On Iran, Is Rand Paul the New John Kerry?

Eli Lake

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- For the past two months, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s message to Americans has been that neither his country nor President Donald Trump wants war. So it’s not surprising that in an interview this week, Zarif said the door to negotiations is “wide open” if the U.S. lifts economic sanctions.

Now the junior senator from Kentucky would like to test that hypothesis. As Politico first reported, Rand Paul has Trump’s blessing to meet with Zarif and extend an olive branch. According to two senior administration officials, Trump doubts Paul will succeed, but sees no harm in letting him try.

Before Paul gets carried away with optimism, he would do well to study a former colleague’s experience with the Iranian foreign minister. In 2015, former Senator and then-Secretary of State John Kerry said that Zarif had assured him that he was empowered to negotiate with the U.S. on regional issues like Syria following the nuclear deal. But that promise was empty. Iran ended up working out an arrangement with Russia to escalate the war on behalf of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.

More recently, Zarif has suggested that Iran would be open to negotiations over its missile program. The 2015 nuclear deal loosened UN Security Council restrictions on Iran’s missile testing. This week, Zarif backtracked from those comments.

At any rate, Iran’s interest in negotiations is open to question. Zarif himself has frequently attacked National Security Adviser John Bolton on social media. Meanwhile, Iran’s operatives have escalated attacks on U.S. allies and are now in breach of the 2015 pact from which Trump withdrew last year.   

There’s another way in which Paul should be wary of Kerry’s experience. Kerry, like Paul, used his perch in the Senate to conduct back-channel diplomacy. As far back as the 1980s, Kerry infamously met with Nicaraguan strong man Daniel Ortega while the CIA was assisting his opposition. During President Barack Obama’s first term, Kerry was almost a shadow secretary of state. According to his memoir, Kerry pursued diplomatic openings on behalf of the White House with Assad of Syria and Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Most notably, Kerry pursued a secret channel to Iran offered through the sultan of Oman in 2011.

Paul hasn’t gone quite so far. The closest he has come is his efforts on Russia; last year he visited Moscow after Trump’s disastrous meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki. Then, last fall, Paul tried his best to arrange briefings for his fellow Republican senators on how to foster U.S.-Russian cooperation.

Now he will be trying to improve U.S.-Iran relations, though it is unlikely Paul will forge as close a relationship with Zarif as Kerry did. Toward the end of the Obama administration, Kerry and Zarif spoke often. And Kerry continued his meetings with Zarif after leaving office, acknowledging in 2018 that the two had met several times in an effort to save the 2015 nuclear deal they had negotiated.

Kerry’s efforts did not save the Iran deal, nor did they deter Trump from canceling the waivers that allowed Iran to sell some of its oil. Now Zarif has an opportunity to make his case for negotiations with someone who plays golf with Trump, as opposed to a Democratic former secretary of state who has been the target of Trump’s tweets.

There’s no doubt that Paul, a libertarian who has opposed U.S. interventions since he became a senator, is sincere when he talks about trying to prevent a war with Iran. His interlocutor, however, has a reputation for insincerity. The senator from Kentucky should be prepared to be charmed — and conned.

To contact the author of this story: Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael Newman at mnewman43@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.

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