Trump Administration's Mixed Signals on Iran Fuel Turmoil

Trump Administration's Mixed Signals on Iran Fuel Turmoil
AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
Trump Administration's Mixed Signals on Iran Fuel Turmoil
AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
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Deep frustration over the Trump administration’s mixed messages on Iran erupted into public view this week amid growing concern in Washington about a military clash between the U.S. and Tehran – a conflict President Trump has said he doesn’t want but won’t rule out.

With the U.S. and Iran in a tense standoff and diplomatic ties nearly nonexistent, news emerged Thursday night that the two sides had misread each other over the last two weeks -- a shocking near-miss. As the Wall Street Journal reported late Thursday, Iranian leaders mistakenly believed the U.S. was planning an attack against them, and Tehran prepared for possible counterstrikes, further inflaming the situation.

One day earlier Trump labeled as “fake news” reports that he’s frustrated with his top officials on Iran, including National Security Adviser John Bolton, for a military buildup in the Persian Gulf region and a drawdown of U.S. diplomats in Iraq.

The high-alerts appeared to be easing late Thursday after Trump made it clear he was seeking a diplomatic off ramp. But the sharply differing views within the administration on its Iran policy, as well as mixed signals from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a longtime Iran hawk, on his “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran, are adding to the confusion and frustration in Washington foreign-policy circles.

Republican and Democratic senators repeatedly blasted senior State Department official Andrea Thompson at a hearing Wednesday on Trump’s arms control policies, particularly as they pertain to Iran and Russia, taking issue with her “evasive” responses. Trump supporters and other sympathetic Republicans have bristled at the way Thompson has run her bureau, particularly when it comes to Iran policy.

Among a host of concerns is Thompson’s decision to surround herself with Obama-era, career officials at State or establishment Republicans who have worked to try to salvage the Obama-era Iran nuclear deal despite Trump’s decision to pull out of it. The sheer number of senior staff vacancies at the State Department, especially when it comes to key Trump appointments to build out Pompeo’s team, is contributing to an open undermining of the president’s agenda, his allies argue.

Those concerns were on display Wednesday when Thompson, the undersecretary for arms control and international security, engaged in several heated exchanges with Sen. Ted Cruz over her bureau’s continued push for waivers to allow Iran to conduct nuclear research.

The Texas Republican referred to statements from top officials in “your bureau” arguing for a policy of “international cooperation with Iran on a number of projects contemplated under the [Iran nuclear deal] that provide Iran opportunities to benefit from nuclear technology.”  

 “These positions appear to be in significant tension, if not direct conflict, with the positions of President Trump,” Cruz said. “I find it troubling that we are continuing to implement parts of the nuclear deal, and I want to understand the basis for these decisions.”

Thompson answered that the waivers were in the “best interests” of the United States. She then declined to discuss anything further in an open setting and repeatedly said she would not do anything to harm U.S. interests.

Cruz slammed the response as a “stunning Orwellian position.”

“I don’t believe that’s true in any administration that every decision an elected official makes or an appointed official makes is by definition in the interest of the American people. And that’s one of the reasons Congress has oversight responsibility,” he said.

Earlier in the hearing, Sen. Bob Menendez, the panel’s ranking Democrat who has long opposed the nuclear deal, took Thompson to task after she referred one of his questions to Russia. “I’m not asking Russia about our national defense, I’m asking you,” he bellowed, jabbing a finger in her direction.

Thompson’s responses also drew fire from Sen. Rand Paul, a prominent non-interventionist, who took her to task for calling Russia’s concerns over the presence of U.S. ballistic missiles in Eastern Europe “laughable.”

“You say it’s laughable. Is it something a diplomat should be saying?” he continued. “My advice to you is I wouldn’t say in public that your adversary’s response is laughable. That really goes a long way toward setting back any kind of possible diplomatic solution.”

Privately, administration officials also questioned her performance.

“If that’s how she reacts to senators, how is she going to handle the Russians?” one administration official told RealClearPolitics.  

It’s also unclear where Thompson’s advocacy for nuclear waivers for Iran meshes with Pompeo’s views. Just days before the hearing, news broke that another top U.S. arms control official, Yleem Poblete, had resigned from the State Department after tangling with colleagues who support salvaging parts of the nuclear deal, including Thompson and other career and political State Department officials.

Several weeks ago, a Reuters story quoted anonymous officials claiming that Poblete, an Iran hard-liner, “politicized” a new arms-control compliance report and “slanted” assessments against Iran. The sources speculated wildly on whether the alleged effort was part of an administration campaign to paint Iran in the “darkest light possible, much as the George W. Bush administration used bogus and exaggerated intelligence to justify the invasion of Iraq.”

