On July 17, it was reported that President Donald Trump had authorized Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) to meet with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif to discuss ways to reduce tensions between the two countries.
This news brought back memories of my dealings with Zarif 16 years ago. Within months after Congress authorized war against Iraq, and as the U.S. was planning for its March 19, 2003, invasion, I too, alongside former Rep. Victor “Vic” Snyder (D-Ark.), met with Zarif, then Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations. The purpose was to solidify a previous promise by Zarif that, during an invasion of Iraq, Iran would not fire at U.S. warplanes using Iranian airspace.
Obtaining this promise was not easy. Although there were productive negotiations with Zarif from late September 2001 through mid-January 2002, resulting in an Iranian agreement to intercept al-Qaeda operatives, communications fell apart on Jan. 29, 2002. During his State of the Union address that night, President George W. Bush first referred to what he termed the “Axis of Evil” — linking Iran with Iraq and North Korea. Bush concluded that “states like these and their terrorist allies constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world.”
As the U.S. was preparing to invade Iraq, we needed Iran to allow use of its airspace and accommodate troop movement along its border.
In December 2002 and early 2003, the State Department, through Zarif, reached the agreement it needed. But the State Department strained the relationship by creating confusion about U.S. promises not to extend the war from Iraq to Iran, and by denying Zarif, who then resided in New York, permission to spend the night in Washington D.C., to meet with Members of Congress, including me. The scheduled meetings were cancelled.
I was stunned because Zarif was the Western world’s strongest link to Iran. As a junior diplomat in 1987, Zarif worked to secure of the U.S. hostages held in Lebanon by pro-Iranian gunmen. In the aftermath of 9/11 Zarif helped persuade the Supreme Leader to cooperate with the U.S. by preventing al-Qaeda operatives from crossing the border from Afghanistan to Iran and freezing the visas of those who made it.
After a State Department official requested us to “clean up this mess,” Rep. Vic Snyder (D-Ark.) and I flew to New York and had dinner with Zarif, who assured us Iran remained committed to its promise to cooperate in the upcoming invasion of Iraq.We were hopeful discussions with Zarif would continue, but a group of neoconservatives (war hawks) in the Bush administration, led by Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and then-Under Secretary of State John Bolton, opposed further discussions. Vic and I remained optimistic, however, that more level-headed advisers would prevail with the president.
Discussions did continue, including those on a trip to Sweden in which I participated with others, including senior staff from then-Sen. Joe Biden’s office. I called Secretary of State Colin Powell prior to the trip to ensure he was not opposed. He told me that if asked, he would not be critical, but warned me not to tell “Rummy,” meaning Rumsfeld.
In early May 2003, the Swiss ambassador in Tehran, Tim Guldimann, met me in my Washington D.C. office with a written proposal from Iran to negotiate with the U.S. on the issues discussed over the past several months. Guldimann served as the caretaker of American interests in Iran because the U.S. did not have an embassy there. Guldimann said that Iran’s Supreme Leader approved the proposal and that he had personally delivered it to the State Department. Guldimann asked me to deliver a copy directly to President Bush, which I did, through the President’s senior adviser, Karl Rove.
I read the proposal in Guldimann’s presence and saw it included several positive items, including agreement to: 1) put Iran’s nuclear program under international inspection with extensive U.S. involvement to alleviate fears of weaponization; 2) fully cooperate against al-Qaeda; 3) end Iranian support for Hamas and Islamic Jihad; and 4) disarm Hezbollah, the pro-Iranian Shiite group in Lebanon.
In return, Iran wanted the U.S. to end economic sanctions and sought other commitments likely to be rejected by the Bush administration.
Ambassador Guldimann delivered a copy to me, he said, because I was a speaker of the Persian language (Farsi) who lived in Iran prior to the 1979 revolution, was familiar with the country’s culture and history, and supported negotiating with Iran about issues of mutual concern.
Although Powell and his allies believed it was a good-faith offer, Vice President Dick Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Bolton vetoed any discussion of its substance. Cheney and Rumsfeld persuaded Bush to ignore the proposal and to issue a reprimand Guldimann for having delivered it.
Although summarily rejected, the 2003 proposal laid the groundwork for the 2015 Iran nuclear deal negotiated between Zarif on behalf of Iran, the Obama administration, and five other signatories. (The formal name for the 2015 Iran nuclear deal is the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA.)
The Iran nuclear deal became a point of contention in the 2016 Presidential election. Trump said it was terrible. Clinton supported it. Most serious Middle East foreign policy experts supported it, believing it was working to prevent Iran from weaponizing its nuclear program.
On May 8, 2018, President Donald Trump announced the U.S. was withdrawing from the agreement. Trump’s appointment of two hard-nosed neoconservatives the previous month had signaled the government’s new stance toward Iran.
The first was Bolton, who had become a national security adviser 30 days earlier. The second was Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who took the job on April 26. Both had previously called for withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and supported regime change. (Bolton has advocated for a regime change not only in Iran, but also in Syria, Libya, Venezuela, Cuba, Yemen, and North Korea, and alarmingly has even made the case for a pre-emptive military strike against North Korea).
I feared the U.S. would promptly withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal and support military strikes against Iran at every opportunity. I was not mistaken.
On June 20, Iran fired a missile at a U.S. drone flying near the Strait of Hormuz, the strategic gateway for Middle East oil. Iran claimed the drone was in Iranian airspace. The Trump administration said it was over international waters. Bolton urged a retaliatory strike on three targets that Trump later stated would likely have killed 150 Iranians. Trump said he ordered the strike, but then canceled it 10 minutes before it was to begin, stating that the potential death toll was “not proportionate to shooting down an unmanned drone.”
I was alarmed but felt some relief in mid-July when Trump confirmed he had authorized Sen. Paul to meet with Zarif.
The two men met in New York on July 15 and Paul invited Zarif to meet with the president at the White House. Zarif said he was threatened with sanctions if he refused. Zarif rejected the invitation, explaining later that he was uneasy about the threat.
On July 28, the U.S. Treasury Department announced the imposition of sanctions against Zarif, freezing any U.S. assets he may own, and prohibiting any U.S. person or entity from dealing with him. The Treasury Department said it sanctioned Zarif because he “acted or purported to act for or on behalf of, directly or indirectly, the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
With an apology for being redundant, it is déjà vu all over again. Zarif was educated here. He has a son and daughter who were born here. Zarif has worked with the U.S. to seek common ground after the horrible attack of 9/11. He continued even after being rebuffed by the neoconservatives in the Bush administration, a persistence that ultimately led to the 2015 nuclear deal.
I do not want my opinions to be misconstrued as sympathetic to the government of Iran. It is unrelentingly repressive. But in the end, Zarif has and is continuing to do what every diplomat is supposed to do: Represent their government as best they can.
In 2003, the name I frequently heard in connection with the Bush administration’s reluctance to meet with Zarif was then-Under Secretary of State Bolton. Now, as a national security adviser and together with Pompeo, Bolton pushed for the recent sanctions against Zarif. This moves us closer to Bolton’s long-held goal with regard to Iran: 1) a refusal to negotiate or even communicate; 2) small-, medium-, and then large-scale “retaliatory” military strikes; 3) armament of dissidents followed by military support for regime change; and 4) resulting war. Middle East security is in grave jeopardy once again.
Bob Ney is a former member of Congress who lived in Iran prior to the 1979 revolution and is now a political analyst for Talk Media News (TMN) specializing in Middle East issues.