Robert Malley on Iran

Robert MalleyBefore his appointment as Special Envoy for Iran, Robert Malley criticized the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran as ineffective. “Sanctions devastated Iran’s economy but achieved little else,” he wrote in Foreign Policy in December 2020. “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.” 

Malley’s appointment was confirmed by the White House and the State Department on January 29, 2021. Malley brings “a track record of success negotiating constraints on Iran's nuclear program,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said.

Malley served in the Obama administration as Special Assistant to the President, Senior Adviser to the President for the Counter-ISIS Campaign, and White House Coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa and the Gulf region. Malley was a key member of the negotiating team that brokered the 2015 nuclear deal. From 2018 to 2021, Malley was president of the International Crisis Group. The following are past remarks by Malley on Iran.  



After taking office:

On Iran’s nuclear program and future diplomacy 





Interview with NPR on Apr. 6, 2021: "We'll work as closely as we can with Congress. And this is a very polarizing issue. We understand that. At the same time we've stated clearly it was what the president ran on — that we would come back into the deal if Iran resumed compliance and then work on it to achieve what I think every member of Congress has said he or she wants to achieve, which is a stronger, longer deal that meets U.S. core interests. But also would have to include further steps that Iran is looking for. And doing this in coordination with our regional allies, our regional partners."

"What we would pursue is, first of all, a longer agreement. Even though this one lasts quite some time and some of its provisions last forever, of course, it would be better, as in any arms control agreement, to see whether we could get a follow-on deal that extends the timelines...And, you know, we have concerns about Iran's ballistic missile program. We have concerns about their activities in the region. We want to talk about all that. But we're much better off talking about all of that if we could at least put the current nuclear issue to the side and not have to worry every day about what the latest Iranian announcement will be."

"We will negotiate with whoever is in power in Iran. And if we could reach an understanding before the elections, fine. And if we can't, we'll continue after that with whoever is in office in Tehran. So we can't ignore the reality of an election, but we can't let it dictate our pace either."

Interview with PBS on Apr. 2, 2021: "The goal is to see whether we can agree on what steps the United States needs to take to come back into compliance with the nuclear deal and what steps Iran has to take to come back into compliance with the nuclear deal. It's been many years since the United States has had that kind of engagement with Iran. It's going to be indirect. But we have seen the product of several years in which the Trump administration had tried to impose maximum pressure on Iran, withdrawing from the deal, trying to get Iran to surrender and to agree to better terms."

"This is just the first step. It's going to be a difficult, arduous path because of how much time has gone by and how much mutual distrust there is. But our goal is to discuss indirectly with our European and other partners who have internal discussions with Iran to see whether we could define those steps that both sides are going to have to take. If they're serious about coming back into compliance with the deal, we're serious. President Biden said it during the campaign and since that the United States is prepared for a mutual return back into compliance."

"If we're realistic about what both sides have to do, if we engage in this with a realistic and constructive frame of mind, we could get there. But if either side takes a maximalist position, and says that the other side has to do everything first before it's going to move one inch, I think it's hard to see how this succeeds."

"We understand that there's an election coming up. And we know that Iran is very well aware of it. But our goal is to get to a correct return to the JCPOA, to the nuclear deal. And that's — and we will follow that pace in a very determined way. But we're not going to cut corners if we can't get a proper understanding before that time."

Interview with BBC Persian on Mar. 17, 2021: "If Iran is prepared to come back into compliance, so is the U.S. We could play games about who goes first. I think anyone who's dealt with this knows that neither side is going to go first entirely. There's going to have to be some agreement on choreographing, on synchronizing. We're open to discussing that. But it's going to have to be discussed. It's not going to happen simply unilaterally by one side taking all the steps and waiting then to see whether the other one reciprocates."

"I'm not saying that the shape of the Iranian government has no consequences just as the shape of the U.S. government has consequence. Of course. What we're saying is we're not going to try to slow down the pace in order to see who comes next. And we're not going to try to accelerate it against what we think should be a rigorous reentry into the deal and cut corners because we're going to rush this for the sake of meeting an electoral deadline. We want to work as fast as we can, consistent with getting things right for us. Of course, Iran will want to get things right for itself. So that's what's dictating our pace. How Iran decides its own political future, we'll leave to them."

