U.S. Officials Distance Trump Admin From Last-Minute Push to Block Pressure on Iran

State Dept: Rand Paul's unilateral diplomacy with Tehran 'clearly failed'

Sen. Rand Paul / Getty
August 5, 2019

A last-minute diplomatic initiative by Sen. Rand Paul (R., Ky.) aimed at easing pressure on Iran was poorly coordinated and ultimately ended in failure, according to multiple administration and congressional sources who spoke to the Washington Free Beacon and provided previously unknown details about the senator's rogue diplomacy with Tehran.

The New Yorker magazine disclosed that Paul attempted to broker a meeting between Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and President Donald Trump in the Oval Office, against the backdrop of a then-unrevealed decision by the Trump administration to sanction Iran's top diplomat for propagandizing on behalf of Iran's Supreme Leader.

However, multiple U.S. officials closely involved in Iran diplomacy have painted a different picture, describing the meeting as a unilateral initiative by Paul that was not broadly coordinated with key figures in the Trump administration, and which failed in part because of that lack of coordination.

"Senator Paul's effort clearly failed as there was no White House meeting between the President and Foreign Minister Zarif, and Zarif is now sanctioned," a State Department spokesperson told the Free Beacon in the clearest statement to date that Paul's diplomacy was not sanctioned by top administration figures.

Senior U.S. officials "unequivocally deny helping set this up or being on board," according to one well-placed source familiar with the senator's efforts. "Paul called [Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo to give him a heads up— that's it."

These new disclosures are a stark contrast to reporting in the New Yorker, which cited both Iranian and American diplomatic sources.

"With President Trump's blessing, Paul had been working on the idea for several weeks, in consultation with the White House and the State Department," the magazine claimed last week. "The day before leaving for New York, Paul had a discussion about Iran with the president, while playing a round at the Trump golf course in Sterling, Virginia."

Sen. Lindsay Graham (R., S.C.), who was playing in the same round of golf with Trump and Paul described by the New Yorker, tweeted that if the claims in the article were "true—that an invitation was given to the Foreign Minister of Iran to meet in the Oval Office—no matter how well meaning—it would dramatically undercut our position of strength against Iran."

Multiple sources who spoke to the Free Beacon linked the lack of official coordination by Paul to his ultimate diplomatic failure, suggesting the senator exaggerated the amount of buy-in he actually had from the Trump administration.

"Paul really wanted to talk to Zarif, and the president didn't see any harm in letting him try and fail, and so that's what happened and then nature took its course," a veteran GOP congressional source told the Free Beacon, referencing Paul's failure to arrange a meeting and prevent Zarif from being sanctioned. "There are more important things than being good at foreign policy but not, it turns out, when you're pretending to be a diplomatic emissary for the President of the United States, who has been trying for the last two years to get the U.S. out of a deal that paves the way for Iran to build a nuclear arsenal."

"Then it's actually really important to know what you're doing and you're coordinating with the administration, and Paul clearly didn't and doesn't," concluded the source.

Doug Stafford, chief strategist for Paul's campaign, told the Free Beacon, "Senator Paul’s outreach was in coordination with the President and the Administration."

Trump has publicly been noncommittal about the scope of Paul's role. The president acknowledged to reporters that he permitted Paul to meet Zarif, but never granted his consent for the senator to act as an official emissary to the Iranian leader.

"I would listen to him, but I didn't appoint him, no," Trump told reporters in the Oval Office.