As the Trump administration sent warplanes and an aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf, a small group of former Obama administration officials reached out to their contacts in the Iranian government, including Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. Their message to Iran: Don’t take Trump’s bait. Stay calm.
Conversations between former Obama officials and Iranian government officials have been ongoing since November 2016. Zarif, who visits the U.S. every year for the U.N. General Assembly in New York, usually meets with lawmakers, think tanks, journalists, and former officials when he is in town.
But the recent round of conversations, which took place over the phone and in person over the last two months, came as lines of communication between the U.S. and Iran, through intermediaries in Europe and elsewhere, deteriorated.
The U.S. policy toward Iran—a scorched-earth campaign to crush the country’s economy—took a turn this month when the Trump administration, following new Iranian activity that concerned American intelligence and national-security officials, sent ships and B-52 bombers to the region in a show of force. That move fed fears of military conflict between the two powers.
Officials in the intelligence community concluded that those aggressive steps came in response to the Trump administration’s decision to punish any country that violates U.S. sanctions by buying Iranian oil and to designate Tehran’s military as a terrorist group. Just a few weeks later, news broke that the White House was considering a proposal to send upward of 120,000 troops to the Middle East. Instead, President Trump decided to send 1,500.
Meanwhile, lawmakers on Capitol Hill pressed for details about the threat, at times turning to former Obama officials for answers.
Three Obama officials who worked closely on the Iran nuclear deal, one of whom is still in touch with Iranian government officials, traveled to Capitol Hill to brief congressional Democrats about the situation. Those former officials said would not say if they passed information from Iranian government officials to members of Congress. Rather, they said they focused on educating members about their experience working with Iranian leaders and how Tehran reacts to economic pressure.
Several former officials who spoke to The Daily Beast stressed that their discussions with their Iranian contacts were “normal.” But in other corners, these kind of talks cause alarm. A Republican congressional aide who works on Iran policy told The Daily Beast the conversations may run counter to the Trump administration’s messaging to the Iranian government.
“It’s not just about what they were saying to the Iranians,” the aide said. “It’s about what they were saying to their political allies back here in the U.S. Their strategy was to divide and isolate the Trump administration just as the Trump administration was trying to re-establish deterrence with Iran. In the current highly partisan political environment, the only safe course is to signal national unity—and they contributed to eroding that at home and abroad.”
Conversations of this nature sometimes generate fervid conversations about an obscure piece of legislation, passed in 1799 and never once enforced, called the Logan Act. It’s been more than 150 years since anyone has been charged with breaking it, as History Today notes, and nobody has ever been convicted over it.
The Logan Act bars people outside the U.S. government from engaging in unauthorized diplomatic talks on its behalf. When Gen. Michael Flynn spoke with Russian officials between Election Day 2016 and Inauguration Day to urge them not to retaliate against new U.S. sanctions, some suggested he could be charged with breaking that law (he wasn’t). The likelihood that former Obama officials could face such a charge is basically zero percent; the likelihood that some of their critics may bring it up, on the other hand, is reasonably high.
“Former Obama administration officials gave wrong-headed advice to the regime in Iran that U.S. sanctions couldn’t work without European support and that the regime should just wait out the Trump administration,” said Mark Dubowitz, the CEO of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a think tank in Washington that has advised the administration on Iran policy. “Now with U.S. sanctions biting and the Islamic Republic facing an economic crisis, they’d be wise to tell their Iranian counterparts to return to negotiations. Bipartisan support for efforts to block the Islamic Republic’s malign activities strengthens American security.”
A former Obama administration familiar with the conversations characterized them quite differently. The ex-Obama officials’ message, per that former official, has been to keep calm and stick with the historic nuclear deal that Tehran negotiated with the world’s major powers. It’s a message that, at least on paper, the Trump administration claims to share.
As tensions have ballooned over the last two months, though, the official said those conversations have become more “urgent.”
“The communications are not surprising because of the lack of direct contact between the U.S. and Iran. The urgency is greater now. There is a sense of, let’s make sure that there is some channel open,” said Dalia Dassa Kaye, the director of the Center for Middle East Public Policy at the Rand Corporation. “But it’s not clear that they are talking to Iranians that are making the ultimate decisions in the country. It’s not clear that those talking to each other, those in the room, are representing the realities on the ground in their respective countries.”
One former official who worked on the Obama administration’s Iran policy told The Daily Beast he spoke with Iranian government officials as recently as a few weeks ago, as tensions were cresting. His message, he said, was simple: The Trump administration can escalate things plenty all by itself; the Iranians shouldn’t take the bait, fuel the fire, and move things from bad to worse by, for example, pulling completely out of the nuclear deal.
Another former senior Obama administration official, who said he was not himself aware of the conversations, called the talks “neither unusual nor particularly consequential.”
“Exaggerating their significance lends undue credence to those cynically blaming others for their own failing approach,” the ex-official said.
Separately, some former Obama officials are trying to keep the roots of the Iran nuclear deal alive by taking the pulse of lawmakers on Capitol Hill to gauge whether they are in favor of restarting talks in the future. They are also speaking to officials in Europe who are concerned about their long-term ability to trade with Iran and stick to the terms of the Iran nuclear deal, all while attempting to avoid U.S. sanctions. Meanwhile, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA)—formerly the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee—had dinner with Zarif “a few weeks ago,” according to a Politico report published May 23.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Jared Kushner, Middle East adviser Jason Greenblatt, and Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook are in Europe this week looking to shore up support for the administration’s new Middle East peace plan. They are also expected to broker conversations about Iran’s influence in the region.