Interview with Voice of America Persian on Mar. 17, 2021: "We're not dragging our feet. We're prepared to meet and so far we're waiting for the Iranians to be able to tell us how they want to discuss this. It's not going to happen with the U.S. unilaterally taking these steps. We want to talk about it. We want to come back into compliance if Iran comes into compliance. And we hope that that could happen soon. If Iran thinks that if, as you're suggesting, these are tactics aimed at speeding things up, it's hard to see how that's going to work. It's not really helping the climate in the U.S. to have Iranian allies take shots at Americans in Iraq or elsewhere. And the U.S. will respond as it has responded and it will continue to respond. But our goal is to see a de-escalation of tensions in the region and to see both Iran and the United States back into compliance with their obligations, their commitments under the nuclear deal. And we hope that that could happen as soon as possible."

"We're going to do everything we can to push for respect for human rights in Iran and elsewhere and for the release of Americans who are unjustly detained and for the return of and for closure of those who are missing like Bob Levinson. So that's going to be a priority. This is not something that you sign an agreement and that's enough. What you need to do is push and make sure that there's pressure and make sure that the Iranian people themselves know that the United States is standing with them in that fight."

Interview with Axios on Mar. 10, 2021: "We don’t intend to base the pace of our discussions on the Iranian elections — the pace will be determined by how far we can get consistent with defending U.S. national security interests...In other words, we won’t rush or slow things because of the Iranian elections."

"Our view is that direct talks are more effective and less prone to misunderstanding, but for us the substance is more important than the format."


On negotiating a prisoner swap with Iran

At an event hosted by Hostage Aid on July 6, 2021: "We're saying [to the Iranians] all of them [American detainees] have to come home. We don't want to do a partial deal. We don't want to leave anyone behind. Again, I know how painful that was last time and don't want to relive history."

"We've made some progress. We're not there yet." 

"The Iranians are — I can't think of any other word other than being extortionist in this regard and trying to get as much as they can."

NPR Interview on May 2, 2021:

Question: "In Iran - Emad Shargi, Siamak and Baquer Namazi, Morad Tahbaz. Do you bring up these names in the passing of notes with the Iranians?"

Malley: "I've mentioned Baquer Namazi, Siamak's father. We bring them up at every single round of talks. And even when we're not in Vienna, it's absolute priority for all of us to get them out. And to be honest, we shouldn't have to negotiate or discuss this. They were detained as political pawns. They are being detained for absolutely no good reason. They've done nothing wrong other than being Iranian Americans who happened to be in Iran at the wrong time - wrong time from Iran's point of view. They should be released tomorrow, yesterday, months ago, years ago, unconditionally. We know that's not how this system, this government operates. And that's unspeakable."


Interview with PBS on Apr. 2, 2021: "We have American detainees unjustly detained in Iran. We can't forget them. And anything that happens on the nuclear side, whether we succeed or fail, our goal is going to be to get them back home."


Before taking office:

On Iran’s nuclear program and future diplomacy 

Article in Foreign Policy on Dec. 29, 2020: “Biden has signaled that he will shift course, agree to rejoin the JCPOA if Iran resumes compliance, and then seek to negotiate a follow-on deal tackling ballistic missiles and regional policy. Tehran has signaled that it, too, is prepared for a mutual adherence to the existing nuclear deal. That seems the safest and swiftest bet, although even then obstacles will abound. The U.S. and Iranian governments will need to agree on a sequencing of steps between sanctions relief and nuclear restraints and also on which sanctions should be lifted. The window could be short, with presidential elections in Iran scheduled for June and a more hard-line candidate predicted to win.

“But if they return to the JCPOA, the larger challenge will be to address the regional tensions and polarization that, left to fester, will continue to jeopardize the deal and could trigger conflict. European governments are exploring the possibility of prompting Iran and Gulf Arab states to engage in a dialogue to reduce regional tensions and prevent an inadvertent outbreak of war; the Biden administration could put its full diplomatic weight behind such an effort.”


Iranian threat to the Middle East and U.S. interests

Interview with World Politics Review on Oct. 5, 2020: “I think if you take a look back at where Iran has been most influential, it’s rarely been as a result of its great strategic wisdom or its great strength. If you look at the defense budgets of Iran compared to the defense budgets of the Gulf Cooperation Council, it’s about 10-to-1 in favor of Saudi Arabia and its allies. If you look at the financial weight of Iran compared to that of its rivals, there’s no comparison. I think where Iran has done well is in exploiting the mistakes and the dysfunctionalities of others. And we could go through it almost case by case.

