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Disclosed: How Obama Administration Officials Conducted Shadow Diplomacy With Iran To Undermine Trump

Former Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and John Kerry (Don Emmert/AFP via Getty Images)
• May 26, 2022 4:20 pm

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Senior Obama administration officials engaged in a secret meeting with Iran in 2018 as part of an effort to undermine the Trump administration's diplomatic push to isolate the hardline regime, according to an internal State Department document.

As the Trump administration worked to increase economic pressure on Iran in 2018, a delegation of "U.S. former ambassadors held a secret, "off-the-record" meeting with former Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif at his residence in New York City, according to a State Department memo unearthed this week as part of a lawsuit brought to compel the release of this information. 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 internal memo, which is marked unclassified, details how these former U.S. ambassadors conducted shadow diplomacy with Iran's top envoy surrounding "nuclear weapons, potential prisoner swaps, [the] Afghanistan withdrawal, and negotiations with the Taliban," according to the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), a legal advocacy group that sued the State Department to obtain the internal memo.

The document is the firmest proof to date that Obama-era officials were engaged in back-channel efforts to keep negotiations with Iran alive, even as former president Donald Trump and his administration worked to isolate the regime, former secretary of state Mike Pompeo told the Free Beacon in exclusive remarks. Pompeo, who was not aware of these meetings while leading the State Department, said the memo corroborates reports from the time about Kerry's efforts to salvage the 2015 nuclear deal through back-channel powwows with Iranian officials.

"This memo reflects even more than we already knew about former State Department officials continuing on as if they were still in office," said Pompeo, who is now senior counsel for global affairs at the ACLJ. "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."

Pompeo said it is startling to learn that members of a former U.S. administration attempted to handicap a sitting president's policies, describing the disclosure as "bad stuff, dangerous stuff, un-American stuff." These former officials, he said, "should be ashamed of themselves. Working against their own nation's policies alongside such a brutal regime."

The seven-page memo was assembled during the meeting with Zarif, which came just days after reports emerged that Kerry was seeking to salvage the Iran nuclear agreement after Trump nixed it earlier that year. The document was produced after the ACLJ sued the State Department for records about any secret meetings between Zarif, Kerry, current U.S. Iran-Envoy Robert Malley, and former Obama secretary of energy Ernest Moniz.

During the meeting, Zarif claimed that Trump's policies have fomented anti-U.S. fervor in Iran and pointed to the popularity of Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) leader Qassem Soleimani, who was assassinated by Trump two years later in a drone strike.

"I was as popular as Soleimani, but now I am at 47 percent and his is up," Zarif said, according to the memo. "He is closer to 80 percent. People of Iran once preferred engagement, now opted for resistance as the only reality. That is what the polls are telling us now and it is the reality of the region."

Zarif also said his government would never give up its missile program or stop enriching uranium, the key component in a nuclear weapon and one of the conditions Trump placed on a potential new deal with Iran that never materialized.

"The U.S. says no peace deal and the U.S. will reimpose sanctions, but the condition is zero missiles, zero nuclear enrichment. This what [John] Bolton wants," Zarif said, referring to Trump's national security adviser. "I know Bolton and negotiated with him years ago. His views are so radical, that we could not reach an agreement. Absolute impossibility to reach an agreement with John Bolton unless you ask him to sit down and read at dictation speed what he wants and then you sign it. He is incapable of compromise."

Zarif also discussed his views on Iraq, potential prisoner swaps with the United States, and Iranian support for terror groups like Hezbollah and the Houthi rebels in Yemen.

As part of the ACLJ's effort to force the release of further information on these back-channel talks with Iran, it received a series of internal State Department emails showing that after Kerry left office, he used State Department staffers to send correspondence to Zarif.

Ben Sisney, ACLJ's senior litigation counsel, said the organization's legal efforts prove that "there were even more secret meetings happening behind the Trump administration’s back than had been previously reported."

But Sisney said it also raises further questions: "How did this memo of ‘former' U.S. officials meeting with Zarif get into the State Department's hands? Was someone at the State Department there? Did the State Department send an informal liaison?"

Update 7:35 p.m.: This piece has been updated to clarify Kerry's role in the diplomacy with Iran.