the nuclear deal, “Iran’s civil society is weaker and more isolated, making it harder for them to advocate for change.”

Palestinian children walk past a mural depicts former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, July 22, 2015. (Abed Rahim Khatib)

Hawks have another reason for opposing Malley: his refusal to show blind support for Israel. In 2001 Malley co-wrote an article for The New York Review arguing that the failure of the Israeli-Palestinian Camp David negotiations had not been the sole fault of Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat but included then-Israeli leader Ehud Barak. The U.S. pro-Israel establishment wasted no time accusing Malley of having an anti-Israel bias. 

Malley has also been pilloried for meeting with members of the Palestinian political group Hamas, designated a terror organization by the U.S. In a letter to The New York Times, Malley explained that these encounters were part of his job when he was Middle East program director at the International Crisis Group, and that he was regularly asked by both American and Israeli officials to brief them on these meetings.

With the Biden administration already facing opposition from Israel about its intent to return to the JCPOA, Malley’s expertise on Israel and his willingness to talk to all sides will be an asset.

Malley understands that re-entering the JCPOA must be undertaken swiftly and will not be easy. Iranian presidential elections are scheduled for June and predictions are that a hardline candidate will win, making negotiations with the U.S. harder.

He is also keenly aware that re-entering the JCPOA is not enough to calm the regional conflicts, which is why he supports a European initiative to encourage de-escalation dialogues between Iran and neighboring Gulf states. As U.S. special envoy to Iran, Malley could put the weight of the U.S. behind such efforts.

Malley’s Middle East foreign policy expertise and diplomatic skills make him the ideal candidate to reinvigorate the JCPOA and help calm regional tensions. Biden’s response to the far-right uproar against Malley will be a test of his fortitude in standing up to the hawks and charting a new course for U.S. policy in the Middle East.

Peace-loving Americans should shore up Biden’s resolve by supporting Malley’s appointment. 

Medea Benjamin is cofounder of CODEPINK for Peace, and author of several books, including Inside Iran: The Real History and Politics of the Islamic Republic of Iran and Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control. 

Ariel Gold is the national co-director and senior Middle East policy analyst with CODEPINK for Peace.

 The views expressed are solely those of the authors and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

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12 comments for “A Test Case for Biden’s Commitment to Diplomacy

  1. john stanley
    January 28, 2021 at 04:56

    When will Americans grow up and stop letting uncle Israel run their foreign policy.

  2. robert e williamson jr
    January 27, 2021 at 13:38

    I have recently made a similar statement in a comment to another piece submitted to CN, The same goes here.

    Biden is another in a long list of top ranking democrats to fail to understand that Zionist views are killing America.

    Since our country is currently immersed in raw political turmoil with U.S. problems up to our necks now might be a great time to tell Israel the free ride is over.

    Since 1947 Zionists of this country have spoiled the extreme right wing Israeli politicians The cost has been stripping away U.S. sovereignty. Think not see Israels recent threat to Iran if the U.S. leadership attempts to deal Iran nuclear program peacefully . They claim they will attack Iran if the U.S. goes that route.

    I say Rob Malley needs to tell the Israels that if they do the U.S. will squeeze them until it hurts.

    Netinyahoo is a crazy crank and rates about the same as the orange turd we just removed from office.

  3. evelync
    January 26, 2021 at 15:17

    sorry to bring a discouraging note but the two photos, above, of Rob Malley – one alone; the other at the conference table – seem to show a thoughtful, good willed person capable of listening and understanding/caring about true diplomacy……not a good look to appeal to the fascist views of Neoliberals and Neocons…

    the top NEOCONs have a look of smugness, indifference, wildness, warlike aggression and unwillingness to listen , shallow indifference to the unintended consequences of their shoot from the hip aggression oligarchic policies…
    our government always seems to prefer that look – the drive somebody into the ground look, the let the taxpayers pay and keep them in the dark look
    in short, the sociopathic look…

    Biden seems perfectly capable of backing off any good intent that he may, deep down, understand and buckling to the darker forces….based on his long history.

