Michael McCaul, Mark Green question Iran-John Kerry backchannel talks

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Top Republicans in Congress called on the State Department Tuesday to immediately explain why key Obama-era diplomats now serving in the Biden administration held backchannel talks with Iran during the Trump years, saying it’s crucial that the public learn more about Democrats’ closed-door shadow diplomacy with Tehran.

The growing firestorm on Capitol Hill comes after a Washington Times report this week that detailed the efforts of powerful players — such as current State Department Iran envoy Robert Malley and climate change envoy John Kerry, both of whom played leading roles in crafting an Obama-era nuclear deal with Tehran — to engage directly with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif over the last four years.

Numerous high-level intelligence and national security sources have described the meetings as an effort to undercut Mr. Trump‘s hard-line politics, and one Republican lawmaker on Tuesday went even further, casting the discussions as a “serious betrayal of the American people.”

But Karim Lebhour, a spokesperson for the International Crisis Group think tank which Mr. Malley was leading at the time of his numerous meetings with Mr. Zarif, vehemently disputed that characterization. He told The Times that Mr. Malley, who served as a Mideast adviser to the Obama White House before joining the Crisis Group, made no promises to Mr. Zarif and that the meetings were “not intended to undermine any administration.” 

The Crisis Group’s mandate, he said, is to meet with a host of nations, even those adversarial toward the United States.

Still, some Republicans believe that the Biden administration is on the verge of making major concessions to the Islamic republic as it pushes to bring the U.S. back into the multilateral 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear pact, which former President Trump exited in 2018. They say that truly understanding the Biden administration’s Iran strategy requires finding out exactly what Mr. Malley and other leading liberals told Mr. Zarif behind the scenes.

“I hope Mr. Malley and other senior administration officials who engaged with Zarif as private citizens take the good-faith step of clarifying their engagement to members of Congress. Understanding these discussions better will help contextualize the administration’s current Iran strategy,” said Texas Rep. Michael McCaul, the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. 

“As I’ve said, I have concerns about the administration’s initial moves, which included making concessions to Iran,” he said. “I hope Mr. Malley and others working behind the scenes on Iran nuclear negotiations choose to conduct bipartisan engagements with the Hill to explain their thinking as soon as possible.”

Mr. Lebhour said he did not know the specifics of what was discussed behind closed doors during the Trump years, but he stressed that Mr. Malley and Mr. Zarif did not have one-on-one meetings, and that others were always in the room.

A U.S. official, meanwhile, refused to address the new questions involving Mr. Zarif’s meetings with Mr. Malley, Mr. Kerry and others.

“We categorically reject baseless smears against dedicated public servants,” the official told The Times earlier this month.

The wildly different views of Democrats’ meetings with Mr. Zarif serve as a backdrop for the Biden administration’s new push for diplomatic engagement with Iran

Even as Iran restricts the access of international inspectors to its nuclear facilities and stands accused of backing a string of recent rocket attacks against American personnel in Iraq, the White House has extended an olive branch. The State Department said last week that the U.S. would accept an invitation from the so-called P5+1 — the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, plus Germany — to meet with Iran in the hopes of resurrecting the 2015 Obama-era deal or striking a new, even better agreement.

As the State Department’s Iran envoy, Mr. Malley would play a central role in those talks.

‘It’s un-American’

Republican lawmakers say that the meetings between Mr. Zarif and Democratic diplomats are especially troubling because, at the time they took place, Iran was plotting to kill American troops stationed across the Middle East. Democrats had also routinely slammed top Trump administration figures for conducting private, freelance diplomacy with Russia before Mr. Trump officially took office. 

“I’d certainly like to see some answers from the Biden administration after these disturbing reports,” said Rep. Mark Green, Tennessee Republican and member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. 

“It’s pretty concerning to think that Biden officials were actively working to undermine the policies of the United States government by backchanneling with one of America’s greatest enemies and the leading state sponsor of terrorism, all while that regime was plotting to kill my brothers and sisters in uniform,” he told The Times on Tuesday. “If true, that’s a serious betrayal of the American people.”

Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Fox News on Monday night that the Democrats essentially tried to bypass the will of American voters, who chose Mr. Trump in 2016 after a campaign in which the Republican made crystal-clear his intention to rip up the Iran nuclear deal.

“It’s un-American. It’s very troubling. It’s not the right thing to do,” Mr. Pompeo said. “They lost an election and they should have just gotten off the stage. They chose not to do that and instead tried to undermine what the American people had put forward as America’s policy.”

Mr. Lebhour, the Crisis Group spokesperson, pushed back hard against those criticisms. He said individuals such as Mr. Malley can play a deeply valuable role in civil society by engaging with countries such as Iran.

“You don’t refuse a meeting with a major country that has a role in some conflicts in the Middle East,” he said. “You need to talk to all parties. … Sometimes government cannot do that, and that’s fine.”

Mr. Lebhour said that in speaking with the Iranians, Mr. Malley was not acting as a future diplomat who may later be back in a position to shape U.S. policy. 

“How could he know he would one day be part of the Biden administration?” Mr. Lebhour said.

Mr. Kerry, who also continued to meet with Mr. Zarif multiple times during Mr. Trump’s term, has defended his outreach as well. In 2018, the former secretary of state told radio host Hugh Hewitt he was trying to find out “what Iran might be willing to do in order to change the dynamic in the Middle East for the better.”

Mr. Kerry, Mr. Malley and other Obama-era diplomats have long fended off criticism that the JCPOA was too limited in scope.

The deal put restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of harsh economic and financial sanctions. But it did not address Iran’s financial support for terrorist groups Hamas or Hezbollah, nor did it deal with Iran-backed proxy groups in the Middle East that U.S. officials say routinely target American military forces in neighboring Iraq.

Top Biden administration officials have said that a future deal may include issues beyond Iran’s nuclear program, including the country’s support for terrorism.

Since the U.S. left the JCPOA, Iran has taken calibrated steps to exceed many of the deal’s restrictions. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei said this week that Iran may soon enrich uranium up to 60% — far beyond the 3.67% threshold laid out in the agreement and well past the 20% mark Iran previously pursued.

Enriching uranium to 60% would put Iran just a few technical steps away from weapons-grade levels.

Iran on Tuesday also officially imposed new restrictions on International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors and will no longer share surveillance footage from its nuclear facilities.

“We never gave them live video, but [recordings] were given daily and weekly,” Mr. Zarif said of the inspectors’ previous access to information recorded by camera monitors. “The tape recording of our [nuclear] program will be kept in Iran.”

In a statement Tuesday, U.N. inspectors said they were “deeply concerned” upon learning that Iran has secretly kept undeclared nuclear material in an unknown location, saying the Iranian government is violating “many limits” set by the 2015 deal.

IAEA officials noted Iran over the weekend also agreed to a three-month probation period that modifies some of the new restrictions, but Britain, France and Germany — known as the E3 in diplomatic dealings with Iran — still criticized “the dangerous nature” of Tehran’s move.

“It will significantly constrain the IAEA’s access to sites and to safeguards-relevant information,” the three European nations said in a statement. 

Meanwhile, there’s also speculation in Washington and across the Middle East that Iran itself or one of its proxy militias is responsible for a series of recent rocket attacks in Iraq, including an assault on a military base last week that killed a contractor working with U.S. forces, wounded an American service member and injured several others.

The Biden administration has yet to retaliate for the strike, saying it is still investigating who is responsible. Pentagon officials said Tuesday that Iraq has turned down a U.S. offer to help with the investigation into the deadly attack.

“They made it very clear to [Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin] that they’re taking this seriously and they want the chance to investigate it for themselves. We’re going to let them do that,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters.. “The secretary doesn’t have any reservations about their ability to conduct a proper investigation.”

“This has nothing to do with any diplomatic efforts that may or may not be happening” between the U.S. and Iran, Mr. Kirby said.

• Staff writer Mike Glenn contributed to this report.

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