President Joe Biden's appointment of the Obama administration's lead negotiator in the nuclear deal, Robert Malley, as his special envoy for Iran points towards a reversal of former president Donald Trump's maximum-pressure policy that is sure to raise eyebrows among Washington sceptics of the accord.
It highlights Mr Biden’s stated commitment to re-entering the nuclear deal should Tehran return to compliance with the accord.
Press Secretary Jen Psaki confirmed the appointment in the Friday press briefing.
Mr Malley’s predecessor in the Trump administration, Elliott Abrams, was a staunch defender of the former president’s maximum pressure campaign on Iran, which took crippling US sanctions on Tehran to an unprecedented level.
After Mr Trump withdrew from the deal in 2018 and restored the Obama-era sanctions regime, he increased the pressure on Tehran with additional penalties as part of a so-called Iran sanctions wall to make it politically harder for Mr Biden's team to offer the sanctions relief needed to revive the flailing accord.
Iran responded to the Trump sanctions by breaching major parts of the deal. These breaches include uranium enrichment at 20 per cent purity, increasing Tehran’s low-enriched uranium stockpile by at least 12 times the amount allowed under the accord and testing advanced centrifuges.
Mr Malley’s appointment is also an overture to the left-flank of the Democratic party. He served as an informal foreign policy adviser to the 2020 campaign of Bernie Sanders, Mr Biden’s chief rival in the Democratic primary last year.
But it is Mr Malley’s long diplomatic record on behalf of Democratic presidents that has drawn considerable scrutiny from hawks in Washington, who view him as too accommodating of US adversaries.
Under former president Barack Obama, he served as the National Security Council’s co-ordinator for the Middle East, North Africa and the Gulf from 2014.
In that capacity, he quickly became the point person for the Obama administration’s campaign against ISIS. But his relationship with Syrian President Bashar Al Assad’s government has become a particular point of contention for critics who believe the Obama administration did not do enough to prevent Damascus from carrying out atrocities against its citizens.
Despite the Obama administration severing diplomatic ties with Damascus in 2011 after Mr Al Assad’s brutal crackdown, Mr Malley engaged in limited back-channel diplomacy with Damascus while at the White House. Mr Malley twice met Khaled Al Ahmad, a low-profile ally of Mr Al Assad, who appeared to be in charge of trying to repair Syria’s damaged reputation in the US and Europe.
He met Mr Al Ahmad through Nir Rosen, a journalist with close ties to Damascus. Mr Malley reportedly distributed a report authored by Mr Rosen calling for local ceasefires in Syria, which Mr Al Assad repeatedly breached with attacks on civilians after rebel fighters disarmed.
Mr Biden's national security adviser Jake Sullivan supported arming the Syrian opposition while he served in the State Department during the early days of the war. Mr Malley criticised that policy after leaving the Obama administration.
In between his posts under Democratic presidents, Mr Malley has worked for the International Crisis Group and most recently served as the organisation’s president and chief executive.
Mr Malley served as an informal adviser after reports he had met Hamas officials as part of his work for International Crisis Group.
Mr Malley gained plenty of experience wading into the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in his prior role as former president Bill Clinton’s special assistant for Arab-Israeli affairs from 1998 to 2001.
He rose through the ranks of the Clinton White House to obtain that position after serving as the National Security Council director for democracy, human rights and humanitarian affairs from 1994 to 1996 and the executive assistant to national security adviser Sandy Berger in 1996.
After attending Harvard Law School with Mr Obama, Mr Malley clerked for Supreme Court Justice Byron White from 1991 to 1992 and went on to specialise in Algeria as a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Mr Malley’s mother worked for the UN delegation of Algeria’s National Liberation Front and his father was an Egyptian-born journalist.