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Updated Jun 30, 2023, 11:40am EDT
security

Biden administration’s Iran envoy on leave over security clearance

BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images
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The Biden administration’s point man on Iran, Robert Malley, has been placed on official leave following the State Department’s revoking of his security clearance.

The State Department on Thursday officially announced that Malley was on leave, but without stating why. Spokesman Matthew Miller said Abram Paley has stepped in as interim special envoy.

Malley essentially disappeared from performing his most important duties more than a month ago, according to U.S. officials who spoke to Semafor, with the White House’s Middle East point man, Brett McGurk, stepping in on some of his responsibilities. McGurk led a recent U.S. mission to Oman to try and advance a new nuclear agreement with Iran, according to these officials, as well as seeking the release of Americans held in detention in Iran. (McGurk is married to a Semafor editor, who had no part in this story.)

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Malley’s status was further muddied in recent weeks by the fact that he continued to take part in some public events as the administration’s special envoy in which he officially spoke about President Biden’s policy on Iran.

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In a statement to a number of media outlets explaining his absence, Malley said, “I have been informed that my security clearance is under review. I have not been provided any further information, but I expect the investigation to be resolved favorably and soon. In the meantime, I am on leave,” he said. Axios was the first to publish Malley’s comments.

One person briefed on Malley’s situation told Semafor the official was being investigated for the mishandling of classified information.

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Malley continued to engage in sensitive missions for the Biden administration as recently as April when he met with Iran’s envoy to the United Nations. These talks were focused on cooling tensions between Washington and Tehran after Iranian-backed militias killed an American contractor in Syria — resulting in retaliatory missile strikes from the Pentagon, these U.S. officials said.

Malley has been a lightning rod on Iran policy going back 15 years through both the Biden and Obama administrations. He was brought on to then-candidate Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign as a Middle East advisor. But he was forced out due to his extensive contacts with members of Iran-allied Hezbollah and Hamas — both U.S. designated terrorist organizations — while conducting his academic and research work.

Malley, though, was rehabilitated during Obama’s second term when outreach to Tehran became a core foreign policy objective. Malley was one of a small number of U.S. officials who engaged in the direct negotiations with Iran that led to the 2015 nuclear agreement, called the JCPOA.

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Malley’s appointment as special envoy drew sharp criticism from many in the Iranian diaspora who believed he was too soft on Tehran. A senior Congressional staffer who works on Middle East issues told Semafor that Malley had alienated many on the Hill for what he said was the diplomat’s lack of forthrightness in describing the Biden administration’s dealings with Iran’s government. “So, now he will have to answer for that and this security clearance issue,” said the staffer.

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