As President Donald Trump’s administration was carrying on a pressure campaign of sanctions and restrictions on Iran, some of the top diplomats now serving President Joe Biden’s administration were holding talks with Iranian officials in what may have been a move to undermine Trump’s efforts.
President Barrack Obama’s former Secretary of State John Kerry, who now serves as the U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate under Biden, was one of the first to reach out to Iran after Trump took the White House in 2017. The Washington Times reported Kerry was not the only Biden administration official to connect with Iran while the Trump administration was trying to keep the pressure on Iran.
After leaving the Iran nuclear deal in 2018, Trump began what he called a “maximum pressure” campaign of sanctions, aimed at forcing Iran to negotiate stricter terms to its nuclear limits and to accept curbs on its missile program and support for terrorism throughout the Middle East.
As tensions began to build with Iran in September 2019, Trump sought a diplomatic communication channel with Iran, but the effort failed, according to the Washington Times. While Trump’s effort to set up a backchannel with Iran failed, a different backchannel by former President Barack Obama’s Middle East advisor, Robert Malley, had already reached Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.
While the details of their communications with Zarif are still unknown, an official who spoke with the Washington Times on condition of anonymity said the underlying goal was “to devise a political strategy to undermine the Trump administration” and to bolster support for the Iran nuclear deal despite Trump leaving the deal.
Malley now serves as the U.S. Special Representative for Iran under Biden, while Kerry has also rejoined the Biden administration as the U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate.
In 2019, the International Crisis Group, which Malley led at the time, said Malley’s meeting with Zarif was part of his “regular contacts with all parties, whether it be Iran, the U.S., Gulf states or European countries.” Malley and the State Department did not respond to a new request for comment by the Washington Times about Malley’s dealings with Zarif, though a U.S. official said, “We categorically reject baseless smears against dedicated public servants.”
It is unclear how Malley and Kerry’s dealings with Iran may have affected Trump’s efforts to restrict Iran and force it to come to the negotiating table, but it has caused concern among some foreign policy experts.
“Former administration officials can play a very helpful role in close coordination with a sitting administration to open and support sensitive diplomatic channels,” Mark Dubowitz, chief executive at the Washington-based think tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told the Washington Times. “But it is not good practice for senior officials who served at the highest levels of a former administration, Democratic or Republican, to be trying to undermine the policy of a sitting administration by engaging actively with a known enemy of the United States. That’s especially true when multiple administrations have determined that this enemy is the leading state sponsor of terrorism.”
In 2018, Kerry admitted he had met three or four times with Zarif without the Trump administration’s knowledge or authorization. Kerry was key to negotiating the Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) under Obama. Kerry admitted to his talks with Zarif around the same time Trump announced his withdrawal from the deal.
“What I have done is try to elicit from him [Zarif] what Iran might be willing to do to change the dynamic of the Middle East for the better,” Kerry said at the time. “How does one resolve Yemen, what do you do to try and get peace in Syria? Those are the things that really are preoccupying him because those are the impediments to Iran’s ability to convince people its ready to embrace something different.”
At the time, Kerry also said “it appears right now, as if the [Trump] administration is hell-bent … to pursue a regime change strategy” in Iran that would “bring the economy down and try to isolate further.”
Following Kerry’s admission, Trump accused him of violating the 1799 Logan Act, which prohibits private U.S. citizens from negotiating with countries hostile to the U.S. In its history, only two people have ever been indicted for Logan Act violations and both cases were dropped before trial. Still, Kerry’s actions raised concerns and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) also called for his actions to be investigated.
During the initial backlash against Kerry, Zarif said, “America is not just a government in the White House. America is a collection of public opinion, pressure groups and studies. These factors are pushing politics forward.”
One former U.S. official told the Washington Times that Zarif had meetings in the U.S. in 2017, 2018 and 2019, before the Trump administration blocked his visa in 2020.
Multiple sources told the Washington Examiner that Zarif also turned to the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) to support a softer U.S. diplomatic approach to Iran. Trita Parsi, a co-founder of NIAC, reportedly worked closely with Zarif and, according to White House visitor logs, had visited the Obama White House 33 times. NIAC’s lobbying with the White House has drawn scrutiny from Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX), Tom Cotton (R-AR) and Mike Braun (R-IN), who in January 2020 issued a letter requesting the Department of Justice investigate NIAC’s lobbying practices.
“This is a guy who, for all intents and purposes, represents Iran, a country that wants to kill Americans and has a history of killing Americans,” one source told the Washington Times. “Can you imagine if we could get someone into [Iranian Supreme Leader] Ali Khamenei’s office? If I could pull that off, they’d be building a statue of me at Langley.”
Parsi declined a Washington Times request for comment but has previously denied claims he has lobbied on behalf of Iran. NIAC also put out a statement last year, denouncing the Cruz-Cotton-Braun letter as “slanderous” and “a sign that warhawks are seeking to intimidate pro-peace voices, starting with Iranian Americans, from halting the push toward war, which Cotton and Cruz have long championed.”
Obama-era Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and another Iran deal negotiator, Wendy Sherman, also reportedly spoke with Zarif in 2018, in the weeks and months before Trump left the deal. Biden has nominated Sherman to serve as deputy secretary of state.
In the days after Biden took office, Iran has called on Biden to return the Iran deal as is, and issued a Feb. 21 deadline for him to return to the deal. That deadline has since passed and Biden has not made a final decision on the Iran deal, though the Biden administration has eased travel restrictions on Iranian diplomats in the U.S. and signalled they would accept an invitation to join European Union-led negotiations on the Iran deal.
Biden administration officials have indicated an interest in adding on to the Iran deal. At his Senate confirmation hearing, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the Biden administration could use the 2015 deal as a “platform” for a “longer and stronger” agreement with Iran “to deal with a number of other issues that are deeply problematic in the relationship with Iran.”