Team Trump Turns to Lindsey Graham to Cut an Iran Deal

By (Erin Banco) (Asawin Suebsaeng)
Win McNamee/Getty

President Donald Trump wants a new deal with Iran to replace the nuclear agreement he pulled out of, and he’s turning to one of his most hawkish confidants to help do it.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) is working in close coordination with senior Trump administration officials who focus on Middle East policy to find an alternative to the Obama administration’s Iran deal, four people with knowledge of the efforts tell The Daily Beast. Part of that effort includes fielding ideas from outside actors, including foreign officials, two of those sources said.

Graham’s developing role in the Trump administration’s Iran strategy comes as the State Department, Department of Defense, and other government agencies try to manage the delicate relationship between Washington and Tehran. 

The two countries have engaged in tit-for-tat escalations over the last several months, feeding fears on Capitol Hill that the two countries are on a crash course that could likely end in a direct military conflict. The situation has worsened in recent weeks, with the Trump administration accusing Iran of attacking tankers in the Gulf of Hormuz, which it heavily patrols.

Why Would Iran Start a Tanker War?

Despite the growing tensions between the U.S. and Iran, the Trump administration and officials in Tehran have signaled they are willing to meet and negotiate with each other. But neither side is ready to take the plunge just yet. 

Iran policy experts, some of whom worked with the former Obama administration, said Tehran will not engage in talks about a revised nuclear deal unless the U.S. rolls back at least some of its sanctions on the country. And with the Treasury Department's recent sanctioning of Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, the chances of negotiations moving forward anytime soon seem unlikely, those sources said. 

In the meantime, though, Trump administration officials, and now apparently Graham, are actively working to put together plans for a new nuclear deal. 

Graham has been one of the most outspoken senators on Iran. In June, following a classified briefing on tensions between Washington and Tehran, Graham said the U.S. was “closer” to a military confrontation.

“This is a provocative regime that shoots its own people down in the street, that threatens the existence of the state of Israel. This is an enemy of mankind, and if you are not willing to take this enemy on, you will regret it,” Graham said.  

Now, though, it appears Graham is keen on finding a new deal that the U.S. can bring to the negotiating table. 

It is unclear how far along the team is in crafting a proposal, but Graham did travel to Israel earlier this month to meet with officials about the situation with Iran.

In an interview with The Daily Beast on Wednesday, Graham said he had spoken to Trump about his ideas for a new nuclear deal several times and that the president was contemplating them. The senator said the U.S. should ask the Iranian regime to agree to a so-called 123 Agreement—a key, legally binding commitment that requires countries doing nuclear deals with the U.S. to sign on to nonproliferation standards. The U.S. has entered into those agreements with more than 40 countries. 

“I told the president: Put the 123 on the table with the Iranians. Make them say ‘no,’” Graham told The Daily Beast. “I think the Iranians will say no. And I think that will force the Europeans’ hands.”

The U.S. should also require Iran to sign on to the “gold standard,” a pledge not to enrich and reprocess nuclear fuel, Graham said. Enrichment and reprocessing are key steps on the way to a nuclear weapon.

“If countries want to have their own nuclear industry, that’s fine. I’m not against that. But countries can do that without enrichment and reprocessing, without making their own fuel,” Graham said. “The problem the Trump administration has is, how do you make a flawed deal better? We need to extend a new deal that cannot be manipulated in the future. If the [State Department] has a better plan, then fine, but I think this is a good option.”

Graham said all countries in the Middle East should agree to both 123 Agreements and the “gold standard.” “It’s reasonable for the entire region,” he said. “Except for Israel. I’m not talking about Israel. They’re in their own sort of… category.”

Graham, too, wrote an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal earlier this month with Gen. Jack Keane, a member of IP3, a firm that worked with Trump advisers to export U.S. nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia. The senator said he wrote the opinion piece with Keane because the two had discussed the idea of proposing to Iran a 123 Agreement. Keane and IP3 have been pushing for a U.S. nuclear comeback by way of nuclear exports to the Middle East. 

“The U.S. could begin supplying fuel rods for nuclear reactors throughout the Arab world. Dozens of nations already operate under similar nuclear frameworks,” the op-ed said. “Under this proposal, Iran could become a legitimate nuclear-power nation with all the benefits of following international rules. But under no circumstances would it be permitted to enrich nuclear material for the purpose of building a weapon.”

Asked about Graham’s work on Iran, the State Department said: “The U.S. is seeking a deal with Iran that comprehensively addresses the regime’s destabilizing behavior—not just its nuclear program, but also its missile program, support for terrorist proxies, and malign regional behavior,” a department spokesperson said in a statement. “We want Iran to behave like a ‘normal nation.’”

Graham’s involvement comes at a time when Rand Paul, another Republican who regularly advises Trump, is working behind the scenes to influence the administration’s policy toward the Islamic Republic. The Kentucky senator proposed his own plan, first reported in Politico last month, to become a diplomatic emissary to Iran, with the president signing off on Paul’s mission. 

According to Politico, Paul personally made this pitch to Trump while playing a round of golf at the president’s club in Sterling, Virginia. Two sources with knowledge of the situation tell The Daily Beast that Paul had been warming Trump to the idea starting at least two weeks before they played that round of golf. Further, a spokesman for Paul said that the senator “has had multiple conversations with [Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo on this issue” in recent weeks, including on the emissary proposal.

When Trump and Paul were on that golf course together discussing Iran and diplomacy, Graham was there with them. However, the two Trump allies have vastly divergent approaches to the region.

According to those who’ve spoken to the president about each senator, Trump has repeatedly joked about all the countries Graham wants the U.S. military to invade, and conversely has privately praised Paul as someone who “won’t let” America start “World War III.” 

It is unclear whether the president will even attempt to have the two men work together on Iran policy. When asked by The Daily Beast if he was coordinating with Paul on the issue, Graham chuckled and simply said, “No.” After an extended pause, he added, “I’m not sure what he’s doing.”

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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