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The President's Take

Crisis Group’s Bittersweet Farewell to Rob Malley

In his introduction to this month’s CrisisWatch, Crisis Group's Interim President Richard Atwood reflects on Rob Malley’s departure, Washington’s Iran policy, the Myanmar coup and Michael Kovrig’s continued detention in China.

These are bittersweet days for Crisis Group. Rob Malley, after several years as president, has left us to join the new U.S. administration. It’s hard to imagine a better choice than Rob to be President Joe Biden’s Iran envoy. But we miss him already – his leadership, his intellectual clarity and honesty, his empathy and eloquence. 

It was disappointing to see the controversy over his appointment and the attacks on Rob himself. Thankfully, they prompted an outpouring of support (see, for example, here or especially this Peter Beinart piece, which captures some of Rob’s thinking and why it’s so in tune with that of many of his Crisis Group colleagues). But none of that should have been necessary. The Obama team’s record on Iran is not beyond critique. The nuclear deal, or JCPOA, was a major achievement, but did not lead to any curbing of Iran’s involvement in wars across the region, and the free hand President Barack Obama gave the Saudis in Yemen was almost certainly partly aimed at assuaging Riyadh’s anxiety about the deal. Yet much of the opposition to Rob’s appointment reflected more than anything the out-of-hand dismissal by Washington hawks of diplomacy with Iran. 

In this light, it’s worth flagging the dismal results of those hawks’ playbook over the past four years. “Maximum pressure” – exiting the nuclear deal, imposing brutal U.S. sanctions upon Iran, taking military steps like killing Iranian general Qassem Soleimani – aimed to squeeze Tehran, force nuclear concessions and shorten its reach in the region. It did the opposite. Sanctions devastated Iran’s economy and hurt ordinary Iranians. But Iran’s nuclear program grew. Tehran increased the accuracy of its ballistic missiles and built more of them. With tensions ratcheted up between Iran, on one hand, and the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Israel on the other, the Middle East was as volatile than ever. 

Repairing the damage won’t be easy. The surest path would be for both Iran and the U.S. to return to full compliance with the nuclear deal and build from there to tackle Iran’s ballistic missile program and regional power projection. Negotiations over the sequencing of sanctions relief and nuclear restraints will be fraught. The window is narrow, with a harder-line candidate expected to win Iran’s presidential polls scheduled for June. For Washington, getting back to the deal while managing relations with Saudi Arabia and Israel will be no mean feat. If left to fester, regional polarisation will cast a long and destabilising shadow across the Middle East for years. 

Still, this month’s CrisisWatch Iran entry gets a “dove”, reflecting the Biden team’s focus on dialling back an increasingly perilous standoff.  

Early February saw the army seize power in Myanmar, dealing a heavy blow to the country’s struggling democracy and further darkening its already gloomy humanitarian and economic prospects (see our statement). The military arrested top leaders of the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD), including Aung San Suu Kyi. Justifying the coup, it cited rigging in the November 2020 election, which saw the NLD trounce the military-backed political opposition in a vote that international observers hailed as credible.

Beyond the tragedy for Myanmar’s democracy, there are immediate risks of violence. The coup will likely fuel immense anger. Aung San Suu Kyi’s failure to defend the Rohingya has tarnished her international standing but she remains hugely popular at home. People could easily take to the streets, raising the danger of crackdowns by the military.

How should the world respond? While the Myanmar military bends little to outside pressure, it is not entirely impervious. Ideally, Asian and Western powers would unite in pressing the generals to reverse course, restore power to the democratically elected civilian government and exercise maximum restraint if protesters gather. China has a lot of clout, as a Crisis Group report last year detailed, though, unfortunately, Chinese state media has called the coup a “cabinet reshuffle” and, as we go to press, Beijing looks set on blocking a UN Security Council statement condemning the military’s actions. In contrast, Japan, like Western powers, has criticised the coup and India, the region’s other powerhouse, has expressed deep concern. The political turmoil serves no outside power’s interests.

Arms embargoes are an option. Some countries have long banned arms sales to Myanmar or did so after the Rohingya crisis. If others impose their own embargoes, that would help signal that until the military returns power to elected officials, there will be no business as usual. Targeted sanctions, potentially even wider economic sanctions, appear likely. States should act cautiously, ensuring that any measures they take are part of a political strategy designed to bring about change. They should also consider how sanctions would affect an impoverished people already reeling under the economic impact of COVID-19. 

Crisis Group will publish more in the days ahead on the crisis and what outside actors can do. 

Today our colleague Michael Kovrig celebrates his 49th birthday in a Chinese jail, unjustly detained by Beijing more than two years ago. We continue to do everything in our power to make sure his case is on world leaders’ radar and to get him out. We think of you every day, Michael. We miss you, and we won’t rest until you’re home.