When he was a much younger man, Robert Malley worked in the administration of Bill Clinton in the 1990s as an adviser on the peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. In those hopeful days, Rob was always greeted by the late Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, with a memory and a kind word about his father, Simon Malley.
Each time Arafat would meet with Clinton and Malley, he would share a different and inaccurate story about Simon. Arafat claimed that the elder Malley was a founder of the Egyptian Communist Party (not true) and once a prisoner in an Egyptian jail (partially true). As the younger Malley shared in a 2008 lecture for Oxford University, Arafat once told Clinton that Simon had been a “world renowned Torah expert who could vouch for the fact that the Jewish Temple never had been built in Jerusalem.”
That last Arafat memory was a whopper. Simon Malley was Jewish, but he never had much patience for the actual religion. Instead, Simon found his calling in the Arab struggle against Western imperialism. He devoted his life as an editor and journalist to this cause. And in that pursuit, Simon Malley became a comrade and friend of Yasser Arafat.
Malley later claimed he would often quarrel about Arafat with his father, who would not hear a bad word about the Palestinian leader. But when Rob matriculated at Yale University in 1980, he was still very much his father’s son. He wrote a fiery op-ed for the college newspaper that compared resistance to the Nazis in Europe to the Palestinian struggle against the world’s only Jewish state.
Since then, Malley’s politics have evolved. He does not engage in the noxious rhetoric of his undergraduate days. But he is still a moral, political, and foreign-policy relativist. He will condemn the actions of those who seek the slaughter of innocents in the name of liberation, but he has never been able to see his interlocutors for the dark beings they really are.
All of this is important in light of a recent scandal that has upended the Biden administration’s Iran policy. In 2021, the president named Malley to be his point man on reviving the dormant 2015 Iran nuclear agreement, or JCPOA, which Donald Trump had scrubbed in 2018. Today, a humbled Malley finds himself under investigation by the FBI and the State Department’s diplomatic security office for mishandling classified information. Two government officials tell me that Malley was picked up on an intercept revealing something he was not supposed to reveal in a private conversation with a foreign official.
Malley is also connected to another scandal exposed in September on the news website Semafor and the Persian-language television channel Iran International—an Iranian foreign-ministry scheme to cultivate a network of analysts to influence U.S. foreign policy that was known as the Iran Experts Initiative. Malley hired two of those analysts at the International Crisis Group, thethink tank he helmed before joining the Biden administration. He then hired a third member of the Experts Initiative, Ariane Tabatabai, as an adviser when he became Biden’s Iran envoy.
If this were a spy novel, all of this would be grist for a plot of intrigue and betrayal. Here we have a foreign-policy insider comfortable with presidents and all those at the highest levels of his government—but, raised by radicals, he is later caught spilling secrets and hiring agents of influence for Iran.
But on closer inspection, there’s no skullduggery here, not really. Robert Malley was always open about his many meetings with terrorist leaders over the years. And he did not undermine the Biden administration by appeasing Iran; he was implementing its preferred policy.
“The positions that Rob has taken are positions that the president, Antony Blinken, and Jake Sullivan would have taken if he was not there,” says Reuel Marc Gerecht, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a harsh critic of the Iran nuclear deal that Malley has sought to revive.
In this respect, Malley is a classic product of the Democratic Party’s foreign-policy establishment. But this was not always the case. We do not here have a cautionary tale of a talented diplomat and scholar infiltrating Washington. No, this is a story about how America’s foreign-policy establishment came to adopt an approach of appeasement toward what was once a leftist fringe in the United States.
The story begins in the aftermath of the failed Oslo peace process between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, in the wake of the Clinton administration’s end and at the beginning of the second intifada terror war led by Yasser Arafat against Israel. In August 2001, after his stint on Clinton’s national-security council, Malley co-authored an essay for the New York Review of Books dissenting from the Washington consensus that Arafat had stubbornly rejected the offers from Israel and Washington for a final deal to create a Palestinian state.
The piece was a veiled criticism of his former boss, because Clinton had blamed Arafat for the collapse of the peace process. “I am a failure, and you made me one,” Clinton famously told the Palestinian leader. This view of Camp David was “remarkably shallow,” Malley wrote (without naming Clinton). “It acts as a harmful constraint on American policy by offering up a single, convenient culprit—Arafat—rather than a more nuanced and realistic analysis.”
