Happy belated Groundhog Day, everyone.
Sorry about being a bit late about it. To be fair, I didn’t even know we were in yet another time loop until Sunday, when The Washington Times broke the story that former Obama secretary of state and current climate czar John Kerry was involved in backchannel talks with Iran’s foreign minister in 2019, potentially undercutting the Trump administration’s efforts to curb the world’s most notorious state sponsor of terrorism.
The Washington Times’ report details meetings between Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and various Obama-era officials in New York during the summer of 2019 — including Kerry, Obama Middle East adviser Robert Malley and Obama-era Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz — aimed at establishing a parallel track of diplomacy behind the Trump administration’s back.
“The attempt at counterdiplomacy offers a window into the deep relationships Mr. Zarif forged with influential U.S. liberals over the past decade,” the Washington Times noted.
“These relationships blossomed into what high-level national security and intelligence sources say allowed the Iranian regime to bypass Mr. Trump and work directly with Obama administration veterans that Tehran hoped would soon return to power in Washington.”
For the mullahs of Tehran, this was apparently preferable to dealing with the Trump administration, which in 2018 had pulled out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — colloquially known as the Iran nuclear deal — citing the shortcomings of a pact that didn’t address Tehran’s conventional weapons development or its support for terrorist groups and proxy wars.
While the subsequent reimposition of certain sanctions decimated the Iranian economy, Zarif wasn’t necessarily a desperate man. Sources told The Washington Times he’s cultivated a “web” of sympathetic figures in academia and think-tanks that want the United States to pursue rapprochement with Iran.
“One former U.S. official described Mr. Zarif as ‘the bat signal’ for a network that encompasses left-leaning university professors, think tank analysts and other corners of civil society calling for a less-confrontational relationship with the regime in Tehran,” the newspaper reported.
“He’s the signal for an echo chamber internationally that has been established over time.”
This looks bad enough on its face, but consider the fact this dual-track diplomacy was happening as Iran was launching missions against U.S. troops in neighboring Iraq and was funneling money freed up by sanctions relief to terrorist organizations like Hamas.
“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 for the 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,” he added.
And yet, this is hardly the first time we’ve heard of the former Obama administration engaging in dual-track negotiations with Iran, undercutting the elected Trump administration.
In 2018, The Associated Press reported, then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo lambasted Kerry for meeting several times with Zarif, saying Kerry was “actively undermining” U.S. policy.
“You can’t find precedent for this in U.S. history, and Secretary Kerry ought not to engage in that kind of behavior,” Pompeo told reporters. “It’s inconsistent with what foreign policy of the United States is as directed by this president, and it is beyond inappropriate for him to be engaged.”
Kerry, then hawking a book doubtlessly remaindered by this point, sent this smug Twitter response: “Mr. President, you should be more worried about Paul Manafort meeting with Robert Mueller than me meeting with Iran’s FM,” he wrote. “But if you want to learn something about the nuclear agreement that made the world safer, buy my new book.”
Mr. President, you should be more worried about Paul Manafort meeting with Robert Mueller than me meeting with Iran’s FM. But if you want to learn something about the nuclear agreement that made the world safer, buy my new book, Every Day Is Extra: https://t.co/DKjc33Kvvu https://t.co/cesltkt0zW
— John Kerry (@JohnKerry) September 14, 2018
This came up again last February, where then-President Donald Trump said Kerry “grossly violated the Logan Act” by speaking to Zarif, according to The Hill. The Logan Act is an 18th-century law that prohibits individuals from negotiating with foreign governments without the permission of the United States.
“That is, once again, another presidential lie, a complete effort by the president to distort reality,” Kerry said.
Talk of the Logan Act frequently gets thrown around, but it’s more bluster than substance. Since its inception in 1799, only two individuals have been charged under it and both charges were dropped before they even went to trial, according to the Federalist Society, the influential conservative legal group.
However, accusing Kerry and his coterie of trying to bend the arc of American foreign policy — and undermining a sitting president’s aims — is a legitimate charge.
If the Washington Times’ report is correct, the individuals who met with Zarif and other Iranian officials sabotaged attempts to lower the temperature between Washington and Tehran at a critical juncture, all in the name of constructing a post-Trump detente. The Biden administration has made no secret of its desire to rejoin the JCPOA, and while hurdles remain, the message is that Washington’s open for business again with the Islamic Republic of Iran, where the U.S. is still considered the “Great Satan.”
Meanwhile, when the Trump administration tried to call Kerry and the rest of the ersatz Obama shadow diplomatic corps out for these negotiations, Kerry angrily invoked the specter of Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation. As it turned out,there was never anything to that.
When it came to the Groundhog Day-like repetition of stories wherein Kerry or other Obama-era officials would meet with Zarif and other Iranians, however, there appears to be quite a bit more collusion than anything Trump was accused of.
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