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Iran Hawks’ Latest Smear Campaign Has Already Failed

The State Department (Wikimedia Commons)

Bret Stephens writes a rather disingenuous column promoting the idea of a “dissidents first” foreign policy. It is a cynical argument that focuses only on dissidents that speak out against adversaries, and it ignores that the coercive policies of sanctions that hawks like Stephens support are usually disastrous for political opponents of sanctioned regimes. Near the end of the column, he engages in a shameless drive-by smear of the Biden administration’s new Iran envoy, Rob Malley, as part of the ongoing smear campaign against him:

In that connection, it beggars belief that the White House is reportedly considering former diplomat Robert Malley as a special envoy for Iran. Malley is widely seen as one of Tehran’s premier apologists in Washington; in November 2019 he went so far as to suggest that massive public protests in Iran justified Tehran’s paranoia about an Israeli-Saudi-U.S. plot. A Malley appointment would signal that, on the things that matter most, Biden’s foreign policy will be coldly transactional.

As usual, Stephens’ claims about Malley are obnoxious and false, and his evidence relies on a selectively edited interview that misrepresents Malley’s position. Stephens makes an extremely serious accusation, and then backs it up with nothing credible. That is not surprising, but it should put his supposed enthusiasm for truth-telling dissenters in perspective. Stephens can’t be paying very close attention to the Biden administration if he has failed to notice that Biden’s National Security Advisor has already spoken in support of political prisoners and victims of abusive regimes in several countries, including Russia, China, and Saudi Arabia. Just as he is distorting Malley’s record and words, he is distorting the Biden administration’s views as well.

Several people have explained just how wrong Stephens is about Malley:

When Stephens says that Malley is “widely seen” as an apologist for the Iranian government, what he means is that dishonest Iran hawks like him smear Malley with this label. Anyone that has been involved in debating Iran policy is familiar with this lazy line of attack from hard-liners. If you wish to resolve disputes through diplomacy, you are branded an apologist because the hawks cannot answer your arguments any other way. Iran hawks consistently attack the person making an argument in favor of diplomacy because their own preferred policies cannot withstand scrutiny. They even go so far as to dress themselves up as friends of Iranian dissidents when they are really nothing of the kind. The sanctions that they support are opposed by most Iranian opposition figures inside Iran, and it is well-established that broad sanctions undermine opponents of the government and sabotage political activists working towards reform. Because harsh sanctions force people to use their time and energy to look after basic needs, opposition to the government weakens when the entire country is put under siege.

Malley is an excellent choice for the Iran envoy position, which he has reportedly accepted. He is certainly about a dozen steps up from his recent predecessors. More than that, he has extensive experience in government service and diplomacy, and he is capable of understanding how the other side of a negotiation sees the world. In a thoughtful piece defending Malley, Peter Beinart explains why he is such a good choice:

Because Rob Malley has shown the capacity to do something Beltway militarists find deeply threatening: See beyond America’s self-congratulatory self-conception and grasp how the US and its allies look to their victims.

The attacks on Malley are really just more agitation for sabotaging diplomacy with Iran. Malley wants that diplomacy to succeed, and he stands a good chance of making it a success, so the Iran hawks that want nothing but hostility and confrontation try to tear him down and discredit him with lies. Iran hawks will fail at this just as they failed for the last four years to destroy the nuclear deal.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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