US shrugs off Zarif resignation reversal

Before Iran’s foreign minister had returned to the job, the Donald Trump administration dismissed Mohammad Javad Zarif’s resignation as essentially irrelevant, as the prospect of getting to the negotiating table looks increasingly remote.

al-monitor Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif attends the India-Iran business forum in New Delhi, India, Jan. 8, 2019.  Photo by REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis.

Feb 28, 2019

WASHINGTON — Even as President Donald Trump held his second meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un in Hanoi to try to advance a North Korea nuclear deal, the Trump administration mocked as basically irrelevant Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s surprise resignation and return to the job this week, in a sign of how remote the prospects seem for the United States ever getting to the negotiating table with Iran.

Some administration officials have recently privately expressed misgivings about how far the policy has strayed from Trump’s stated goal last year — to try to negotiate a broader deal with Iran that would address other concerns not solved in the 2015 Iran nuclear deal that Trump withdrew from last year — to one that increasingly seems regime change in all but name.

“I … do think that Trump’s basic realist ‘let’s make a broader deal’ approach has been hijacked by the regime change people,” one US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said.

“I do think way, way too much of our stuff is … basically trolling the Iranians, which makes them less likely to negotiate,” the official said. “And we raise the prestige costs for them of the other side sitting down with us.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, flying to Hanoi this week, assumed a dismissive tone to address reports of Zarif’s resignation, saying the Iranian diplomat and his boss, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, were just “front men” for a “corrupt, religious mafia.”

“We note @JZarif's resignation,” Pompeo tweeted Feb. 25 as he flew to join Trump in Hanoi. “We’ll see if it sticks. Either way, he and @HassanRouhani are just front men for a corrupt religious mafia. We know @khamenei_ir makes all final decisions. Our policy is unchanged — the regime must behave like a normal country and respect its people.” The reference about final decisions was to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

A State Department official reiterated the insults of Zarif and Rouhani as “front men” in a “mafia" regime in follow-up talking points shared with Al-Monitor today, but insisted the administration’s goal had not changed from trying to negotiate a better deal with Iran.

Asked about how insulting the people one says one would want to sit down and negotiate with would work, the official noted that Khamenei incessantly uses hostile rhetoric to discuss the United States. 

The bottom line, the official said, is Trump has made clear he wants to negotiate a new deal with Iran.

“As the president has made clear, our ultimate goal is to negotiate a good deal that ensures the safety of the American people and addresses the full scope of the Iranian regime’s malign activities,” the State Department official, speaking not for attribution, said.

“The United States is looking for a commitment from the Iranian regime that they are willing to make fundamental changes in their destructive behavior,” the official continued. “We are seeking a deal that comprehensively addresses the full range of the Iranian regime’s destabilizing behavior.”

“Sanctions relief, the re-establishment of full diplomatic and commercial relations with the United States, and US economic cooperation can only begin when we see that the Iranian regime is serious about changing its malign behavior,” the official said.

Trump might want to strike a new deal with Iran, but he has surrounded himself with advisers who do not support that, said Ali Vaez, Iran project director at the International Crisis Group.

“The president has surrounded himself with people who do not share his vision of getting a better deal with Iran,” Vaez told Al-Monitor. “It is quite obvious if you look at his entourage they are not in favor of a mutually beneficial agreement with the Iranians.”

“And the problem is that the president has not provided any signal on this particular issue that he is willing to go around his more hawkish advisers” to get to the negotiating table, Vaez said.

Former National Security Council Middle East czar Philip Gordon, who worked for the Barack Obama administration, agreed that the Trump administration’s language and actions do not suggest it is genuinely seeking new negotiations with Iran, but rather regime change.

“I think the only way to really interpret the administration policy overall is indeed that it is designed not to bring about new negotiations, which are not realistic, but to bring about a new regime,” Gordon, now with the Council on Foreign Relations, told Al-Monitor. “It is the only way to make sense of what they are doing.”

“It is not helpful to declare a policy of regime change,” Gordon said. “But if you look at their actions, and the logic of their approach, it is hard to conclude otherwise.”

He noted national security adviser John Bolton’s video message, tweeted by the White House on Feb. 11 on the 40th anniversary of Iran’s revolution, saying in essence their time is up.

Vice President Mike Pence, too, speaking at conferences in Warsaw and Munich this month, also evoked Iran regime change, calling on the Europeans to leave the Iran nuclear deal, and to support freedom for the people of Iran — seemingly by driving up the economic pressure so the Iranian people overthrow the regime.

That anti-Iran deal and Iran regime change messaging from Pence actually drove the Europeans further away from the Trump administration’s efforts to try to get them to cooperate on an effort to pressure Iran over its ballistic missile program, which had been advancing before the Feb. 13-14 Warsaw conference, Vaez said.

“They really tried hard in the run-up to Warsaw” to advance US-European understanding on pressuring Iran for its ballistic missile program, Vaez said. “Pence’s speech reversed all the gains achieved.”

“I would argue, in the aftermath of Warsaw, the US is further away than before the conference in trying to build common ground to put pressure on Iran,” he said. “I understand that negotiations between [US Iran envoy Brian] Hook and others in State with their European counterparts had made significant progress before Warsaw. The Europeans were almost on board a special campaign on ballistic missiles. That was lost as a result of Pence’s intervention.”

The Trump administration’s internal contradictions and ambivalence about whether its policy is to try to change the Iranian regime or negotiate with it is reflected in the administration’s schizophrenic language about Zarif’s resignation, Gordon said.

For the Trump administration, Zarif, “if anything, serves no positive purpose,” Gordon said. “He puts a smiling face on a distasteful regime and allows the Europeans to justify keeping the deal and doing diplomacy.”

“If your goal is to depict the Iranian regime as an evil empire that needs to be pushed aside, it is not helpful having the guy charming the Europeans and saying the right things,” Gordon said.