Trump administration officials deny making secret overtures to Iran

A top Iranian security official claims Washington tried to establish backchannel for negotiations through Afghan intermediaries.

By CHARLES BYBELEZER/THE MEDIA LINE, VICTOR CABRERA/THE MEDIA LINE
January 15, 2019 00:53
3 minute read.
US President Donald Trump holds up a proclamation declaring his intention to withdraw from the JCPOA

US President Donald Trump holds up a proclamation declaring his intention to withdraw from the JCPOA Iran nuclear agreement after signing it in the Diplomatic Room at the White House in Washington, May 8, 2018. (photo credit: JONATHAN ERNST / REUTERS)

 
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Members of the Trump administration vehemently denied attempting to create a backchannel for potential negotiations with Iran, after a senior confidant of Ayatollah Khamenei alleged overtures to this effect recently were made.

Ali Shamkhani, who sits on Tehran's National Security Council, was quoted by Middle East media outlets as saying that, "During my visit to Kabul, [Afghanistan in December] the Americans…asked to hold talks." Dr. Alireza Nourizadeh, Director of the London-based Center for Iranian and Arab Studies, believes that the statement constitutes a misrepresentation of the facts and stressed that “no meeting [between the sides] has taken place.

“What has happened,” he elaborated to The Media Line, “is that when Shamkhani met leaders in Afghanistan they passed him a message which contained a hint that if the Iranians were interested in talks, then the Americans would be too. Shamkhani then took this to Khamenei” who reportedly rejected the notion out-of-hand.

Tehran nevertheless wanted news of the proposition to become public "mainly for domestic political consumption," according to Dr. Nourizadeh. "The government is telling the Iranian people that the [Trump administration] is begging for negotiations and that Iran is in a [strong enough] position to decline.”

President Trump has, in fact, repeatedly expressed a willingness to engage the mullahs with a view to forging a new agreement to thwart Iranian atomic ambitions. This comes on the backdrop of the U.S.' withdrawal in May from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the formal name of the Iran nuclear accord which major European powers, along with Russia and China, have thus far managed to salvage by devising mechanisms to circumvent renewed U.S. sanctions on the Islamic Republic.

As such, while U.S. officials repudiated Shamkhani's claim, they reiterated that Washington is "prepared to engage in dialogue with Iran to find solutions to urgent national security issues. Our ultimate goal is to negotiate a good deal that…addresses the full scope of the regime's malign activities." Aaron David Miller, Middle East Program Director at the Washington-based Wilson Center and a former peace negotiator, noted to The Media Line that “the American denial was hardly categorical.

“They only said that the report was not accurate," he expounded to The Media Line, adding that "the reality is that the U.S. has cooperated with the Iranians before. It would not break the bounds of credulity that communications across a U.S.-Iranian channel would be established over some security issue. Especially since the reality is that sooner or later, Americans will have to realize that Iranians are key brokers on matters” of great concern to the White House.

Despite any rare advances, relations between the two countries have deteriorated sharply since President Trump assumed office and adopted a tougher stance towards Tehran than his predecessor Barack Obama. To this end, the U.S. in November slapped crippling financial penalties on the Islamic Republic targeting its crucial energy, shipping and banking sectors.

For its part, the mullah regime has to date remained unwilling to change tack, with Iran's foreign minister last month contending that the American measures would have little effect on and not alter Tehran's policies because “there is an art we have perfected…and can teach to others for a price: it is the art of evading sanctions.”

Concurrently, the Islamic Republic continues to make military inroads throughout the Middle East, foremost in Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen and Syria. Moreover, Germany’s Die Welt daily reported that Iran in 2018 more than doubled the number of missile tests it conducted over the twelve months prior. This included the firing of at least seven medium-range and five short-range missiles—some purportedly capable of carrying nuclear warheads—compared to four of the former and one of the latter in 2017, in what many consider a violation of United Nations resolutions.

Amid ongoing tensions, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo embarked on an eight-country regional tour aimed not only at assuaging fears over President Trump's decision to withdraw troops from Syria, but also to strengthen the backing of regional Sunni states for enhanced measures to curb Iranian expansionism and militarization.

(Victor Cabrera is a student intern in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Student Program)

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