When Rep. Ro Khanna visited President Jimmy Carter at his home in 2019, seeking the elder statesman’s guidance on a range of issues, Carter gave the young California lawmaker a piece of advice he’s never forgotten: Listen to Rob Malley.

“I was speaking to President Carter about North Korea and forging a path for a peace deal,” Khanna recalled in an interview. “And completely unprompted, Carter said the one person you need to consult with on issues of human rights, diplomacy and foreign policy is Rob.”

The comment stuck with Khanna, a progressive Democrat who says he has been urging his Republican colleagues to support Biden as he considers appointing Malley — a conflict resolution specialist who helped lead negotiations over the 2015 Iran deal — as his new envoy to Iran.

“I think he will be an amazing choice,” Khanna said, praising Malley’s work on human rights and his general wariness “of foreign entanglements that have unintended consequences.”

Not everyone feels the way Khanna does. Malley, a cerebral, mild-mannered former Obama official who currently heads the International Crisis Group, has already been thrust into the center of a political fight over the new administration’s policy toward Iran — the first of what are likely to be many battles over Biden’s dealings in the Middle East. Republicans have accused Malley of being too soft on the Iranian regime and too critical of Israel. And while progressives and current and former colleagues have rallied to his defense, some Democrats have expressed private worries about some of Malley’s public comments.

A senior administration official defended Malley, calling him “an extraordinarily accomplished Middle East expert who is widely respected for his principled approach to complex foreign policy issues.”

The official added that Malley’s “values-driven leadership in public service and the nonprofit space is unparalleled,” and said, “Anyone who has ever worked with Rob knows he is never afraid to challenge conventional wisdom or ask the tough questions in service of getting better policy for the American people.”

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