Hassan Rouhani and Mohammad Javad Zarif, respectively Iran’s president and foreign minister, both signaled last week that Tehran is open to new talks under certain conditions. On the U.S. side, Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did roughly the same. “We are not looking for regime change. We are not looking for that at all,” Trump said Tuesday. “We’ll see what happens. But a lot of progress has been made.”
Two days after those remarks, Politico reported that Trump had accepted Sen. Rand Paul’s proposal, advanced during a round of golf the previous weekend, to represent the White House in talks with Iranian officials. The Kentucky senator is noted for his vigorous opposition to military adventures — a position in keeping with the president’s ostensible views. It is not clear who Paul might meet, or where and when any such encounter could take place. But Trump’s decision to accept Paul as his emissary is a savvy move to circumvent the hawks among his foreign policy advisers, chief among them National Security Advisor John Bolton, who has in the past called for regime change in Iran.
Bolton, often (but not always) with Pompeo’s support, has pressed for a highly confrontational Iran policy since he joined the administration last year. It now emerges that he played a leading role in conjuring the Gibraltar incident out of thin air, effectively using Britain as an unwitting tool to advance his hyper-hawkish Iran agenda.
The marked drift toward diplomacy last week represents an important, potentially decisive setback for Bolton and the White House’s hawkish factions. Washington’s hawks sustained another blow Saturday, when The New York Times published the astonishing remarks of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s former fire-breathing, often objectionable president who preceded Hassan Rouhani. “He is a businessman and therefore he is capable of calculating cost-benefits and making a decision,” the hardline Ahmadinejad said of Trump in an hour-long telephone interview with the Times. “We say to him, let’s calculate the long-term cost-benefit of our two nations and not be shortsighted.”