Robert Mallory mystery deepens as Biden's Iran envoy remains sidelined

Mystery deepens as Biden’s Iran envoy-in-limbo Robert Malley takes Princeton teaching job

A top Biden administration diplomat reportedly under investigation for possibly mishandling classified information has been hired to teach foreign policy classes at Princeton University, the New Jersey school announced this week.

Princeton’s hiring of Robert Malley, the administration’s chief Iran envoy, sparked fury from Republicans who say they’re still largely in the dark about exactly why Mr. Malley’s security clearance was suspended earlier this year. The longtime Democratic diplomat was a key architect of the Obama administration’s 2015 nuclear deal with Iran and was playing a lead role in President Biden’s effort to revive that pact.

His sudden disappearance from the foreign policy scene in Washington this spring has left a host of unanswered questions and even led some prominent Republicans to publicly wonder whether Mr. Malley committed “treason” by sharing sensitive information with Iran or another foreign adversary.

Against that backdrop, and with the administration’s broader Iran policy in a state of flux, Princeton and Mr. Malley made their joint announcement in a press release Tuesday.

“While I am on leave from the State Department, I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to work with the next generation of public servants at the School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University,” Mr. Malley said. “I look forward to my time at Princeton and returning to government service in due course.”

In addition to the foreign policy class this fall, the school said Mr. Malley also will teach courses next spring on “some combination of diplomacy, negotiation, and foreign policy.”

“Rob Malley’s significant diplomatic experience and interactions with multiple presidential administrations will be of enormous value to our students,” Amaney Jamal, dean of Princeton’s School of Public and International Affairs, said in a statement. “I am very happy to welcome him to the school and look forward to his contributions.”

Republicans reacted with a mix of anger and bewilderment. Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican and a Princeton alumnus, said he and other lawmakers still don’t know the details of the Malley investigation.

“Pitiful. Look who my alma mater just made a prof,” Mr. Cruz said in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter. “Rob Malley was such a pro-Iran radical that he was FIRED from Biden [administration] & had his security clearance stripped for ‘mishandling classified docs’ (the details are still hidden).”

Indeed, congressional sources told The Washington Times late last month that even in closed-door classified briefings the State Department has given few answers about Mr. Malley and the circumstances around his suspension.

Asked Wednesday whether Mr. Malley’s teaching job meant a change in his status as envoy, State Department deputy spokesman Vedant Patel told reporters only that “Mr. Malley remains on leave, and I don’t have any other updates on the situation.”

Sources familiar with the matter have said that Mr. Malley had his security clearance suspended on April 22, though he continued giving public interviews about Iran policy through at least late May. Since Mr. Malley’s departure, the State Department’s deputy special envoy for Iran, Abram Paley, has been handling the administration’s Iran policy, administration officials said.

Mr. Malley helped craft the Obama-era Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which put limits on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of some economic sanctions. Former President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of that deal in 2018.

Getting desperate?

Mr. Malley was tapped by President Biden to head up the effort to resurrect the JCPOA. After nearly two years of diplomacy, negotiations broke down last year amid Iran’s brutal crackdown on domestic protesters, its military backing of Russia in its war with Ukraine, and continued assaults on U.S. troops in the Middle East by militias with direct links to Tehran.

Iranian officials have claimed the U.S. side has refused to offer guarantees that any new deal would not be scrapped by the next administration, should it disagree with Mr. Biden’s Iran policy — a guarantee the U.S. side says it can’t offer.

As part of his work, Mr. Malley reportedly met multiple times with Iran’s U.N. ambassador this year. It’s that behind-the-scenes work that seems to be at issue now, with questions swirling around what sensitive information, if any, he may have revealed during private conversations.

House Republicans believe the circumstances that led to the suspension of Mr. Malley’s security clearance could be serious. Rep. Michael McCaul, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said last month it would constitute a serious crime if Mr. Malley leaked classified secrets to foreign adversaries.

“I can’t tell you how important this is because if he somehow, you know — worst-case scenario — transferred intelligence and secrets to our foreign nation adversary … that would be treason in my view,” the Texas Republican told CBS’ “Face the Nation” program on July 16.

Mr. Malley told Politico on June 29 he expects the situation “to be resolved favorably and soon,” though his teaching plans at Princeton seem to suggest otherwise, especially given the university’s commitment to having Mr. Malley teach courses through the spring semester.

Despite Mr. Malley’s absence, there’s been some apparent progress on the U.S.-Iran diplomatic front. The two countries last week announced a deal that would free five American citizens imprisoned in Iran. In exchange, the U.S. would free up about $6 billion in frozen Iranian assets, with the caveat that the money be used only on approved expenses such as food and medicine.

Republicans, including leading presidential candidates, blasted the proposed deal.

Mr. Biden “just agreed to pay a $6 billion ransom to the Iranian dictatorship in exchange for hostages. This is yet another Biden surrender and a further blistering humiliation of the United States of America to the world stage,” Mr. Trump said Thursday. “But even worse, this decision will be extremely deadly.”

White House officials have rejected the idea that the U.S. is paying “ransom” for the prisoners, arguing that no U.S. taxpayer dollars are being spent and Tehran is only being given access to its own frozen accounts to be used for food and humanitarian purposes.

It’s unclear whether that deal will lead to a broader diplomatic breakthrough. Some analysts say the administration could grow more desperate for a deal as Mr. Biden’s re-election campaign kicks into high gear.

“I think it’s clear that while [Mr. Malley] is out of the picture at the moment, the philosophical and political imperatives behind Biden’s Iran policy remains the same,” said Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow with the think tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

“As election season enters into high gear, with or without Malley, the administration will look to avert a nuclear crisis at all costs, which might just mean empowering Tehran at a time when the regime needs to be aggressively countered on all fronts,” he told The Washington Times recently, before this week’s announcement of Mr. Malley’s job at Princeton.