Robert Malley’s appointment as Joe Biden’s special envoy for Iran back in February was a cause for concern to those who fear that the new US administration will present Tehran with a free pass on its regional mischief-making.
The ongoing nuclear talks in Vienna have sadly confirmed why Malley, as a line of thought, may be as dangerous as the radical government in Tehran. Primarily, Biden has consented to Iran’s hardliners stalling of the indirect talks, thus allowing the radical elements to use this so-called diplomatic victory to their advantage going into the presidential elections which will most probably see Ebrahim Raisi, a conservative radical cleric elected president.
Malley, a chief architect of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, officially known by its tongue-twisting moniker the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), has already set out with his counterparts in Britain, France and Germany to determine how they could mend the accord after former President Donald J. Trump withdrew from it.
The Tehran regime is certainly pleased with a friendly face such as Malley’s. He uses carrots and throws away the stick. He thus gives Iran only the rewards of reinstating the nuclear deal while failing to impose a much-needed change of behavior in Tehran.
Born to a Jewish-Syrian Egyptian-born father, who worked for the al-Gomhuria newspaper under Gamal Abdul Nasser, and an American mother who worked at the United Nations delegation of the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN), Robert Malley wears his family’s anti-colonial legacy proudly, a fact that is supported by many of his statements and publications over the years.
To many of his critics, Malley is overly willing to blame the West for the problems inflicted on the Middle East by regimes such as those of Iran, as well as by despots such as Bashar Al Assad. He has actually stated on live TV, in his impeccable French, that the Iranian regime’s fear of foreign meddling, most recently expressed after the 2019 popular protests, is justified.
He did not miss many chances to underscore the legitimacy of pro-Iranian entities such as Hamas and Hezbollah, who he describes as “the most rooted part of Lebanese society”.
He views Hezbollah not as armed terrorists, as the US deemed them long ago, but rather as democratically elected, yet misconstrued, groups with “their own rationality that belong to a different realm of rationality.”
Malley underplaying the use of violence by Iran and its proxies is perhaps his biggest blunder, especially that their use of violence across the region has led to dire consequences, including the Assad regime’s chemical attack(s).
In response to these attacks, Malley and the International Crisis Group (ICG) warned President Obama against punishing the perpetrators. He clearly cautioned him not to cross any red lines so as not to antagonize Russia or Iran or provoke any sort of Assad retaliation against American interests in the region.
Malley’s former position as a member of Barack Obama’s National Security team, as coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, and later as senior adviser for the counter-ISIS campaign, was a perfect fit for Washington’s rash and unrestrained engagement with the Iranian regime.
This process left the region up for grabs, empowered political Islam and yielded the nuclear agreement- JCPOA, a deal that allowed Iran to further its penetration of the region, an agreement that President Trump unilaterally suspended.
President Biden, however, intends to reinstate this engagement after ensuring that Iran respects its provisions, a position that the current Secretary of State Anthony Blinken was clear to emphasize.
The Obama doctrine was anchored around less involvement in the Middle East, a policy in which Malley played a crucial role, especially around appeasing Iran’s nuclear threat.
This policy willingly disregarded Iran’s regional expansion through its militias who answered to the sinister Qassem Soleimani, the late commander of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force. This doctrine equally saw Soleimani and other Islamist factions, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, as underdogs who deserve a chance to come to power.
Until his assassination in a U.S. drone strike, Soleimani controlled a hodgepodge of pro-Iranian militias, who fed off the different countries they operated in, be it Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Palestine, the Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq, or the Houthis in Yemen.
This regional expansion proved to be more destructive than Iran’s goal to achieve nuclear capabilities.
These armed groups were some of the key factors in destroying their respective countries’ social fabric. They also gave one strong ideological pretext for the rise of ISIS.
However, the real damage that Robert Malley and his pro-Iran crowd carried out at the ICG, a think tank that Malley has led since 2018, has provided a super narrative for the apologetic strategy of rapprochement that the next Democratic administration could lead.
In one of their recent reports, entitled Preventing State Collapse in Lebanon, following the Beirut port explosion of August 4, which allegedly involved Hezbollah ammunition stockpiling, the ICG was quick to remind everyone that “there is no viable alternative to Macron’s approach and, as he recognized, any solution will need to include Hezbollah – together with its Shiite ally, Amal” to prevent the collapse of the Lebanese state and to shy away from demanding what it perceived as “U.S. and Gulf Arab strategic considerations, such as disarming Hezbollah, diminishing the group’s influence in Lebanon and ending its activities in the region.”
While it is true that the Trump administration and many of the Gulf states have taken a hawkish position towards Iran, many of the people of the countries which Iran’s militias have occupied have tried to break away from their tutelage and to reclaim their state’s sovereignty. Above all, just like the ICG, they have ultimately demanded economic and political reforms, but against the political elite who are protected by Iran’s weapons and its equal influence on elections.
A different landscape
Robert Malley and his club of “misunderstood legitimate armed groups”, might have remained ideologically static in the last four years, as they still believe that the rhetoric and the logic they peddle can bring stability, even if it comes at the expense of the United States’ standing and the disadvantage of the region’s citizens.
However, the most important change in the Middle East is that the majority of the countries are no longer caught up in the traditional Arab-Israeli conflict paradigm nor, like Malley, still believe in the viability of or endorse the two-state solution.
The region certainly needs a revision of the Trump policy or the lack of it, but given his ideological predispositions, Malley’s leadership of American efforts to provide stability is not only short of wishful thinking but may also be delusional.
Indeed, President Joe Biden doubled down and named Robert Malley as his envoy for Iran. But he will sooner or later come to the realization that it is never a good idea to send someone to a horse-trade who is equally willing to compromise the United States’ liberal ethics and morals, which to use Biden’s apologist-in-chief’s words, do not belong to a different realm of rationality.
Makram Rabah is a lecturer at the American University of Beirut, Department of History. His book Conflict on Mount Lebanon: The Druze, the Maronites and Collective Memory (Edinburgh University Press) covers collective identities and the Lebanese Civil War.
The opinions expressed are those of the author only and do not necessarily reflect the views of NOW.