Sometimes the track towards war between antagonists can’t be stopped by diplomacy, or even by one side appeasing the other, but that’s not usually the case. History is crowded with not just examples of bloody national collisions but also by conflicts narrowly averted by creative deal-making that preempted the guns and carnage. It’s still not clear whether Iran and the U.S., or China and the U.S., have war baked into their destinies. That history is still up for grabs. As tensions now rise between the United States and Iran and its proxies, which have killed U.S. service members in Jordan and are now the targets of U.S. and British firepower, it may be useful to consider those who have worked towards trying to avert conflict.
My colleague Jay Solomon’s exposé on the Iran Experts Initiative made a lot of waves in this town last fall. It revealed the internal, self-congratulatory thinking of Iranian government officials who believed they were manipulating prominent American Iran analysts and experts. And some here in Washington saw it the same way, casting aspersions on what they depicted as a shadowy circle of prominent Iran analysts and experts who were caught up in an influence operation run by one of America’s key adversaries.
I don’t interpret the facts of the case quite the same way. In the spirit of Semafor’s ethos of “Room for Disagreement,” and of clearly stating our opinions on shared facts, I’d like to make the case here for exactly the kind of diplomacy that the International Crisis Group and its former officials put into effect, at great risk to their own careers. I offer this note in a constructive spirit, in the hopes of shedding light on the actual intentions, the full behavior, and the complete context of the protagonists in this story. The stakes are reputations, careers, and policy.
Jay’s article is based on a huge trove of leaked Iranian government emails. The emails were shared with Semafor by Iran International Television, an Iranian opposition television network backed by a Saudi businessman. The network is loathed by the Iranian government, and associated with pushing Washington to go harder on Tehran. The emails led to a round of Washington condemnation, and in some cases — though not certainly not Jay’s, or Semafor’s — straight-up defamation of patriotic Americans: Ali Vaez of the International Crisis Group, Ariane Tabatabai now at the Pentagon, and Rob Malley, who is on leave from the State Department pending an alleged FBI investigation into the handling of classified information.
Understanding the emails requires returning to the time between late 2009, when Iran’s Fordow nuclear enrichment facility came to light and March 2013, when the Obama Administration, deeply internally divided over how to approach Iran, made the decision to pursue secret bilateral nuclear negotiations and potentially even a long-term normalization process to work to defuse Iran’s potential nuclear weapons capabilities. That effort brought numerous people together, although there were skeptics inside the U.S. national security bureaucracy, just as there were in Iran’s military and defense establishment.
But the momentum was on the side of finding a third way to forestall a likely war. That needs to be acknowledged as part of the environment at the time: There were ample reasons why U.S. policymakers and NGO representatives were proactively working under their own steam to interact with Iranians and find a sensible solution that would stop a nuclear crisis. The Iranians may have acted — and even thought — that they were brilliant puppet masters. But giving them credit for the actions Malley, Vaez, and Tabatabai took because they believed it was in the U.S. national interest needlessly complicates a simpler narrative.
I know this because I traveled in those circles at the time, and believed in engaging Iran. I had seen the failures of U.S. policy over decades in creating conditions that would neutralize Iran as a threat. In 2007, at an international nuclear conference organized by George Perkovich at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, I asked then-Iran Ambassador to the United Nations Javad Zarif in an online interview whether he had written the famously ignored “white paper” which looked like a proposal for a grand bargain between Iran and the United States on a wide range of issues, including dealing with Iran’s proxies in the region, its nuclear energy appetite, the anti-government Mojahedin-e-Khalq, and ballistic missile development, even Israel. Zarif asked if the conversation was on the record and he was told that it was not — but the Bureau of National Analysis accidentally released the transcript in any case. Zarif then admitted he had been the author, but said that the Bush administration had never responded in any form. Leading Bush administration officials and neoconservative allies argued that the white paper was a fabrication. But I had Zarif admitting it was his and that he had been given full authority to draft it and float it.
That was a missed opportunity. I have interacted with Zarif many times over the years since, interviewing him several times at the Doha Forum, meeting him at closed door think tank meetings, and even organizing a meeting and interview for Atlantic editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg and myself, along with Atlantic Chairman David Bradley, at the Iran Mission to the United Nations. (That interview never ran in The Atlantic, but it was extensive and the tone was in alignment with the idea that Iran and the U.S. were trying to feel their way forward into a different kind of global arrangement, to move away from head-to-head conflict and the obsession with some Washington policymakers with regime change in Iran.)
Was someone in the Iran establishment high-fiving that they had succeeded in getting Jeffrey Goldberg, David Bradley and Steve Clemons into a room with Zarif? Perhaps so. Those emails didn’t leak. But the truth is that we initiated that contact and believed in that form of engagement.
I myself believed that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was sensible policy. What’s more, Tabatabai — who never responded to Jay’s queries — is more hawkish than I am. She left Malley’s team during the Biden administration because she wanted the U.S. to impose more sanctions to increase the cost of Iran resisting to return to JCPOA compliance, according to people familiar with the incident.
There is one other fact that I know my colleagues at Semafor have also sought, but which I’ve learned and would like to shed light on. The Crisis Group has said that the Iran Experts Initiative received funding — in the form of travel expenses — from a European government, but hasn’t said which one, leaving a range of possibilities. A British government source tells me that the funding came from London, a government tightly aligned with the U.S. on these issues.
In the end, this chapter of JCPOA history resulted not in Iran abrogating its commitments under the arrangement, but the U.S. doing so. It was U.S. policymakers who walked away from the treaty. I’m not going to get into a guessing game over the source of the leak. But the emails of JCPOA opponents would be interesting to read and study. Those haven’t yet fallen into the hands of Semafor. If they do, Ben Smith assures me we’ll print them.