“You mentioned Iraq. Iran would not have the influence it has in Iraq today had it not been for the ill-conceived, tragic decision by the Bush administration to invade and occupy Iraq. Iran would not have the influence it has in Lebanon today had it not been for Israel’s invasion back in the 1980s of Lebanon, which led to resentment toward Israel and the birth of Hezbollah, which has been the most successful Iranian investment since the revolution. Iran would not have the influence in Yemen that it has today had it not been for the war between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis. And even in the case of Syria—and there, of course, responsibility is widely shared, and most of it must be put on the shoulders of the Bashar al-Assad regime—but if it hadn’t been for the fact that this regime has been embattled and that you’ve had an intervention by other countries to support the opposition, which led Assad to have to turn evermore desperately to Iran, Iran would not be as entrenched in Syria as it is today.”

Essay in Foreign Affairs in Nov/Dec 2019: “Iran has also chosen to treat the region as its canvas. Besides chipping away at its own compliance with the nuclear deal, it has seized tankers in the Gulf; shot down a U.S. drone; and, if U.S. claims are to be believed, used Shiite militias to threaten Americans in Iraq, attacked commercial vessels in the Strait of Hormuz, and struck Saudi oil fields. In June of this year, when the drone came down and Trump contemplated military retaliation, Iran was quick to warn Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE that they would be fair game if they played any role in enabling a U.S. attack. (There is no reason to trust that the domino effect would have ended there; Iraq, Israel, Lebanon, and Syria could well have been drawn into the ensuing hostilities.) And in Yemen, the Houthis have intensified their attacks on Saudi targets, which may or may not be at Iran’s instigation—although, at a minimum, it is almost certainly not over Tehran’s objections.”

Interview with NPR on Nov. 22, 2020: “And the more you try to marginalize the Houthis [in Yemen], the more you send them the signal that they're not going to be welcomed to the table, the harder you make it to resolve the conflict, and, in fact, the more you push the Houthis into Iranian arms. So it's not just a counterproductive policy in terms of what it's leaving to Joe Biden. It's counterproductive in terms of U.S. interests in terms of reaching a settlement, diminishing Iranian influence and avoiding famine.”


Iranian regime stability

Interview with World Politics Review on Oct. 5, 2020: “Iran has been under great pressure in the past, and there’s no evidence that the regime is about to collapse.”

“Again, I’m not foolhardy enough to make a prediction that it won’t at some point. Regimes like the Iranian regime have a lifespan. They don’t go on forever. But if and when it falls, in my view, it won’t be because the U.S. has turned the screws more on its economy. It will be because of the internal contradictions of a regime that is not viewed as representative and not viewed as able to respond to the needs of its people. But it’s not going to be because of some external intervention.”

Article in Foreign Policy on Dec. 29, 2020: “Sanctions devastated Iran’s economy but achieved little else. 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, with incidents—from Suleimani’s killing on Iraqi soil to attacks on Saudi energy industry targets widely attributed to Tehran—triggering multiple brushes with open war. Nothing suggests that the Iranian government, despite periodic outbursts of popular discontent, is in danger of collapse.”


U.S. killing of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani

Quoted in Foreign Policy on Jan. 2, 2020: “A president who vowed to keep the United States out of another Middle Eastern war has in effect just issued a declaration of war. A strike that the administration claims was intended to deter Iranian attacks is almost certain to trigger far more of them. Qasem Soleimani’s death is undoubtedly a very serious blow to Iran. But it also is a very serious blow to any hope for regional de-escalation.”

Commentary for International Crisis Group on Jan. 3, 2020: “With his decision, President Donald Trump is making clear that he abides by a different calculus: that, given the vast power imbalance, Iran has far more to fear from war than does the U.S. The strike that killed the Iranian general along with others – notably Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a senior commander of the pro-Iranian Iraqi Shiite militia – was, in accordance with this view, meant as a deterrent to further Iranian attacks.

“It is almost certain to be anything but. Iran may fear U.S. retaliation, but it fears projecting that fear even more. From its perspective, it cannot allow what it views as a declaration of war to remain unanswered.”

“The U.S.-Iranian game has changed. Their rivalry for the most part played out as an attritional standoff: Washington laying siege to Iran’s economy in hopes that financial duress would lead either to its government’s capitulation to U.S. demands or to its ouster; and Tehran responding with actions that maintained a veneer of plausible deniability. Targeting Soleimani is liable to mark a shift from attrition toward open confrontation.”