The Iranian ruling regime is racing to save the landmark nuclear deal after President Donald Trump bucked European powers and walked away from the agreement with a vow to reimpose a package of harsh sanctions on the Islamic Republic, according to U.S. officials and regional experts who say the hardline regime is scared about losing the sweetheart deal.
Leading Iranian officials have been locked in tense meetings with European countries and former U.S. officials to ensure they continue to uphold the deal and keep doing business with the Islamic Republic.
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, one of the country's lead negotiators, held a series of meetings with European Union countries on Tuesday to plead with them about saving the deal and ensuring Tehran remains open for business as the United States tees up a package of sanctions that could cripple Iran's already ailing economy.
European leaders also have been pleading with members of Congress, where they are being met with a cool reception, according to multiple sources familiar with these closed-door talks.
European diplomats are said to be blaming the Obama administration for drumming up business with Iran and telling these allies that they could engage in economic transactions without penalty. The reaction from lawmakers has been unsympathetic, source said, explaining that congressional opponents of the deal long warned these European countries the deal would be subject to harsh scrutiny after President Barack Obama left office.
A State Department official familiar with the progress of new negotiations surrounding the deal said the Trump administration is set on fundamentally changing Iran's behavior, including its buildup on ballistic missiles and support for terrorism, before it agree to any Iranian demands.
"The president has directed his administration to work with nations around the world to create a new coalition to counter Iran’s nuclear and proliferation threats, as well as its support for terrorism, militancy, and asymmetric weapons like ballistic missiles," the official told the Free Beacon. "This coalition will bring all necessary pressure to bear on Iran to change its behavior."
One veteran U.S. adviser close to the White House told the Washington Free Beacon that Iran's reaction indicates its desperation to remain in the Obama-era agreement and continue receiving cash windfalls.
"As President Trump has always said, the Iran deal was great for the mullahs and terrible for the American people," the source said, speaking only on background. "Obama gave Iran more than they could ever have imagined, and now Trump is taking it away. The Iranians are rushing to grab and save whatever they can. Europe will have to choose a side."
Zarif and other Iranian leaders have even looked to former Secretary of State John Kerry in guidance, with Iran's foreign ministry confirming that the country's leaders have been holding shadow diplomatic talks with him.
It also is believed Kerry recently met with Kamal Kharrazi, head of Iran's Strategic Council on Foreign Relations, an organization created by Iran's Supreme Leader that answers directly to him, according to sources who reviewed publicly available information on Kerry's recent meeting in Europe.
"We don't see the U.S. just as Mr. Trump; the United States is not just the current ruling administration and there are many figures who have different views on international and regional issues," Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Bahram Qassemi said in recent comments.
Zarif has been scrambling across Europe in a bid to save the nuclear deal.
Following a Tuesday meeting with EU Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini in Brussels, Zarif claimed to have gotten "guarantees" that European countries will continue "to meet Iran's interests after the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal," according to regional reports carried in Iran's state-controlled media.
"We share the common view that the nuclear deal is emphatically needed to be implemented by all the remaining parties and Iran should enjoy the merits of the nuclear deal and receive [assurances] in this regard," Zarif was quoted as saying following the powwow.
"We ought to rest assured that no country [including the United States] will manage to benefit from its illegal withdrawal, and that only other members who have remained loyal to the deal can have its dividends," Zarif said.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei also has been conducting diplomacy to convince European leaders to stay in the deal.
Following a round of Tuesday meetings with envoys from New Zealand, Nepal, Estonia, and Latvia, Khamenei lashed out at the United States and affirmed his desire to see the deal survive.
"The first result of these wrong decisions is Washington's isolation in the world public opinion," Khamenei was quoted as saying. "Iran may remain in the nuclear deal if it receives all its benefits from the agreement."
Iranian leaders also have begun to threaten the United States as a result of the withdrawal, promising to expose "which Western politicians and how much money they had received during nuclear negotiations to make" the deal a reality, according to Zarif's senior adviser, H.J. Ansari.
Regional experts and former U.S. officials with knowledge of Iran's ongoing diplomatic efforts to save the deal told the Free Beacon that Europe will soon have to choose between Iran and being hit with harsh sanctions by the United States.
"Iran has nothing to lose by waiting a bit to see if Europe is crazy enough to break or evade U.S. sanctions," said Richard Goldberg, a former senior aide to Sen. Mark Kirk (R., Ill.) who now serves as an adviser the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. "It's political theatre that reinforces the notion of a transatlantic split. Zarif may be able to charm a room of diplomats but he'll soon find out he can't convince European businesses to commit suicide."
Regional experts agree.
Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon adviser with close ties to officials, told the Free Beacon that Iran has started to beg behind-the-scenes with European allies, a sign that leadership is worried U.S. sanctions could completely cripple the country and lead to the ruling regime's ouster.
"Basically, the Iranians are begging the Europeans to slap a fresh coat of paint on a termite-infested house and say it's structurally sound," Rubin said. "The Iranian strategy has always been to divide and conquer Europe and the U.S. and this is more of the same."
"And Zarif's logic is nonsense: Kerry allowed Iran to have its rewards upfront rather than calibrate them to compliance," Rubin said. "Iran tried to pull a fast one and keep its illegal archives and got caught. Remember, if the Iranians wanted people to invest, all they have to do is stop taking hostages, stop threatening genocide, and crack down on the corruption of their leadership."
Saeed Ghasseminejad, an Iran expert also at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, slammed Kerry's recent shadow diplomacy with Iran, saying it will only further inflame opponents of the nuclear deal.
"I am not sure why Iranians are have been meeting John Kerry, an old retired secretary of State," Ghasseminejad said. "Maybe they are just gathering information, maybe they hope Kerry can rally the Democrats to support Tehran's position and the JCPOA, or they may be hopeful that Kerry will run in 2020."
Update 4:18 p.m.: This post has been updated with comment from the State Department.