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Biden Iran Envoy on Ropes After Pro-Regime Comments

Robert Malley's credibility shot, State Dept won't say what massive protests are about

Biden administration Iran envoy Robert Malley / Getty Images
• October 25, 2022 4:30 pm

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Biden administration Iran envoy Robert Malley is under increasing pressure to resign his post, as members of Congress and Iranian-American advocacy groups lose faith in his ability to support a growing protest movement in the Islamic Republic that threatens to topple the hardline regime.

The protests, which first erupted after the regime's morality police murdered a young woman who didn't properly wear her head covering, have quickly evolved into a referendum on the Iranian regime itself. But Malley, who has been the administration's public face of diplomacy with Tehran, claimed the protesters are merely demonstrating "for their government to respect their dignity and human rights"—even in the face of mounting evidence they are protesting to end the oppressive regime.

The Biden administration is still waiving economic sanctions on the Iranian regime as it seeks to revive the 2015 nuclear deal, though the prospects of reaching an agreement grow increasingly slender. These efforts have also forced the administration to walk a diplomatic tightrope as it offers tepid support to protesters to avoid isolating the hardline government from negotiations. Following Malley's online gaffe, the State Department declined to answer Washington Free Beacon questions about whether it assesses that Iranian protesters are seeking regime change, even as those protesters chant "Death to the Dictator" and make clear they want the theocratic government dismantled.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas), a leading congressional critic of a new Iran deal, told the Free Beacon that the "Biden administration is literally invested in the survival of the Iranian regime because the administration wants Iranian oil to make up for the catastrophe they've created by attacking American energy producers. That's why they can't bring themselves to support the calls by the people of Iran for regime change."

"Robert Malley will go down in the history books as the most ineffective and feckless State Department official of the last 50 years. It's time for him to go," Bryan Leib, executive director of Iranian Americans for Liberty, a grassroots group that supports democracy, told the Free Beacon. "His most recent gaffe on Twitter is just another example of how he has aligned the United States government with the Islamic Republic and not with liberty-seeking Iranian people. His fake apology is not accepted and he should be terminated immediately."

Leib's comments were echoed by many on Twitter, who accused Malley of obfuscating the issue.

"It's a revolution," Alireza Nader, an Iran expert and senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank, replied to Malley's tweet.

"Respect?" asked popular Iran commentator Saman Arabi. "Iranian [people] are literally asking for regime change!"

Though Malley later apologized for his tweet, saying it was "poorly worded," congressional sources and other foreign policy insiders say that the damage has been done and that Malley's credibility with Iranian reformers is shattered.

"So long as Malley is special envoy, you know the administration's policy remains offering sanctions relief to the regime in Tehran," said Richard Goldberg, a former White House National Security Council official who worked on Iran issues and now serves as a senior adviser to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. "If he leaves, it'll be the first signal of a policy shift away from accommodating the regime and toward helping the Iranian people."

The State Department's formal position on the protest movement is also muddled. Spokesman Ned Price would not say during the department's daily briefing on Monday if the administration assesses that the protesters want regime change, even though he was presented with clear evidence that this is the case.

"It's not for us to interpret what the people of Iran are asking for," Price said. "We would never intend to characterize what it is that they seek."

Several reporters were left confused by this response, with one saying, "Ned, I think the point is, though, that you don't have to interpret what they're saying. What is it that you see that they're calling for? Do you think that they're calling for something that's less than regime change?"

"I am not going to speak on behalf of the Iranian people," Price replied.

The reporter, Matthew Lee from the Associated Press, continued his line of questioning: "Well, let's say that if I walk down the street carrying a sign saying oranges are bad, okay—orange, the fruit, oranges are bad; they should be banned—what would you say that my message is?"

"I'm the spokesperson for the U.S. Department of State. I am not the spokesperson for oranges," Price responded.

A State Department spokesman declined a Free Beacon request for comment on the administration's assessment of what the Iranian protesters are demanding.