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Aug 11, 2023, 5:39am EDT
securityNorth America

Iran envoy’s reemergence amid prisoner swap leaves more questions than answers

BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images
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The News

The Biden administration’s suspended special envoy on Iran, Robert Malley, briefly reappeared on Thursday to tout a prisoner-swap agreement with Tehran that he was a central player in orchestrating. But his tweet only deepened the mystery surrounding his status and future role in Iran policy.

Iran’s government on Thursday transferred four U.S. nationals from its infamous Evin prison to home confinement in Tehran, as part of what U.S. officials said is a sequenced exchange that’s ultimately expected to involve five Americans being swapped for several Iranians detained in the United States. The Biden administration has also green-lighted South Korea releasing $6 billion in frozen Iranian oil revenues to Tehran, according to the Iranian government.

But it was Malley’s brief reemergence — the State Department yanked his security clearance this spring — that caught the eyes of many Iran watchers. “It’s only a 1st step & every day they continue to be robbed of their freedom is a day too many,” he tweeted from a personal handle that referenced him as, “On Leave from State Department.” He added: “This is welcome news too long in coming. I know my colleagues won’t rest until they all return home.”

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The nature of Malley’s unpaid suspension remains one of Washington’s — and international diplomacy’s — great unsolved mysteries. The State Department has declined to disclose any information about its reasons and Malley’s future status. Semafor revealed last month that his case had been transferred from Diplomatic Security to the FBI, suggesting it’s more serious. Iran-watchers wondered on Thursday whether his tweet signaled his imminent return to Foggy Bottom — or was Malley trying to claim credit in some way for a hostage release negotiation that he initially led?

Malley’s peekaboo drew instant criticism from those inside Washington who oppose the U.S. government tying prisoner releases to the transfer of money to Tehran — arguing it only encourages more Iranian detentions. The Obama administration secretly flew $1.7 billion in cash to Iran in 2016 as part of another sequenced prisoner-exchange that Malley worked on.

“Rob Malley: you formulated & implemented policy that led to the imprisonment of these men in the 1st place!” tweeted Xiyue Wang, a Princeton graduate student who was held in Evin Prison from 2016 to 2019 before his release in a prison exchange that didn’t seem to involve money. “You will be responsible for American hostages Tehran WILL take in the future. Shame on you!”

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Other parts of the Biden administration’s Iran policy remain opaque. Tehran is seeking the release of billions of dollars more as part of negotiations with the U.S. and Europe focused on prisoners and its nuclear program. This includes around $11 billion of oil revenues frozen in Iraq and a $4 billion International Monetary Fund loan. It’s unclear if this money will be disbursed as part of this staged exchange that started Thursday.

Washington and Tehran have also discussed rekindling the Obama administration’s 2015 nuclear agreement with Tehran, which was killed under Donald Trump — albeit in a smaller form.

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