The State Department placed President Biden’s envoy for Iran, Robert Malley, on unpaid leave on Thursday amid a review of his security clearance.
“I have been informed that my security clearance is under review,” Mr. Malley said in an email. “I have not been provided any further information, but I expect the investigation to be resolved favorably and soon. In the meantime, I am on leave.”
The State Department confirmed that Mr. Malley was on leave, but did not provide additional details. Axios and CNN had earlier reported that Mr. Malley’s security clearance was being evaluated.
Mr. Malley, a longtime Middle East diplomat and analyst, is well known as an advocate of dialogue between the United States and Iran. As a senior official in the Obama White House, he was instrumental in the negotiation of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which limited Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for economic sanctions relief.
President Donald J. Trump unilaterally withdrew from the deal, spurring Iran to accelerate its nuclear program. Mr. Malley has spent most of his tenure in the Biden administration trying to resurrect the deal.
After little progress toward restoring the pact, the Biden administration is seeking a far more limited, informal understanding with Tehran to avert potential war and to free several Iranian Americans imprisoned in Iran.
A person familiar with the situation confirmed that Mr. Malley had been placed on unpaid leave Thursday afternoon, following a period of paid leave. It is unclear what prompted that change.
The State Department provided only a one-line statement addressing the matter.
“Rob Malley is on leave and Abram Paley is serving as acting special envoy for Iran and leading the department’s work in this area,” the department’s spokesman, Matthew Miller, said in the statement.
Before the news about his leave, some foreign officials had noted that Mr. Malley seemed to be playing a less prominent role in U.S. policy toward Iran in recent months. One congressional official said that Mr. Malley had been conspicuously absent from a mid-May briefing about Iran for members of Congress and that administration officials had implied at the time that he was on leave for personal reasons.
When the Biden administration conducted indirect talks with Iranian officials in Oman this spring, it was the White House’s top Middle East official, Brett McGurk, who played the lead role. Mr. McGurk is viewed as taking a harder line toward Tehran and what might be achievable through negotiations than Mr. Malley.
Talks to restore the nuclear deal — led by Mr. Malley — collapsed last summer just as officials thought they had made a breakthrough, after what Western officials called new Iranian demands that seemed designed to sabotage the process. Iran’s demands have included a guarantee that a future U.S. president would not again renege on a nuclear deal as Mr. Trump did; Biden officials say it is impossible to promise that.
The Times reported this month that the United States and Iran were discussing an agreement under which, in part, Washington would release billions of dollars in frozen Iranian assets for highly restricted humanitarian use.
In return, Iran would agree not to enrich uranium to bomb-grade material — a move that the United States has warned would likely trigger military action — and take other steps including expanded cooperation with international nuclear inspectors and a promise not to sell ballistic missiles to Russia, Iranian officials have said.
Mr. Malley’s Middle East policy experience dates to the Clinton administration, and he served as a senior National Security Council official under President Barack Obama, including as his coordinator for combating the Islamic State terrorist group. During the Trump era, Mr. Malley ran the International Crisis Group, a nonprofit policy organization devoted to global conflict resolution.
Mr. Malley has long been a target of Iran hawks and political opposition figures within Iran who view him as dangerously conciliatory toward the Iranian regime. He has long argued that a strategy of crushing economic and political pressure on Iran is bound to fail and that the United States must establish a productive dialogue with its leaders, however distasteful they may be.
Mr. Malley is a boyhood friend of Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken; the two attended the same high school in Paris when their families were living in France.