On cue, leading House Democratic lawmakers followed up Thursday by demanding a State Department briefing and documents related to the compliance report and what they deemed “serious concerns over the abuse of classification and politicization of intelligence regarding Iran and other countries.”

“This year’s report disproportionately focused on Iran to the exclusion of other countries with serious proliferation concerns, including Russia and North Korea,” said Reps. Adam Schiff, Eliot Engel and Adam Smith, who chair the Intelligence, Foreign Affairs and Armed Services committees, respectively.

The Democratic trio pledged “rigorous oversight” regarding charges that the compliance report may have been the product of political appointees disregarding intelligence or distorting its meaning in order to potentially “lay the groundwork to justify military action” against countries mentioned in the document.

State Department officials have pushed back against the claim that the report was skewed against Iran, stating that it was a careful assessment of all relevant information. Moreover, Trump loyalists contend, there are so few of them at the State Department and so many key vacancies to fill, that career and political appointees who support salvaging the nuclear deal with Iran are able to undermine the president’s much more public pressure campaign.

According to the Reuters story, the compliance report sent to Congress was winnowed down to 12 pages, from last year’s 45-page document, and failed to include detailed assessments published in previous years regarding Russian compliance with the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty and the Obama-era New Start arms control treaty. Also, previous reports made lengthy assessments of whether Iran, Myanmar, North Korea, Syria and other nations complied with the Non-Proliferation Treaty. That section was boiled down to five spare paragraphs titled “country concerns.”

Additionally, sources faulted the State Department report for making no mentions of judgments by U.S. intelligence agencies and the International Atomic Energy Agency that Iran ended a nuclear weapons program in 2003 and complied with the 2015 nuclear deal.

Critics also didn’t like the inclusion of a nuclear archive disclosed last year by Israel raising questions about whether Tehran might have plans to resume a nuclear weapons program. Repiblican congressional sources told RCP this week that the Reuters story got the information backward, especially the argument that other country information was removed from the compliance report to create a disproportionate negative focus on Iran.

The two officials most at odds over the scope of the compliance report were Poblete and Chris Ford, the assistant secretary for international security and nonproliferation, sources said. Ford previously served as the chief counsel for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when it was chaired by former Sen. Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican and ardent Trump critic. Ford also served on Trump’s National Security Council during the administration’s first year.

Ford, the sources said, wanted to minimize Iran’s noncompliance while Poblete aimed to provide a fuller picture. There were also disagreements about whether the report should go to Congress in a piecemeal fashion, promising to provide a fuller unclassified report later, which is what ended up occurring. 

Those backing Ford determined the report couldn’t include detailed information faulting North Korea for violating U.N. Security Council resolutions because doing so would immediately draw a comparison to Iran’s violations of some of the same resolutions, which Pompeo had highlighted in a speech to the United Nations in December and Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook also mentioned in November remarks, congressional sources said. 

Thompson ultimately ruled in Ford's favor, drawing on support from Anita Friedt, a career State Department official who played a leading role in forging the New START treaty while serving on Obama’s National Security Council. Thompson had moved Friedt into her leadership circle in a position where she could subvert Poblete on a regular basis, the Hill sources said.

A State Department spokesman declined to comment on the internal feuding and Poblete’s departure, which will take place in the coming weeks. Sources also took issue with the decision to commingle classified and non-classified information into the report, what they characterized as an effort to conceal concessions to Iran from the public as well as congressional staffers who lack the security clearances to view the full report.

“It’s an Obama-era trick in the service of an Obama-era policy” -- the salvaging of the nuclear deal after Trump leaves office, a GOP congressional aide told RCP.

A Daily Beast story written during the height of the nuclear negotiations in 2015 described how the Obama administration commingled classified and non-classified information in its release of information about the Iran deal to Capitol Hill so it could not be shared with the public or openly discussed in the press.

Placing the compliance report aside, Poblete’s departure further weakens the Trump administration’s already thin bench at State. Former Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a longtime chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, called Poblete’s departure a “tremendous loss for our nation’s national security.” Poblete had served as the chief of staff of the panel during Ros-Lehtinen’s tenure.

Cruz tweeted that he was “saddened” that Poblete is departing. “I was proud to support her nomination,” he said, “and she has done a remarkable and critical job promoting America’s national security.”

Susan Crabtree is RealClearPolitics' White House/national political correspondent.

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