0858 GMT October 20, 2019
“Absolute amateur hour,” said one former senior administration official, who was involved with the internal squabbles.
For several months, the United States has been actively attempting to pass messages, via allies, to the Iranians in an effort to move closer to beginning formal diplomatic talks with Tehran.
However, diverging opinions within the Trump administration are foiling the nascent diplomatic process, according to two current US officials and another source with direct knowledge of the matter. The dissent is straining foreign intermediaries who are working as go-betweens between Washington and Tehran. They say they are fed up with receiving mixed messages from Donald Trump’s team.
The State Department did not respond to a request for comment for this story. But a senior administration official told The Daily Beast, “The administration is completely aligned in this approach. The president has been clear, he is open to meeting with Iran’s leadership to work out an agreement.”
There have been longstanding reports on internal tensions between the president and some of his senior officials, including national security adviser John Bolton, on how hawkishly to approach Iran. In June, as The Daily Beast reported at the time, Trump had privately urged his cabinet members and top aides to cool it with their tough talk on possible war with Iran, despite the attacks on tanker ships in the Gulf of Oman that the administration had pinned on Tehran. [Tehran has rejected the allegations].
The latest mixed messages and instructions have included at times wildly differing details on preconditions the US would demand for official sit-downs between the two countries, and varying proposals for the length of time for which the Americans would consider suspending economic sanctions on Iranians, these sources said.
US officials, European officials, and individuals involved in the disparate talks between the US and Iran told The Daily Beast that top Trump administration national security officials are divided about what to put on the table when it comes to negotiating with Tehran, including whether to ease a select set of sanctions, keep them in place, or suspend them altogether. The tensions stem, in part, from President Trump’s desire to consider a new deal while some of his advisers are more reluctant to do so, according to two European officials and three individuals associated with brokering talks between Washington and Tehran. Generally, Trump has been more amenable to suspending sanctions for a greater amount of time as talks progress. However, national security and State Department officials have repeatedly advised the president, as well as representatives of allied countries, to demand stricter timelines for possible sanctions relief.
The US has for more than a year conducted talks with the Iranians, leaning on mediators such as Oman, Switzerland, Japan, Iraq and France, according to two individuals involved in the behind-closed-door conversations. But the conflicting messages have been particularly bothersome to one go-between in particular – France. Trump has expressed different views to the French, compared to those offered by his National Security Council and the State Department, on how to handle overtures to Tehran. In the meantime, the French have been caught in the middle.
“The French are justifiably anxious about whether they are getting clear and authoritative directives from the US,” said one former senior State Department official. “There is no policy process for Iran. So of course the French are getting mixed messages. It’s not surprising that the administration says ‘Macron please do this’ and then to disavow that same instruction.”
The clashing messages are also causing headaches inside the upper echelons of the Trump administration. They’ve annoyed the president on multiple occasions in recent months, according to a source who’s been in the room when those tensions have been discussed at the White House. One source noted that the president had instructed subordinates several weeks ago to clear up the confusion and knock it off with the diplomatic discord.
In a public culmination of his frustrations, the president tweeted last week that the French should not try to speak for the US in conversations it conducts with Iran.
“Iran is in serious financial trouble. They want desperately to talk to the US, but are given mixed signals from all of those purporting to represent us, including President Macron of France,” Trump posted to Twitter on August 8. “I know Emmanuel means well, as do all others, but nobody speaks for the United States but the United States itself. No one is authorized in any way, shape, or form, to represent us!”
The tweet confused not only French officials, but American officials, as well, who said they now fear the US has ostracized a strategic partner it was actively trying to win over when it came to Iran.
Of course, the president’s mercurial approach has complicated Iran policy before. In June, Trump approved (then abruptly called off) military strikes on Iran that could have killed upwards of 100 people.
The back and forth comes as the Trump administration has also sought outside counsel on what a new Iran deal could potentially look like. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), nowadays a top Trump confidant and ally on Capitol Hill, has been working closely with administration officials who focus on Middle East policy to determine possible alternatives to Barack Obama’s Iran nuclear deal. Part of this effort includes the Republican senator fielding ideas from foreign officials and others.
Graham is doing this with Trump’s full knowledge, and the senator told The Daily Beast that the president was receptive to the push. But even this effort is in part defined by the cognitive dissonance driving Trump’s thinking on Iran.
Graham’s involvement comes at a time when Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, another Republican who regularly advises Trump, is working behind the scenes, with the president’s blessing, as an informal diplomatic emissary to Iran. And the two men are unlikely to get on the same page on Iran. According to those who’ve spoken to Trump about each GOP lawmaker, the president has repeatedly joked about all the foreign nations Graham wants the US military to invade, and conversely has lauded Paul as a peacenik who “won’t let [us]” start “World War III.”
It is unclear if Trump will even try to get the two to work in tandem on Iran policy. When asked this month if he was coordinating with Paul, Graham chuckled and simply replied, “No,” adding, “I’m not sure what he’s doing.”