The State Department on Thursday sent President Biden’s envoy to Iran, Robert Malley, on unpaid leave due to a review of his security clearance.
“I have been informed that my security clearance is under review,” Mr Malley said in an email. “I have not received any further information, but I expect that the investigation will be concluded favorably and quickly. In the meantime I am on leave.”
The State Department confirmed that Mr Malley was on leave, but did not provide any additional details. Axios and NewsMadura had previously reported that Mr. Malley’s security clearance was under review.
Mr. Malley, a veteran diplomat and analyst in the Middle East, is known as an advocate of dialogue between the United States and Iran. A senior official in the Obama White House, he was instrumental in negotiating the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which limited Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for relief from economic sanctions.
President Donald J. Trump unilaterally backed out of the deal, urging Iran to accelerate its nuclear program. Mr Malley has spent most of his tenure in the Biden administration trying to revive the deal.
After little progress in restoring the pact, the Biden administration is seeking a much more limited, informal understanding with Tehran to avert a potential war and free several Iranian Americans imprisoned in Iran.
A person familiar with the situation confirmed that Mr Malley had been placed on unpaid leave on Thursday afternoon, following a period of paid leave. It is unclear what prompted that change.
The State Department has only issued a one-line statement addressing the matter.
“Rob Malley is on leave and Abram Paley serves as acting special envoy to Iran and is leading the department’s work in this area,” department spokesman Matthew Miller said in the statement.
Prior to news of his departure, some foreign officials had noted that Mr. Malley seemed to play a less prominent role in US policy on Iran in recent months. A congressional official said Mr Malley had been conspicuously absent from a mid-May briefing on Iran for members of Congress and that administration officials at the time had suggested he was on leave for personal reasons.
When the Biden administration held indirect talks with Iranian officials in Oman this spring, the White House’s top Middle East official, Brett McGurk, played the leading role. Mr. McGurk is believed to be taking a tougher stance on Tehran and what could be achievable through negotiation than Mr. Malley.
Talks to reinstate the nuclear deal – led by Mr Malley – collapsed last summer just as officials believed they had reached a breakthrough following what Western officials called new Iranian demands that appeared to be designed to sabotage the process. Iran’s demands include a guarantee that a future US president will not renege on another nuclear deal, as Trump did; Biden officials say it’s impossible to promise that.
The Times reported this month that the United States and Iran were discussing an agreement whereby Washington would partially release billions of dollars in frozen Iranian assets for very limited humanitarian use.
In return, Iran would agree not to enrich uranium into material suitable for bombs — a move the United States has warned would likely lead to military action — and take other steps, including greater cooperation with international nuclear inspectors and a pledge not to sell ballistic missiles to Russia, Iranian officials have said.
Mr. Malley’s policy experience in the Middle East dates back to the Clinton administration, and he served as a senior National Security Council official under President Barack Obama, including as his coordinator for the fight against the Islamic State terror group. During the Trump era, Mr. Malley led the International Crisis Group, a non-profit policy organization dedicated to global conflict resolution.
Mr Malley has long been a target of Iranian hawks and political opposition figures in Iran who see him as dangerously conciliatory to the Iranian regime. He has long argued that any strategy to quell economic and political pressure on Iran is doomed to failure and that the United States must engage in productive dialogue with its leaders, distasteful as they may be.
Mr. Malley is a childhood friend of Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken; the two attended the same high school in Paris when their families lived in France.