President Trump in 2019 sought to open a back channel of communication with top Iranian officials and saw the U.N. General Assembly meeting in September as a potential opportunity to defuse escalating tension with Tehran, but the effort failed.
Two months earlier, however, a different back channel was thriving in New York. Iran’s smooth, English-speaking foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, met with Robert Malley, who was President Obama’s Middle East adviser, in an apparent bid to undermine the Trump team and lay the groundwork for post-Trump relations.
The attempt at counterdiplomacy offers a window into the deep relationships Mr. Zarif forged with influential U.S. liberals over the past decade. 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.
One of those was former Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who met with Mr. Zarif during the Trump years. So did Obama-era Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz. They, along with Mr. Malley, were top U.S. negotiators of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). As part of the deal, Tehran promised to limit its nuclear enrichment activities in exchange for economic sanctions relief and access to tens of billions of dollars in frozen bank accounts.
Mr. Trump pulled the U.S. out of the pact in 2018. He cited the need for a much tougher agreement that also addressed Iran’s support for terrorist groups and its destabilizing behavior in the Middle East.
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Mr. Kerry and Mr. Malley are now in the Biden administration, Mr. Kerry as a climate adviser and Mr. Malley poised to play a major role in U.S.-Iranian relations from his perch as special envoy for Iran policy at the State Department.
But Mr. Zarif’s power extends far beyond the negotiating table. Numerous sources have told The Washington Times that he wields tremendous influence over a tightly knit group inside the U.S. that has long advocated for Washington to take a more accommodating tack toward Iran.
The sources, including several from the U.S. intelligence community who spoke on the condition of anonymity, described a “web” of activity tied to prominent think tanks across the United States, as well as lobbying efforts that reached directly into the White House during the Obama years.
It’s an informal union of Iran apologists and pro-diplomacy advocates that helps amplify Mr. Zarif’s talking points, giving the Iranian Foreign Ministry influence over public opinion in the United States and considerable sway in left-leaning political and social circles.
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.
“He’s the signal for an echo chamber internationally that has been established over time,” the former official said.
Some foreign policy analysts argue that the shadow diplomacy between Mr. Zarif and the former Obama team was particularly striking because Iran at the time was backing plots to kill Americans stationed in neighboring Iraq and the regime was funneling money, including funds it received from sanctions relief under the JCPOA, to terrorist organizations Hamas and Hezbollah.
“Former administration officials can play a very helpful role in close coordination with a sitting administration to open and support sensitive diplomatic channels,” said Mark Dubowitz, chief executive at the Washington-based think tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “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,” said Mr. Dubowitz, who has been the target of Iranian sanctions because of his outspoken criticism of the regime in Tehran.
Although details of Mr. Zarif’s face-to-face conversations with leading Democrats remain murky, one former senior U.S. official told The Times that the Iranian foreign minister held meetings throughout the Trump years, in 2017, 2018 and 2019, before the administration halted his visa in 2020.
The underlying goals of Mr. Zarif’s meetings, the official said, was “to devise a political strategy to undermine the Trump administration” and to continue building up a reservoir of support for the JCPOA, or another deal like it, that could be drawn up if a Democrat returned to the White House in 2021.
Mr. Kerry has publicly acknowledged meeting with Mr. Zarif at least twice during the early years of the Trump administration.
In 2018, the former senator from Massachusetts told radio host Hugh Hewitt that he intended to find out “what Iran might be willing to do in order to change the dynamic in the Middle East for the better” and said there was nothing secret about his meetings with Mr. Zarif. He vehemently denied claims that he “coached” Mr. Zarif about how to deal with the Trump administration.
The Associated Press, meanwhile, reported that Mr. Zarif met with Mr. Moniz earlier in 2018 and with Iran deal negotiator Wendy Sherman on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference that same year. Ms. Sherman has been nominated to serve as deputy secretary of state in the Biden administration.
Most of the meetings with Mr. Zarif took place before Mr. Trump withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018. That timing is important because it means the U.S. and Iran were still official diplomatic partners.
But Mr. Malley and Mr. Zarif met in 2019, after the JCPOA withdrawal, meaning the dynamic between Washington and Tehran had changed drastically. Sources said it’s likely that Mr. Malley urged Iranian officials to wait out the Trump presidency with the expectation that a Democratic administration in 2021 would restore Obama-era policy.
A spokesperson for the International Crisis Group, which Mr. Malley was leading at the time, told the Jewish Insider media outlet in July 2019 that the meeting was part of Mr. Malley’s “regular contacts with all parties, whether it be Iran, the U.S., Gulf states or European countries.”
Mr. Malley did not respond to repeated requests for comment from The Times, and State Department Bureau of Public Affairs officials appointed by the Biden administration refused to address questions about his dealings with Mr. Zarif.
