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State Dept Refuses to Explain Iran Envoy’s Talks with China

Malley's powwows with China about Iran deal hint at Biden admin divisions on diplomacy

Rob Malley
Robert Malley / Getty Images
• February 15, 2021 4:30 pm

The State Department is refusing to provide details or even confirm statements by the Chinese government indicating the U.S.-Iran envoy Robert Malley recently spoke to Communist Party officials about the Biden administration’s efforts to reenter the 2015 nuclear accord.

Chinese vice foreign minister Ma Zhaoxu "had a phone conversation with U.S. Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley at the latter's request, and the two sides had an in-depth exchange of views on the Iranian nuclear issue," China’s foreign ministry announced late last week.

When asked to confirm the press release and provide further details about Malley’s conversations, the State Department ignored multiple Washington Free Beacon emails before stating on Sunday, "Special Envoy Rob Malley is in the early stages of engaging Members of Congress, allies, partners, and others." The State Department would not provide any details when pressed to specifically address the talks with China. Normally, the State Department provides reporters with readouts of conversations held by senior U.S. diplomats with their counterparts, particularly if those talks are held at the request of the United States.

Malley’s diplomatic talks with China come as the Biden administration is pressing Iran to end its revamped nuclear work, which includes stockpiling highly enriched uranium, the primary fuel for a nuclear weapon. China is still party to the 2015 accord and has a vested interest in seeing the United States rejoin the agreement. It is a primary ally of the Iranian regime and has supported the rollback of a United Nations arms ban on Tehran, which would permit the Communist Party and nations like Russia to sell Iran billions in advanced arms.

Malley’s overtures to China on the Iran portfolio appear to be at odds with Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s repeated promises to not pursue diplomacy with Tehran until it rolls back its nuclear work and proves it is in compliance with the restrictions placed on its program as part of the agreement. The State Department’s silence on Malley’s meeting could be an indication the Biden administration’s public statements on the deal are at odds with its private diplomacy on the matter.

Rep. Michael McCaul (R., Texas), the lead Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told the Free Beacon the State Department's silence is a troubling sign.

"While I understand diplomacy sometimes happens behind closed doors, it’s troubling the State Department is refusing to confirm or deny this call took place when the Chinese Communist Party has already announced it did," McCaul said. "Hopefully this was just an introductory call, but if that is the case I don’t understand why the State Department wouldn’t acknowledge the call and let the American people know what was discussed."

McCaul also confirmed speaking with Blinken and White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan, but not Malley—contrary to the State Department's statement to the Free Beacon.

Iranian officials said during the weekend that the country is poised to further block access to international nuclear inspectors with the International Atomic Energy Agency. Iran is taking this step as part of a pressure campaign to force Western nations into granting it sanctions relief. In addition to booting IAEA inspectors—who recently found that Iran is producing uranium metal in violation of the accord—Iran plans to increase its enrichment of uranium and install advanced centrifuges, machinery that enriches uranium to levels needed for a weapon.

Iran also plans to suspend its cooperation under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, a nuclear arms pact, by the end of the month.

Updated 5:15 p.m. to include comment from Rep. Michael McCaul.