That essay did not go over well in the Democratic Party in the years after the Clinton presidency. By 2001, Arafat was no longer fêted by presidents and prime ministers. He had reverted to the radicalism of his earlier years, those wondrous days when Malley’s father adored the Palestinian leader for the same reason that decent countries abhorred him: his commitment to armed struggle through terror.
The other reason Malley’s essay was politically toxic was that it was published a month before 9/11. The terrorist attack changed U.S. foreign policy in an instant. No longer was America willing to try terrorists patiently in courts of law. Now it would scour the earth to hunt them down. In those initial years after the twin towers fell, Robert Malley was in the political wilderness.
He eventually found a home at the International Crisis Group, a think tank that promoted scholarship on conflicts all around the world. As head of its Middle East program in this period, Malley met with groups shunned by most in the Washington policy community. Chief among them was Hamas, the terror movement responsible for the October 7 atrocities in Israel.
In a 2010 documentary called Cultures of Resistance, Malley sounds a call for nuance similar to the one he had made years before. Of Hamas and Hezbollah, the Lebanese terror group that currently has at least 100,000 missiles pointed at Israel’s northern border, he says: “None of them are crazies. They may do things that we consider belong to a different realm of rationality, but within their own system, it’s often very logical.” In the film, Malley goes on to make the case that Israel should recognize the group’s social-welfare programs and allow Hamas “to govern” Gaza, the territory Hamas seized in 2007.
He became an informal adviser in 2008 to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign—a good fit for a candidate who argued during the Democratic primaries that he would never fear negotiations with rogue states. But Malley’s role in Obamaland did not last long. On May 9, the Times of London published a piece that said Malley had been ousted as a Middle East adviser with the Obama campaign after it had emerged that he had held meetings with members of Hamas. In a letter published in the New York Times, Malley bristled at the suggestion that he had misled anyone; he never hid his engagement with Hamas, he said. Nonetheless, he wrote that he would be stepping away from the campaign “to avoid any misperception—misrepresentation being the more accurate word—about the candidate’s position regarding the Islamist movement.”
Matt Duss, the vice president at the Center for International Policy who worked closely with Malley on Senator Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign in 2016, told me that he thought Malley had been pushed aside because of his 2001 essay on the peace process. “I remember when that happened to Rob,” he said. “I knew his work. He wrote an important piece with Hussein Agha complicating what happened at Camp David. That made him persona non grata with other Democrats who very much preferred the older narrative.”
Obama never did engage Hamas during his presidency. But he did bring Malley back into the fold five years later to engage with the organization’s principal international patron, Iran. By Obama’s second term, the foreign policy of the Democratic Party had changed. No more were Democrats seeking to prove how tough they were against America’s enemies. Instead, they wanted to kill Iran’s hardliners by showing kindness to its moderates.
The policy alteration that led to the 2015 Iran deal has a lot to do with Obama himself. But he received an assist on his signature foreign policy from key organizations that comprised what his deputy national-security adviser, Ben Rhodes, would later call an “echo chamber” inside Washington.
The initial efforts to shift U.S. policy on Iran began with the Rockefeller Fund, which, after 9/11, gathered national-security experts to discuss outreach to the Islamic Republic. Between 2001 and 2015, the philanthropic foundation gave nearly $5 million to groups to pursue engagement with Tehran. By 2002, the Rockefeller initiative called itself the Iran Project. It reached out to Javad Zarif, who was then Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations. It began hosting meetings with the Institute for International and Political Studies, an Iranian-funded think tank.
In those early years, their efforts were kept quiet. At the same time, participants briefed high-level officials in the George W. Bush administration, including Bush’s second-term national-security adviser, Stephen Hadley, and Condoleezza Rice, who was then secretary of state. In a 2015 article in Businessweek, R. Nicholas Burns, who had served as an undersecretary of state in the Bush years, said the insights shared were valuable because the U.S. government had virtually no contacts at all with Iran’s regime.
There was also an initiative from the Ploughshares Fund, a well-funded nonprofit that makes grants to arms-control groups. In 2011, the fund formed a loose coalition of organizations to help mold public opinion to favor a nuclear bargain with Iran. According to emails from a private Ploughshares listserv, the first meeting of the group counseled affiliated nonprofits to attack opponents of Iran diplomacy as “pro-war.”
