Iran’s foreign minister says his beef is with Trump’s advisers and allies — not Trump

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif in Beijing in February 2019.

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said he believes Trump has no interest in war — but that’s not the case for some in his administration or other foreign allies.

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif had a message for President Donald Trump this week: It’s them, not you.

Zarif is, not surprisingly, unhappy with US policy toward Iran — but he doesn’t think it’s entirely the president’s fault. Instead, he blamed a group of advisers and foreign leaders whom he’s dubbed “the B-Team” because their names all share the same letter: National Security Adviser John Bolton, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), and the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (MBZ).

Zarif, in multiple interviews with US media outlets and a roundtable with reporters in New York last week, made the case that this group was goading the US toward conflict with Iran.

“They have all shown an interest in dragging the United States into a conflict. I do not believe that President Trump wants to do that,” Zarif told Fox News’s Chris Wallace in an interview that aired Sunday. “I believe President Trump ran on a campaign promise of not bringing the US into another war.”

Zarif said the Trump administration’s campaign of maximum pressure is “doomed to failure.” Referring to the “B-Team,” he added, “I think these four individuals know this.”

The Iranian foreign minister went on a media blitz last week, after the US announced it would end waivers for some countries that continue to import Iranian oil. It was the latest escalation in the US’s campaign of maximum pressure on Tehran, nearly a year after the Trump administration withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal.

Iran, along with the US’s European allies, has continued to follow the terms of the nuclear deal, but US sanctions and its pressure campaign are hurting Irans economy. Iran has said it won’t succumb to Trump’s pressure campaign, but tensions between Tehran and Washington have only gotten worse.

Whether Zarif was making a pitch to Trump directly is hard to say. But, more broadly, Iran’s message seemed to be that the country doesn’t want to be pulled into any sort of conflict.

Tehran likely wants to avoid blame if tensions with the US escalate

Iran-US tensions have increased as Trump’s Cabinet has filled with Iran hawks, such as Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (whose name, sadly, lacks a “B”).

Both Bolton and Pompeo, as my Vox colleague Zack Beauchamp has pointed out, have advocated for military strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities before joining the Trump administration. Pompeo, in his role as secretary of state, also refused to tell Congress in April whether he believed the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) would cover a war in Iran. Congress passed the AUMF after 9/11 to allow the US to use military force against al-Qaeda, but it has become the basis for the US’s global war on terror. Pompeo testified that he’d “leave that to the lawyers,” but said there was “no doubt there was a connection” between al-Qaeda and Iran.

But again, Zarif seemed keen to separate Trump from his close advisers and foreign allies, whom he painted as the drivers behind US policy on Iran. He told CBS’s Margaret Brennan in an interview that also aired this weekend that Bolton, Bibi, MBS, and MBZ are individuals who have “always tried to create tension, whose continued existence depends on tension.”

Zarif also told a group of reporters in New York on Thursday that he believed Trump was committed to his campaign promise not to start a confrontation — even if those around him didn’t share that pledge. “Ambassador Bolton has different agenda, has an agenda of trying to undermine the nuclear deal and an agenda of trying to change the government in Iran,” he said.

Richard Nephew, an Iran expert at Columbia University, told me this may be Iran’s real read on the situation. “The perspective in Tehran, rightly or wrongly, is that Trump is a dealmaker and wants to make a deal, and if you didn’t have people around him pushing him into a hawkish perspective, he would make a deal,” he told me.

But this is probably less of an appeal to Trump directly through the media, including his preferred cable network of Fox News, than Iran making its case to the world that it’s trying to head off any sort of confrontation.

“A conflict is entirely plausible, they don’t want to be blamed for it, so they want to make sure that they’re keeping their international isolation to a minimum,” Nephew added.

The main goal of Iran’s PR offensive, then, appears to be this: If a military conflict does break out, don’t blame us.

Iran has stayed in the nuclear deal, and Zarif has long argued on the international stage that Iran is being the responsible party here — and that it’s the US who’s the unreliable actor.

This echoes the playbook Iran has followed since Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal last May, trying to emphasize that it’s the good international partner. But this latest framing might be driven by a renewed sense of urgency. It also doesn’t hurt that some of those leaders on the “B-team” — such as MBS — aren’t particularly popular in the international arena right now.

The Iranian foreign minister also made comments in New York last week that could signal Iran’s willingness to keep talking to the Trump administration. Zarif, during a talk with the Asia Society, indicated that he could help facilitate a prisoner exchange. Though he qualified the comments with CBS’s Brennan, telling her that the US first “needs to prove that it’s serious,” it sounded like an overture.

Jarrett Blanc, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former State Department official who worked on implementing the Iran nuclear deal, told me this was perhaps Zarif’s more notable comment, and a signal that Iran might be willing to talk.

There’s no sign that the administration — or Trump himself — is ready to change course on Iran. But doing at least one interview on Fox News probably didn’t hurt.

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