Zarif and Kerry meeting sometime early in the nuclear talks during the Obama administration. FILE

Zarif and Kerry meeting sometime early in the nuclear talks during the Obama administration

Diplomatic Briefing, Or Conspiracy? Memo Reveals 2018 US-Zarif Meeting

5/27/2022

An article published Thursday by the Washington Free Beacon continues controversy over meetings in 2018 between former United States officials and Iran.

The Beacon piece is based on a State Department memo apparently unclassified after legal action under the Freedom of Information Act by the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), a conservative Christian group. The memo records views expressed by then Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in an off-the-record meeting October 2018 at the residence of Iran’s UN ambassador in New York residence with “a group of US former ambassadors and policy analysts.”

Both the Beacon and the ACLJ, which highlighted the memo on its website May 24, see proof of secret dealings between former officials in the Obama administration and Iran to undermine President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Five months earlier, in May 2018, Trump had announced the US would leave the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), reached under the Obama administration, and introduce stringent economic sanctions.

“The meeting took place around the same time John Kerry was reported to be working behind-the-scenes with Iranian officials to salvage the 2015 nuclear accord,” the Beacon noted. The memo, the Beacon argued, was “the firmest proof to date that Obama-era officials were engaged in back-channel efforts to keep negotiations with Iran alive.”

Pompeo ‘was not aware’

The controversy over Obama officials’ links with Iran surfaced back in 2018. Kerry, Obama’s secretary of state when the JCPOA was signed, denied accusations from Pompeo and Trump made in September 2018 that he had met Iranian officials subsequent to the May 2018 Trump decision for the US to leave the JCPOA. Kerry said he had met Zarifafter leaving office in January 2017.

The unclassified memo names no Americans present in the meeting, and such off-the-record meetings are common. Given the memo is a State Department document, it seems certain the meeting was approved at some level within the department. The Beacon, which talked to Pompeo after receiving the memo, reported however that Pompeo “was not aware of these meetings [presumably the meeting recorded in the memo] while leading the State Department” (from April 2018 until January 2021).

The memo records views expressed by Zarif over Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen and other regional issues, but nothing of what any of the Americans said. The Iranian foreign minister says he expects Trump to be a two-term president and suggests the US abandoning the JCPOA had shifted Iranian popular opinion towards believing engagement with the US would not work.

‘Back channel pow-wows’

Pompeo, now senior counsel for global affairs at the ACLJ, told the Beacon that the “memo corroborates reports from the time about Kerry's efforts to salvage the 2015 nuclear deal through back-channel pow-wows with Iranian officials.”

Former officials were, Pompeo said, “trying, at every turn, to work with the foreign minister for a terrorist regime, Iran, to undermine the very sanctions put in place by America. It's worse than not knowing when to get off stage. Actively seeking to protect the terrible deal they struck, these former officials – two years after Obama left office – were signaling that Iran should stand firm against America."

The AVLJ says State Department “awareness of or involvement with Obama-era US officials” amounted to “the Deep State.” Its assessment of the memo implies that Kerry, Robert Malley, now the White House special Iran envoy, and Ernest Moniz, energy secretary under Obama, might have been at the meeting, since its release “was only responsive to our FOIA request [request under the Freedom of Information Act] if it involved former high level Obama officials…Kerry…Malley...or…Moniz...”

The story may not be finished. The ACLJ says it will continue litigation to release a 2017 letter from Kerry to Zarif held by the State Department. “We will keep you up to date as this case progresses,” the ACLJ promised Tuesday.

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