“We categorically reject baseless smears against dedicated public servants,” one U.S. official said.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken has directed Mr. Malley to incorporate people representing a variety of views in his Iran approach. Mr. Blinken also has stressed that Iran must make the first diplomatic move by returning to the uranium enrichment limits laid out in the JCPOA. Iranian leaders say they have purposely breached those limits in response to the revival of American economic sanctions.
The secretary of state said recently that a new deal may address other issues, including Tehran’s support of terrorism.
Questions of transparency
For Mr. Zarif, the January 2017 change between the Obama and Trump administrations was jarring. Mr. Trump campaigned against the Iran nuclear deal in 2016 and withdrew the U.S. from it two years later.
Outraged at the American reversal, Mr. Zarif saw an opportunity to exploit Democratic anger to Iran’s advantage. During the initial uproar in 2018 over his meetings with Mr. Kerry, Mr. Zarif explained that he could tap into a network of support for the deal that was alive and well on the political left.
That network, he said, allowed him to work around the Trump administration.
“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,” Mr. Zarif told a May 2018 meeting with members of the Iranian Parliament, as quoted by the Al Arabiya news channel.
One of the central organizations in the web, according to numerous sources, is the National Iranian American Council (NIAC).
The group, whose website says it engages in “direct lobbying efforts” in Washington, has long supported a softer diplomatic approach toward Iran. It called the appointment of Mr. Malley to the Biden administration “a major step in putting U.S. diplomacy back in the hands of genuine professionals.”
In private, U.S. officials describe the NIAC as “the Iranian version of AIPAC,” the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee that has long exercised significant influence in Washington promoting a pro-Israel policy but has no direct ties to the Israeli government.
A monthslong investigation by The Washington Times found no direct financial connection between NIAC and Iran’s government, but critics say the council is the lobbying arm of the regime in Tehran, operating in plain sight in the United States.
NIAC vehemently denies such claims, which have been debated in the press and in lawsuits dating nearly all the way back to the organization’s founding two decades ago.
However, the council often appears in lockstep with Mr. Zarif on public messaging. In the immediate aftermath of a January 2020 U.S. airstrike that killed top Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, they had similar reactions and expressed near-identical warnings about what may result.
“The US’ act of international terrorism, targeting & assassinating General Soleimani … is extremely dangerous & a foolish escalation,” Mr. Zarif tweeted on Jan. 2, 2020. “The US bears responsibility for all consequences of its rogue adventurism.”
“The assassination of … Qassem Soleimani is a profoundly reckless move that will be viewed as an act of war in Tehran,” NIAC said in a statement the same day. “We call yet again on leaders in Washington and Tehran to halt the escalation spiral, invite in intermediaries and negotiate their differences before it is too late and a regional war is upon us.”
Those types of similarities have caught the attention of key lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
In January 2020, three high-profile Republican senators asked the Justice Department to open an investigation into whether NIAC was violating the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which requires anyone working in a political capacity for a foreign government to disclose that information.
“We are concerned that certain organizations that purport to represent the interests of [the Iranian-American] community, specifically NIAC, may be conducting lobbying and public relations activities in coordination with or on behalf of the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” wrote Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Mike Braun of Indiana.
It’s unclear whether an investigation was ever opened. The Justice Department declined to comment when The Times asked about the senators’ letter.
The Council issued a statement last year describing the lawmakers’ assertions 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.”
When approached by The Times with questions about council’s dealings with Mr. Zarif during the Trump era, and whether it directly coordinated with the Iranian official on messaging, the organization declined to comment, though it said in a statement that it “is completely independent of any government, and is funded exclusively by American donors and reputable U.S. foundations.”
“Our commitment to transparency has earned NIAC a Guidestar Platinum Seal of Transparency,” the statement said. “Our policy priorities are set by our membership and consistently fall within a supermajority of the views of the Iranian-American community based on all polling data.”
‘Foreign influence operations’
The Cruz-Cotton-Braun letter also singled out Trita Parsi, a co-founder of NIAC who now serves as executive vice president at a recently formed Washington-based think tank, the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.
The senators’ letter cited years-old claims that Mr. Parsi had a close working relationship with Mr. Zarif. It referenced a 2008 lawsuit that revealed Mr. Parsi had arranged meetings between Mr. Zarif and members of Congress around 2006 when Mr. Zarif was serving as Tehran’s ambassador to the United Nations.
One high-level source, who detailed the dynamic on the condition of not being identified, said senior officials familiar with intelligence on Iran believe Mr. Parsi works in step with the Iranian regime.
“Basically, there is a huge hole in how we perceive foreign influence operations in America,” said the source, pointing to reports that Mr. Parsi had high-level access to the Obama administration.
