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US State Department told Congress Iran envoy was on leave due to illness in family: Report

Shake-up with US-Iran negotiator comes as Washington expresses frustration to Israel about leaks
Rob Malley has been critical of Israeli policies against Palestinians (AFP/File photo)

US Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley has been placed on unpaid leave, the State Department said on Thursday, amid reports that he is under investigation for mishandling classified material.

"I have been informed that my security clearance is under review," Malley told reporters on Thursday. "I have not been provided any further information, but I expect the investigation to be resolved favourably and soon. In the meantime, I am on leave."

"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," US State Department spokesperson Matt Miller said in an emailed comment on Thursday, without elaborating.

The statements followed a report by Iran International news channel that Malley was under investigation, with one source saying his case was being reviewed by the FBI. Later in the day, CNN and the Washington Post reported that Malley had been placed on unpaid leave. According to CNN, Malley's clearance had been suspended within the last two months.

Iran hawks in Washington have zeroed in on the reports of a shakeup. Republican Congressman Michael McCaul said that Malley's absence raised questions about whether the State Department had misled Congress and the US public, CNN reported on Friday.

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'Unable to testify due to the illness' 

"Senior State Department officials informed the committee that Special Envoy Malley was unable to testify or brief because he was on personal leave due to the illness of a close family member, for which my staff expressed sympathy. At no point did the department indicate that Special Envoy Malley's security clearance was suspended or under review, or that he was being investigated for potential misconduct," McCaul wrote.

McCaul is opposed to the Biden administration's attempt to reenter the 2015 nuclear deal, and recently warned that the administration was trying to bypass Congress. A longtime Middle East diplomat in Democratic administrations, Malley has faced fierce criticism from Iran hawks and pro-Israel lawmakers.

Malley had led months of indirect negotiations with Iran mediated by the European Union to restore the nuclear deal. He reportedly engaged with the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations as part of those talks, but it is not clear whether the discussions took place before or after his clearance was suspended.

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Malley was conspicuously absent in new indirect talks between the two countries in May that took place in Oman. The White House's Middle East coordinator, Brett McGurk, led those discussions, which saw Omani officials shuttling between the two sides to deliver messages, Axios reported.

Middle East Eye first reported that Iran and the US were nearing a temporary deal to swap some sanctions relief for reducing Iranian uranium enrichment activities.

On Wednesday, MEE reported that efforts to reach an interim nuclear deal faced a setback, with factions in the Iranian ruling establishment disagreeing over US demands on prisoner releases.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself claimed that Washington and Tehran were closing in on what he called a "mini agreement". 

Malley's absence comes as US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan reportedly accused Israeli officials of leaking information to the media about ongoing talks, according to Axios. The news site reported that the Biden administration was "frustrated" by Netanyahu's remark about a "mini deal" being hashed out.

Malley is also a close friend of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. The two attended the same school as children when their families lived in Paris.

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