    I’d love to see Rob Malley get the job based on what Benjamin and Gold write especially because of Benjamin’s proven commitment to sane foreign policy but how can anyone be hopeful given the lack of courage to do the right thing has long been the norm…

    • Anne
      January 27, 2021 at 13:45

      Ta evelync…Do you think he has/had any “good intent”? Ever? Yes, he’s blatantly christian, but as we know that means nowt, really. All show and no actual action (wasn’t the idol all too “Communist”?), because there are seductive, very seductive rewards for those who say one thing (good, humane, moral, ethical) while actually doing the barbaric, immoral, unethical, heinous….

      • evelync
        January 27, 2021 at 19:07

        I haven’t seen evidence that he has good intent based on his votes.

        I’m bewildered by the people like Bernie Sanders and Senator Wyden, I think it was, who say that Biden is a nice person or well meaning person or good person.

        So I’m baffled….
        What you say about him was my impression – a self serving apparatchik who knows what side his bread is buttered on….
        And therefore, the best we can expect is if/when he’s willing to be pushed….

        If he’s not a sociopath then deep down he knows what hurts people….but has buckled to the power structure…

        I’m disappointed that this administration has continued to “recognize” the oligarchs corporate pawn Guaidó as the “leader” of Venezuela even as the EU has withdrawn that support….

        Thanks :)

  4. Cadogan Parry
    January 26, 2021 at 14:42

    “the Biden administration could be tempted to limit its engagement on Israel-Palestine to mitigating the Trump administration’s damage and restarting negotiations. That would be understandable but ineffective. The likely outcome of such an approach would be consolidated Israeli control over Palestinian territories, further Palestinian fragmentation, and rising frustration and despair. To steer the parties back to a place where a forceful diplomatic push might be productive, the Biden administration would be better advised to pursue a policy that is faithful to its stated commitment to international norms, respect for human rights, multilateralism and diplomacy.”
    – International-Crisis-Group/United-States/Middle-East-Project(USMEP) Joint Statement (15-December-2020)

  5. Jeff Harrison
    January 26, 2021 at 14:14

    Maybe this guy would be good for the overall situation. The fundamental problem is that the US has sought for the last half century to make a tiny nation of 8 million rabid zealots the hegemon of the entire Middle East. That’s not gonna happen over the long haul. It’s right up there with our support for Wahhabist Saudi Arabia. Using religion as a wedge issue is stupid.

    In the end, the US is going to have to cut Israel loose to stand or fall on its own.

    • Anne
      January 27, 2021 at 13:41

      Not just rabid “zealots” – genocidal ethnic cleansers of the indigenous…in other words, straight out of the UK/USA’s own playbook…

  6. wager
    January 26, 2021 at 13:47

    Will Joe let AIPAC keep driving the bus?

    Odds scream YES.

    • Anne
      January 27, 2021 at 13:40

      Ho yes – absolutely abundantly clear given his Cabinet choices…And where was he while Veep??? Talk about who has the clutch on the hairs…

  7. vinnieoh
    January 26, 2021 at 12:41

    I assume this is an appointment that does not require Senate approval. So yes, Biden should appoint him though it should be pointed out that re-negotiating the JCPOA is a non-starter for Iran, regardless of whomever is chosen to carry that message to Tehran.

    Iran and indeed the rest of the world must surely realize how dangerous the US has become, because first and foremost it is not reality based (one can argue if that was ever the case) in that it refuses to acknowledge the realities of time and tide.

    However, I’d rate Malley’s chances of being anywhere in the game at much less than 50% because he’s probably going to be “Corbyned” right here in the good ol’ USA, the recent incarnation of “The Holocaust Industry” and another layer of slime in a nation drowning in slime.

    • rosemerry
      January 26, 2021 at 15:43

      Unfortunately you are probably correct. He sounds too good to be true (how has Biden even heard of him!.) Unless the JCPOA can be rejoined without any conditions (how dare the USA, who withdrew, now want to upgrade their bullying control?) then Iran will not consider allowing the return and why would it? Stop all the illegal sanctions first.

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