Apparently, Rand Paul is just the man for the job when it comes to averting a potentially catastrophic military conflict between the US and Iran.
According to Politico, Paul, after a round of golf with Trump on Saturday, asked the president if he could sit across the table from Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and “extend a fresh olive branch” on behalf of the White House.
Tensions between Washington and Tehran are, of course, running at a fever pitch. Tehran recently breached both a stockpile limit and a ceiling on uranium enrichment in an effort to force the European powers to help shore up the Iranian economy and a series of maritime escalations have put the theocracy at odds with the UK.
Meanwhile, the disappearance of a small oil tanker (the Panamanian-flagged Riah) from the Persian Gulf raised questions about whether it had been boat-napped by the IRGC while passing through the Strait of Hormuz. On Tuesday, Iran claimed the vessel was having “technical difficulties” and was towed into Iranian waters to be “repaired”. Needless to say, nobody is satisfied with that explanation, least of all the Trump administration.
Still, somewhat conciliatory rhetoric from both sides suggests the US and Iran may try to open diplomatic channels. Mike Pompeo on Tuesday indicated during a cabinet meeting that Iran might be receptive to negotiations under some conditions, while Zarif said one sticking point is US arms sales to the Saudis and the UAE, something Congress has tried to stymie anyway.
Also on Tuesday, Iran’s Mission to the United Nations Alireza Miryousefi said in a tweet that anyone trying to characterize Zarif’s comments to NBC as a suggestion that Tehran might be willing to negotiate around its infamous missile program is mistaken. Iran’s missiles “are absolutely and under no condition negotiable with anyone or any country, period”, Miryousefi said.
As you can imagine, Trump’s Iran hawks (i.e., Pompeo and John Bolton) aren’t particularly enamored with the idea of Paul interceding and ruining a “good” fight. “The prospect of the dovish Kentucky senator serving as the administration’s chief diplomatic emissary has rankled many administration officials, who are expressing concern that Paul’s intervention threatens to scuttle the president’s ‘maximum pressure”’campaign against Tehran”, Politico writes, adding that while it’s “unclear whether the senator will meet with Zarif… the president’s willingness to tap Paul as the go-between with a top Iranian official is a demonstration both of his unorthodox approach to foreign affairs and his continuing desire, even as his aides threaten to squeeze Iran until it capitulates, to entice the Islamic Republic’s leaders to the negotiating table”.
While Trump has talked tough in public (and variously threatened to devastate Iran on Twitter), he’s characteristically enthused about the prospect of high-profile talks which, presumably, would afford him a photo-op akin to those with Kim Jong-Un and an opportunity to suggest (falsely) that his legendary deal-making prowess is paying dividends.
The reality of any talks with Iran would probably be that, much like “new” NAFTA, Trump would find himself simply dragging everyone through a painful negotiating process only to come to an agreement that looks a lot like the one he unilaterally scrapped.
Trump famously called off strikes on Iran at the last minute following the downing of an unmanned drone last month, to praise from Paul. “It really takes a statesman to show restraint amidst a chorus of voices for war”, Paul told Fox at the time. In April, he told Pompeo that the administration “does not have the permission of Congress to go to war”.
Iran had previously insisted that it wouldn’t negotiate with a sanctions gun to its head and the idea of meaningful, formal talks taking place with Khameni still under symbolic sanctions seems far-fetched. However, that doesn’t mean informal chats with someone like Paul are impossible.
Earlier this week, House Democrats introduced a resolution calling on Trump to re-enter the 2015 nuclear accord as a sign of goodwill and as a way of “using sustained diplomacy as a tool to address other challenges with Iran“.
Senator Paul’s office did not return Politico’s requests for comment.