A 2017 report by The Washington Free Beacon examined Obama White House visitor logs and found that Mr. Parsi had visited 33 times to meet with Mr. Malley and other top administration officials.
“What the heck? Thirty-three times?” the high-level source told The Times. “It’s entirely reasonable to believe he’ll be doing it again now with Biden in the White House.”
“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,” the source said. “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.”
Mr. Parsi declined to comment for this article, but he has previously issued sharp denials of claims that he or the Council ever lobbied on behalf of the Iranian government. He characterized the claims as lies fomented by neoconservatives who seek war with Iran.
A top former Iranian official pushed back at the notion that the council or Mr. Parsi operates as an American front for the government in Tehran.
“It is not a secret that Trita Parsi has had meetings with Javad Zarif in New York, like hundreds of other Iranian-Americans and Americans. But that does not equate to NIAC being a front for the Iranian government or to the Iranian government providing support for NIAC,” said Seyed Hossein Mousavian, a former Iranian diplomat and nuclear negotiator who specializes in Middle East security and nuclear policy at Princeton University.
Mr. Mousavian told The Times in an interview that there is a far simpler explanation for the council’s pro-diplomacy policies.
“The overwhelming majority of Iranians in the United States do not want war against Iran or sanctions against Iran because their families — their parents, sisters and brothers — are in Iran and they want to be able to travel to Iran and they have assets in Iran,” he said.
“This is why 90% of Iranians in the U.S. don’t want to attack Iran and don’t want regime change,” he said. “They fear the country will fall into complete instability and there will be an Afghanistanization of Iran.”
NIAC’s return to influence in Washington at the highest levels represents a stark reversal from the Trump years, when groups promoting an entirely different view of Iran gained access to the White House.
One such organization that has promoted claims about a Tehran-run web of influence is the National Council of Resistance of Iran, an umbrella group for Iranians who oppose the theocratic regime and U.S. efforts to engage with it.
The Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK), the most structured Iranian opposition outfit, is closely affiliated with the National Council of Resistance of Iran. It was once listed as a terrorist organization, but the listing was removed in 2012 after it renounced violence and recruited well-known American politicians and diplomats to plead its case.
MEK advocates have included Democrats and Republicans, and many of the Republican supporters took prominent roles in the Trump administration. John R. Bolton, who served as a national security adviser to Mr. Trump, and Rudolph W. Giuliani, Mr. Trump’s personal attorney, have both backed the MEK.
Mr. Trump and top deputies such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo were outraged by Mr. Kerry’s back-channel diplomacy.
Mr. Trump even said it was illegal under the 1799 Logan Act, which restricts private American citizens from negotiating with hostile powers. That was the law Democrats cited to attack Trump aides such as Michael Flynn for contacts with Russians before Mr. Trump’s 2017 inauguration.
“John Kerry violated the Logan Act,” Mr. Trump told White House reporters in May 2019. “He’s talking to Iran and has had many meetings and many phone calls, and he’s telling them what to do. That is a total violation of the Logan Act.”
Legal experts say only two people have ever been indicted under the Logan Act, both in the 19th century, and both cases were dropped before trial.
Michael O’Hanlon, senior fellow and director of research in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, said he takes a “fairly lenient” attitude toward Americans communicating with foreign officials, “as long as they are upfront about the capacity in which they do so.”
He said he was more worried about the positions that the Obama-Biden operators took.
“Personally, I don’t think a simple return to the JCPOA today, as if the Trump presidency never happened, makes a lot of sense,” he said in an interview. “Trump aspired for too much on Iran, seeking to change all of the regime’s objectionable behavior in a way that was unrealistic. But we do need, I think, a tougher nuclear deal of longer-term duration. And Trump showed that Iran didn’t have lots of good options about what to do if we squeezed them” through economic sanctions.
The irony of the Obama team’s meetings with Mr. Zarif is that the Biden administration now seems to be increasingly aligned with Mr. Trump’s strategy.
After fulfilling his campaign promise to pull America back from what he described as the “disastrous” nuclear deal with Iran, Mr. Trump ramped up sanctions with the stated goal of pressuring Tehran into a new and wider negotiation that would address not only the Islamic republic’s illegal nuclear weapons program but also its support for international terrorism.
Although Mr. Trump’s unilateral moves angered others who had signed the multinational deal with Iran — including the European Union, China and Russia — most conservative observers felt by September 2019 that Mr. Trump’s strategy was working. U.S.-Iranian tensions were soaring, and the moment was ripe for Mr. Trump to exert the leverage his administration believed it had created.
With the U.N. General Assembly as cover, the president began pressuring Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan to open a back channel of communication with the Iranians, but the effort fell on deaf ears.