Kerry-Zarif Controversy Appears to Flame Out
Republicans faced with little evidence, few avenues of attack
Some Republicans say John Kerry is a traitor who needs to resign immediately. The US climate czar’s defenders – at least those willing to acknowledge the allegations against him – say the accusations wither upon examination.
Kerry, a former US secretary of state and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, came under fire recently after Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told a journalist in a supposedly leaked interview that Kerry informed him that Israel had attacked Iranian targets in Syria 200 times, something Zarif claims he had no knowledge of, which strains credibility, as Israel was widely believed to have been conducting the strikes which started in 2013.
Outgoing Israel Air Force chief Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel, now director-general of the Defense Ministry, confirmed publicly in August 2017 that Israel had struck Syria over 100 times, and then-Intelligence Minister Israel Katz, currently finance minister, added public claims of 200 strikes in September 2018.
“It doesn’t matter what is in the public domain. Classified information doesn’t become unclassified because of media reports or the conversation of officials from other governments,” Gabriel Noronha, a former special adviser to the secretary’s Iran Action Group at the State Department and former special assistant at the US Senate Armed Services Committee, told The Media Line.
Zarif, who complained in the leaked interview that he was often left in the dark about Iranian military matters, provided no timeline or further context for that conversation with Kerry, though Kerry admitted previously that he met with Zarif on multiple occasions following Kerry’s tenure at the State Department but before the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear accord.
Kerry, however, strenuously denied the new claim by Zarif, writing that the supposed conversation about Israeli strikes in Syria never happened. Zarif has offered no further clarification.
“It really does come down to a he-said, he-said, and there is no way to prove or disprove that this conversation happened. But that is part of the problem. Kerry was having these conversations without informing the State Department in advance and without providing details afterward. This goes against department protocols,” said Noronha.
“It isn’t unusual at all for former diplomats to maintain relationships with their counterparts from other countries. In fact, it is quite common. But, there is a huge difference between maintaining a dialogue with a diplomat from an allied nation and continuing to speak with the foreign minister of a sworn enemy. Kerry needed to take extra care in every word he might have said to Zarif,” Noronha said.
Recently confirmed Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, who served as the US chief negotiator of the Iran nuclear accord under Kerry, said that she, too, maintained contact with Iranian officials following her previous tenure, but kept then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo apprised. Another senior member of President Barack Obama’s national security team, Robert Malley, who is now the US special representative for Iran, also met with Iranian officials in his capacity as president of the International Crisis Group NGO.
Pompeo has accused Kerry of attempting to thwart then-President Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran through his ongoing conversations with Zarif.
Meanwhile, 19 Republican senators wrote a letter to President Joe Biden calling for an investigation into Kerry’s alleged conversation, calling his removal from his current government role if he divulged Israel-related military secrets to Zarif, even accidentally.
“Kerry doesn’t have the benefit of the doubt here. His past animus toward our ally Israel and his overly friendly stance with Iran is troubling, and it comes into play here,” the office of Republican Sen. Mike Rounds of South Dakota, who was a signatory to the letter to Biden, told The Media Line in a statement.
“Unfortunately, a serious, damaging accusation of this nature doesn’t seem all that far-fetched. There aren’t many American officials about whom this charge would sound even remotely credible. But, with Kerry, it is. He’s the one who has treated Iran with more respect than Israel, and it is incumbent upon the Biden administration to determine whether there is any truth to what Zarif alleged,” the statement said.
Kerry’s allies seem uneager to breathe life into the situation, and few have gone on the record to discuss it. State Department spokesman Ned Price said, “I would just make the broad point that if you go back and look at press reporting from the time, this certainly was not secret, and governments that were involved were speaking to this publicly, on the record.”
Those supporting Kerry, at least in the broad sense, say this is all a manufactured controversy for the advancement of political purposes, rather than national security.
“These are trumped-up claims and really provide a window into how the Republican Party will operate while Joe Biden is in the White House, and it looks no different than [during] Barack Obama’s tenure,” Tom McMahon, a long-time prominent Democratic Party operative, told The Media Line.
“Back then, just as now, it’s about launching bad-faith, base-pleasing, fundraising-friendly media campaigns that paint Democratic officials as enemies of the state. They’re hunting for the next Benghazi,” said McMahon, alluding to the 2012 terrorist attack on the US embassy in Benghazi, Libya that led to the deaths of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. The security circumstances surrounding the attack dogged then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, with “Benghazi” becoming a one-word challenge to Clinton’s credibility.
Of course, there is also the distinct possibility that Zarif is simply lying about his conversation with Kerry, for any of myriad reasons. Multiple analysts have noted that even if the Iranian military was not forthcoming with information with Zarif, it was not difficult for anyone with a simple understanding of geopolitics to decipher that Israel was behind the attacks in Syria. Even those Republicans who wrote to Biden allow for this, noting that should it be shown that Zarif was untruthful, it should be used as further evidence of Iranian officials’ dishonesty and should be taken into consideration as both internal and external US negotiations about and with Tehran continue.
Republicans, who largely revile the Iran nuclear accord and are making efforts to prevent or restrict US re-entry into the agreement, see Kerry as needlessly friendly with the Iranian regime, and someone who – while perhaps not guilty of all-out treason – allowed his desire to keep the accord intact to cloud his responsibilities as a former chief diplomat.
“Even if we assume that Zarif must have known about the Israeli strikes, what does it say about Kerry if he was having these types of conversations with him? And the larger question is: If he was talking about Israeli military operations with him, what else did they talk about?” Noronha said.
Without further context from Zarif, though, the controversy is likely to die out. Democrats maintain control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate, which means any official investigation is almost certainly off the table. And with nothing concrete to go on other than a seemingly throwaway claim by Zarif, Republicans find themselves having to choose between believing Kerry, whose viewpoints they abhor, and Zarif, who they say travels the world lying on behalf of a despotic regime intent on America’s destruction.