Mystery deepens over suspension of US special envoy to Iran Robert Malley

Tehran news outlet publishes alleged State Department memo with details on why his clearance was revoked

ROME, ITALY - NOVEMBER 30: Robert Malley, Vice President for Policy of the International Crisis Group speaks during the Forum MED Mediterranean Dialogues summit in Rome, Italy on November 30, 2017. (Photo by Riccardo De Luca/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
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The mystery over the suspension of Robert Malley, the US special envoy for Iran, has deepened after a report by an Iranian government newspaper that purportedly revealed he had broken national security rules.

The Tehran Times, an Iranian state-run news outlet, published on Sunday what it claimed was an April 21 memo from a top US State Department official addressed to Mr Malley.

It said the memo informed him that his top secret clearance had been suspended over security concerns related to his “personal conduct”, and his “handling of protected information” and “use of information technology”.

On Tuesday, the State Department told The National that it was aware of the report but would not comment on internal matters, and that Mr Malley remained on leave.

“We have nothing further to share at this time due to privacy considerations,” a spokesman said.

The lack of information and the article have triggered questions among Iran watchers.

“How in the heck did the Tehran Times get a hold of this memorandum?” said Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, a Washington think tank that focuses on issues of national security and foreign policy.

“Is it authentic? Who can authenticate it? And what does this say about information security and the administration?”

Gabriel Noronha, a former State Department adviser on Iran, wrote on social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter, that the letter appeared to be genuine.

The memo “indicates Malley also lied about not knowing why his clearance was pulled”, Mr Noronha said.

Mr Malley had said that he did not have “any further information” on why he was placed on leave.

The Biden administration's silence on the issue has drawn staunch criticism from Republicans, as well as demands for answers.

“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 US government information recently while Congress is kept in the dark,” said Michael McCaul, who leads the Republican-controlled House foreign affairs committee.

“I have requested transparency from the State Department on the ongoing Robert Malley saga and will continue to demand answers.”

The fact that the Tehran Times has been out in front on this story is problematic for the Biden administration, Mr Taleblu told The National.

“Having Tehran be in charge of both the timing and content of the information surrounding Malley's case to the public is not a good public relations strategy and the administration's tight-lippedness here is an own goal,” he said.

Last week, Mr McCaul wrote a joint letter to the administration of President Joe Biden requesting updates on the investigation into Mr Malley.

The State Department confirmed Mr Malley's suspension in June, after Iran said US officials had travelled to Oman to engage in indirect talks.

But the Biden administration has remained largely silent on the details surrounding his absence.

This month, two prestigious US universities announced that Mr Malley would be joining their institutions.

Princeton University said he would be teaching courses on foreign policy this autumn while Yale University said he would join them as a senior fellow.

Shortly after taking office in 2021, Mr Biden appointed Mr Malley with the task of reviving the Iran nuclear deal, from which his predecessor Donald Trump abruptly withdrew in 2018.

Under the agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Tehran would agree to limit its nuclear programme in return for economic sanctions relief.

However, efforts to revive the deal have stalled and the US has, instead, held talks with Iran aimed at easing tension.

It is holding negotiations to release US citizens who have been detained in Tehran, in exchange for unfreezing Iranian assets abroad.

Updated: August 30, 2023, 5:18 AM