Former Obama administration officials are working to stop the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign on Iran just as it is taking hold, hoping a new president in 2020 can salvage the Iran Nuclear Deal, according to some officials and experts.
The Trump administration has steadily ramped up the pressure on Iran – particularly in recent months – in hopes of bringing it back to the negotiation table on its illicit nuclear program. As the pressure has begun to take hold, Iranian leaders and Democrats have ramped up their claims the Trump administration wants war. The claims have gotten louder amid threats from Iran and responses from the Pentagon.
“It’s unfortunate that former Obama administration officials and Democrats are politicizing the threats from Iran versus the security to American interests and personnel in the Middle East,” a senior administration official told Breitbart News.
“Particular former Obama officials appear to be siding with Iran over officials at the State Department and Defense Department,” the official added.
In early April, the Trump administration squeezed Iran by designating the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organization and moved to cut Iran off from its remaining buyers of oil.
Later that month at the United Nations headquarters in New York, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif suggested in an exclusive interview with Reuters that National Security Advisor John Bolton could goad President Trump into a war with Iran. He cryptically warned that people could try to “plot an accident” that could trigger a crisis.
About a week later in early May, after the U.S. military received intelligence showing an increased threat from Iran against U.S. forces assets in the region. The Trump administration sent an aircraft carrier, bombers, and a missile defense system to the region in response. Three days later, Iran threatened it would stop complying with the nuclear deal unless European nations party to it could find a way to save it.
About a week after that, Iranian leaders and former Obama administration officials launched a cluster of accusations in tweets and op-eds claiming that National Security Adviser John Bolton wanted to start a war with Iran.
“If Bolton achieves his longstanding ambitions, he won’t get us into a war — it will be ‘wars,’ plural,” wrote former Vice President Joe Biden’s national security adviser Colin Kahl and Jon Wolfsthal, a special assistant to former President Obama and a senior director at the National Security Council for arms control and nonproliferation, in an op-ed on May 14.
That same day, Zarif also attacked Bolton, tweeting, “Looks like you are going to get a war instead. That’s what happens when you listen to the mustache. Good luck in 2020!”
@realDonaldTrump : You wanted a better deal with Iran. Looks like you are going to get a war instead. That’s what happens when you listen to the mustache. Good luck in 2020!
— Hesameddin Ashena (@hesamodin1) May 14, 2019
The next day, on May 15, Wendy Sherman, the chief negotiator of the Iran nuclear deal, also warned of war in an op-ed titled, “How to Stop the March to War With Iran.” She wrote: “The best way to avoid war is to talk with Iran, which President Trump has said he wants to do.” She also urged European nations to defy the U.S. and provide Iran with assistance.
Also that day, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) issued a statement that said, “War isn’t necessary to solve a problem when both sides want a solution.” She was later caught with Zarif’s contact page on her iPhone screen, as first reported by Politico. The outlet also reported that Feinstein had dinner with Zarif while he was in New York.
The coordinated attacks against Bolton prompted the Washington Free Beacon‘s Editor in Chief Matthew Continetti to write in his own op-ed, “Their goal is saving President Obama’s nuclear deal by manipulating Trump into firing Bolton and extending a lifeline to the regime.”
“This is the Iran echo chamber at work,” he wrote. “It’s because the Iran deal, and perhaps the Iranian regime, is on life support.”
The claims led President Trump and administration officials to try to tamp down the idea they are itching for war, without ruling out the option of self-defense. Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan told reporters last week after he and other officials gave closed-door briefings to members of Congress, “We’re not about going to war.”
“Our biggest focus at this point is to prevent Iranian miscalculation,” he said, according to the Associated Press. “We do not want the situation to escalate.”
Sherman and former CIA Director John Brennan held their own separate briefing on Capitol Hill the same day.
The Daily Beast reported Friday that a group of former Obama administration officials have secretly been meeting with Iranian government officials for the last two months to try to convince them not to leave the deal.
“I think a lot of what we are seeing [is] those people who really do want to save the deal — it’s all the people who were in the Obama administration and see it in a lot of ways as their crowning achievement,” said David Adesnik, director of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Adesnik said the fight is getting more intense as 2020 approaches.
He said the Trump administration wants its pressure campaign to have enough time to work. There are signs it is beginning to have an effect, and former Obama officials are worried it will cause Iran to leave the deal before former Vice President Joe Biden or Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) can come in and save it.
“If you just preserve the status quo, the U.S. walks back in if everyone else sticks to it,” Adesnik said of their thinking.
Just last week, Kahl, the former Biden adviser, published another piece in the Washington Post describing a “fictional example” of how a U.S. invasion of Iran would happen. “As in 1914, at the outset of World War I, events took on a cruel logic of their own, and the Guns of August sounded,” he wrote.
The senior administration official pushed back against the idea anyone wants war and defended its approach. “To date this administration’s deterrence efforts have shown to be effective,” the official said. “Have U.S. personnel been attacked? The answer is no.”
Secretary of State Michael Pompeo also pushed back against the idea that the administration wants war with Iran in an exclusive recent interview with Breitbart News.
“I’ve said it, the president’s said it, we do not war with the Islamic Republican of Iran,” he said. However, he said, Iran must stop its dangerous behavior.
“For 40 years, the Iranians have attacked and killed Americans. They’ve made clear their intentions to continue to do so. They continue to chant ‘death to America.’ They continue to talk about wiping Israel from the face of the earth. They’re the most antisemitic country by policy in the world, and so that’s a real threat,” he said.
“We don’t want war with them. What we want them to do is to cease their nuclear program, we want them to step away from their proxy campaign attempting to essentially control five capitals in the Middle East,” he continued. “We want them to cease continuing to develop their missile program that could launch nuclear missile weapons across the world.”
“That’s what we’re looking for, and we’re using peaceful means — economic and diplomatic efforts to achieve those ends,” he added.
He blasted the Obama administration’s approach to dealing with Iran.
“The Obama administration for the last eight years had appeased Iran and allowed them to grow their terror regime, enhance the capacity of their proxies threatening not only the United States and Israel but the Gulf States as well,” he said.
“President Trump has taken a very different approach and done our best to deny the Iranians the capacity to conduct their terror campaigns,” he said.