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The US state department’s Iran envoy Rob Malley is on leave while his security clearance is under review in a potential setback to the resumption of indirect talks over Tehran’s nuclear programme.
“I have been informed that my security clearance is under review. I have not been provided any further information, but I expect the investigation to be resolved favourably and soon,” Malley, who was appointed special envoy for Iran in January 2021, said in a statement.
Malley’s suspension was related to the handling of classified materials, a source familiar with the matter said.
Malley’s deputy Abram Paley would assume his duties as acting special envoy while he was on leave, the state department said in a statement that provided no further details.
Malley’s absence comes at a critical time, as officials in president Joe Biden’s administration see a window of opportunity for progress in the coming months as Tehran has appeared to take discussions more seriously.
Diplomatic efforts have gained momentum since March, people familiar with the matter have said, with Biden’s top Middle East adviser Brett McGurk playing a central role.
In recent weeks McGurk has held indirect negotiations in Oman with Iranian officials on Tehran’s nuclear programme as well as American prisoners and other issues, part of a US push to soothe tensions. European officials have also met with Iranian officials recently.
Iran is on the threshold of becoming a nuclear state. General Mark Milley, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, said in March that Iran “could produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon in approximately 10-15 days and it would only take several months to produce an actual nuclear weapon”.
Western diplomats have been struggling to come up with viable options to reverse, or at least stem, the advances, amid fears that the current path is unsustainable and risks triggering the Middle East’s next conflict.
The Biden administration has been looking for diplomatic ways to constrain Iran’s nuclear programme after former president Donald Trump unilaterally pulled out of the accord Tehran signed with world powers, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, in 2018.
The last diplomatic push fell apart in August, when Tehran rejected an EU-brokered proposal to revive JCPOA. Iran further infuriated the west by violently cracking down on protests that erupted in September, and shipping drones to Russia, bringing relations to new lows.
Malley has met several times with Amir Saeid Iravani, Iran’s ambassador to the UN.
Previously officials and others close to the administration said that Malley had been on leave for personal issues but remained in the role.