Another organization, the National Iranian American Council, or NIAC, also played a role in advocating engagement with Iran. As I reported in 2009, NIAC helped to organize an effort to prevent Obama from appointing veteran diplomat Dennis Ross to oversee his Iran policy, on the grounds that Ross was too close to Israel. That effort failed, but the council nonetheless made alliances inside the Obama administration and the Democratic Party and became a key node in the White House echo chamber.
All of this is to say that while Malley may have been toxic in the Bush years in his own camp, by 2013 he was firmly ensconced within the mainstream of the Democratic Party. When the Obama administration finally did reach a deal with Iran in 2015, Malley was part of what Obama considered his administration’s greatest foreign-policy achievement. Malley’s “nuanced” approach had won the day. With enough patience, money, and resolve, America and its negotiating partners were able to tame the regime that took the U.S. Embassy hostage when it came to power in 1979.
But the nuclear agreement was deeply flawed. After negotiations finished, Iran’s General Qassem Suleimani flew to Moscow to forge an alliance to assist the Syrian regime’s war on its own people. Key limitations in the JCPOA on the number and quality of Iran’s centrifuges expired over time. And a majority of Congress voted against it in 2015. In 2018, then president Donald Trump withdrew America from Obama’s agreement.
After Biden won the 2020 election, Malley was perfectly positioned to guide U.S. policy toward Iran. He was close friends with Antony Blinken, who would become Biden’s secretary of state. Malley and Blinken attended the same high school in Paris and worked on the yearbook together. In Washington, they played on a recreational soccer team. To some, this might suggest that the current investigation into Malley is so serious that even his old and powerful friend could not save him from it.
That said, it’s too early to know the nature of the probe into Malley’s mishandling of state secrets. There has always been a tension between the State Department and the FBI when it comes to rogue regimes. The job of a diplomat is to engage with foreign officials. One hazard of this work is that sometimes a piece of classified information may slip into a conversation. For example, Henry Kissinger, in a meeting with his Soviet counterpart, famously shared the fact that America was reading Egyptian cable traffic. Or consider the case of Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel. His clearance was suspended in 2000 after it was learned he had been sending classified emails from the Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. No evidence ever emerged that Indyk or Kissinger was a spy.
A better way to understand the scandal around Malley is to look at the people he himself hired and mentored in recent years. These include Ali Vaez, who is currently an analyst at the International Crisis Group. The emails disclosed in the Iran International and Semafor investigations show Vaez seeking approval from his contact at Iran’s foreign ministry for op-eds he would later publish in Western outlets. In an October 2, 2014, missive to Iran’s foreign minister, Vaez wrote, “As an Iranian, based on my national and patriotic duty, I have not hesitated to help you in any way.”
Malley tried to bring Vaez into the Biden administration, but Vaez could not get a security clearance. Malley did hire Ariane Tabatabai as an adviser. According to Semafor and Iran International, Tabatabai actually asked for guidance from her Iranian foreign-ministry contact on whether she should visit Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Tabatabai is now chief of staff to Christopher Maier, assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict. Last month, Maier testified before the Senate that the Pentagon is investigating “whether all law and policy was properly followed in granting my chief of staff top-secret special compartmented information.” In October, the Pentagon announced that Tabatabai would keep her security clearance after the investigation.
Says Gerecht, “If you’ve known Malley’s position on Iran, it makes perfect sense he would hire these people. The fact that these individuals were apparently acting somewhat obsequiously toward Iranian officials is a separate issue.”
This cuts to the heart of the Rob Malley scandal. He is not an interloper and neither are his protégés. They are instead implementers of a worldview that pretends fanatics and terrorists can be tamed through negotiations and that acts of savagery can be explained away by root causes. And we have just seen and are now living through the response to the greatest challenge in our time to the idea that such people can somehow be treated as anything but the monsters they are.
In his 2008 lecture, Rob Malley acknowledged the tragedy and failure of the secular radicalism his father embraced. “And how ingloriously it all ended,” he wrote. “No last brave stand for fight to the finish. Instead a muted, slow, nondescript decline. As early as the 1980s, the illusions had all but expired.”
But Malley never learned the lessons of his father’s expired illusions—the bizarre fantasy that revolutionary violence would liberate the Third World. He has instead himself succumbed to the dangerous fantasy that engaging violent revolutionaries will persuade them to renounce their illusions. His security clearance may yet be restored and his name cleared, but Robert Malley should not be allowed inside the corridors of power ever again.
Photo: AP Photo/Riccardo De Luca
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