Discover more from Osborne Ink
What Did You Do, Rob Malley?
How did the Obama-Biden point man on Iran get suspended?
Rob Malley, who led diplomatic efforts in Iran under the Obama administration as well as the Biden administration, lost his security clearance in April along with his paycheck. The reason has not been made public. However, Iranian émigrés had spent years denouncing Malley as an agent of Iran, while some Republicans and even Democrats have maintained he was too close to the regime in Tehran.
Shortly after Malley’s suspension, former spook John Schindler wrote that a “senior U.S. intelligence official with extensive background in the Middle East shared with me his view that Malley was indeed an Iranian agent” in 2015, “while allowing that it was impossible to say if that collaboration with Tehran was witting or not.”
“This may be shaping up to be a major scandal for the Biden administration, which pushed for Malley’s lead role on Iranian affairs in the White House over widespread objections,” Schindler wrote in June. By then, Malley’s case had been handed to the FBI, suggesting that he is in real trouble. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, an old schoolmate of Malley, has refused to meet with him but also refuses to say what is going on.
The Biden administration has so far refused to tell Congress what the matter is. Rumors run rampant, but no real information has leaked through the American press. The more liberal media outlets seem to ignore the scandal altogether, while the right wing outlets have precious little real information to share, either.
“Contrary to the timidity of the Washington press corps in this affair, state-linked Iranian media has broken several detailed exclusives in the Malley scandal,” Schindler wrote on Tuesday. The Iranian press has broken several stories related to the matter, even publishing what they claim is the State Department memo telling Malley why he had been suspended.
Malley claims that he does not know why he was suspended. If the memo is real, then he is lying, and knows perfectly well what he did. Furthermore, because the Iranian press seems to think of Malley as anything but a friend of Iran, it stands to reason that his efforts to win trust backfired. The Tehran Times is widely understood to serve hardliners in the Iranian government.
Perhaps Malley made his mistake by trying to play one faction against another, and got burned for his trouble. “A large part of Malley’s work was to circulate information throughout the U.S.-based Iranian diaspora that eventually found its way to Tehran,” Lee Smith wrote for Tablet Magazine in July. “According to Iran press reports that have foreign policy circles talking, those contacts are what got him in trouble.”
“And the fact that the details about Malley’s suspension are coming from Iranian rather than U.S. media is a big clue that something big is missing from the White House’s highly minimized account,” Smith added.
“It seems that Malley overshared information with his interlocutors, who are friendly with Tehran,” Schindler concluded at the beginning of August. “This had to be an egregious security violation, since diplomats are granted wide berth in their negotiations with foreign governments, even hostile ones.” Schindler suspects that US or allied signals intelligence (SIGINT) identified potential misconduct and shared the information with the Office of Personnel Security and Suitability in the Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security, better known simply as Diplomatic Security.
The Department of State “needs to do a top to bottom security review, because I am concerned they have a leak,” House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Mike McCaul (R-Texas) said on Monday. “If this memo is authentic, it is extremely concerning, especially since this is not the first time the Iranian regime’s mouthpiece has appeared to have sensitive U.S. government information recently while Congress is kept in the dark.”
Furthermore, “if Malley went rogue and passed U.S. secrets to Tehran, intentionally or not, this probably wasn’t the first time he did so,” Schindler observes. Thus the scandal threatens to embarrass two Democratic administrations, past and present. Schindler compares Malley to the infamous Alger Hiss, whose spying on behalf of the Soviets was confirmed after decades of denial by the American left.
Talks with the regime aimed at reviving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), better-known as the ‘Iran nuclear deal,’ fell apart last year as the regime cozied up to Russia and cracked down on protests, leading to new sanctions by Washington.
The memorandum says that Malley’s clearance is suspended for personal conduct, mishandling protected information, and improper use of information technology. All three violations can be accomplished with a single email.
Despite his suspended security clearance, Rob Malley has experienced a soft landing, being hired as a visiting professor and lecturer at the Princeton University School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA). Just what price, if any, he will ultimately have to pay for his alleged crimes remains to be seen.
Whatever the outcome, the affair is sure to put a further chill on already-glacial diplomatic relations with Tehran. After all, if bending over backwards to accommodate an interlocutor only ever results in getting burned, no American diplomat will want to risk it. Perhaps that is the point: the hard-liners in Tehran might no longer see diplomacy as an option, since the Americans will just try to undermine them domestically, anyway.
If so, then it points to insecurity in Tehran. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is 84 years old and has no clear successor. While the power of the clerics has diminished considerably in recent years, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) has become the de facto military government of Iran.
Perhaps what happened to Rob Malley is a sign of how things are changing there, an illustration of regime instability and dangerous internal fissures forming behind the concealing curtain of nationalist unity. If he was trying to exploit such a political landscape, then Malley is only the latest American to get burned in the attempt. Persians have always been much better at selling used carpets to Americans than the other way around. Just ask Oliver North.
Osborne Ink is a reader-supported publication. Please like, share, subscribe, and consider a paid subscription to support my work