President Donald Trump said Friday he had authorized Sen. Rand Paul to speak with Iranian officials – a day after denying he had done so – but downplayed the significance of the outreach to Iran as tensions skyrocketed in the Persian Gulf.
“Rand asked me if he could get involved. I said yes,” Trump told reporters at the White House, referring to the Kentucky Republican known for arguing strenuously that the US should pull back from foreign engagements and conflicts. The President added, “I have many people involved,” and though he didn’t elaborate, he said he was eager to resolve the ongoing crisis with Tehran.
Trump spoke as Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps appeared to seize two tankers on Friday. One British-flagged vessel was boarded inside the Persian Gulf, two weeks after Britain detained an Iranian tanker in waters off Gibraltar. A second Liberian-flagged tanker was apparently taken into Iranian waters, before it was released and continued its journey in the Gulf.
On Thursday, when asked whether he would appoint Paul as a negotiator to Iran, Trump had said, “No, I don’t know anything about that.”
The President’s acknowledgment Friday that he had, in fact, allowed Paul to reach out to Tehran is the latest indication that he is interested in talks. In recent weeks, the President has publicly suggested that Iran “call me,” said he could be Tehran’s “best friend” and emphasized that he is willing to talk without preconditions.
But there are signs of division within the administration over whether to make overtures to Tehran, as other US officials have sent conflicting signals, with some telling CNN that despite the initiative with Paul, the President has become more hawkish of late, not less.
Other administration officials have dismissed the idea of engaging with Iran’s chief diplomatic representative, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif – downplaying his importance and even floating the idea of sanctioning the top diplomat.
Zarif, meanwhile, has been putting out his own diplomatic feelers.
On Thursday, Iran’s top diplomat dangled an opening for talks, saying Tehran was willing to accept enhanced and permanent nuclear inspections in exchange for a permanent lifting of US sanctions. Zarif was speaking to reporters at Iran’s UN mission in New York.
“If Trump wants more for more, we can ratify the Additional Protocol and he can lift the sanctions he set,” Zarif said, referring to an addendum to the 2015 nuclear deal that expands UN inspections of Iran’s nuclear facilities and that the pact requires Iran to sign by 2023.
“He has said that he will take any measure to Congress – fine,” Zarif said, according to reports of the briefing. “Lift the sanctions and you’ll have the Additional Protocol sooner than 2023.”
Trump pulled the US out of the deal in May 2018 and has pushed the idea that he can produce a better, more comprehensive deal, levying increasingly intense sanctions against Iran in a bid to force it to the negotiating table.
But many of his most senior officials have dismissed the idea of talks, and specifically of talks with the US-educated Zarif, who represented Iran over the years of diplomacy that led to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the deal is known.
On Friday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, “Y’know, Foreign Minister Zarif can talk to members of Congress, that’s fantastic.” He said that Zarif had met with lawmakers for many years, but those talks never stopped Iran from developing its missile program or “conducting terror around the world.”
“In the end, President Trump will make the decision on how to proceed,” Pompeo said, speaking in Argentina.
After initial reports that Trump would tap Paul to contact Iranian officials, one US official cast doubt on whether Zarif – his country’s top diplomat – had the power to open up diplomacy on behalf of the Iranian regime.
“We’re aware of reports of a supposed meeting between a US senator and Zarif,” said the official, who insisted on anonymity. “It’s unclear how productive a conversation with Zarif would be, given his limited role in making decisions on behalf of the Iranian regime.”
Pompeo took a similar line in an interview Wednesday, downplaying Zarif’s importance and saying, “In the end, the ayatollah is calling all of the shots, 100% of them, with respect to the big strategic issues inside of Iran and how their national security apparatus will work.”
In another example of the administration’s mixed messaging, even as Trump admitted to giving Paul the green light, unnamed officials argued that privately the President has adopted a more hawkish tone recently, as tensions increased in the Persian Gulf.
According to three people familiar with the developments, Trump had previously emphasized a diplomatic solution to the crisis with Tehran, backing off a planned strike on Iranian positions last month, out of concern about civilian casualties and that US retaliation could escalate regional tensions.
These officials argue that lately Trump has not placed as much emphasis on talks with Iranian officials, in part because of the chilly reception that they say Trump’s public overtures have received from Iranian leaders.
When Trump called off the planned strike at the last minute in late June, he assured advisers that if matters escalated with Iran, he would respond appropriately, these officials said.
The administration’s oscillating signals continued Friday, as Trump veered from telling reporters that tensions with Iran will ease, to arguing that he has been right about Tehran all along.
“Iran is going to work out very nicely,” Trump said. “It’s very easy to straighten out or it’s very easy to make it a lot worse.”
Later, Trump claimed the tanker seizures proved his warnings about Iran correct. “This only goes to show what I’m saying about Iran. Trouble. Nothing but trouble,” he said.
Trump said the US would work with Britain on its seized tanker and noted the American presence in the region is robust. “We have a lot of ships there that are warships,” he said, referring to a build up that began in May, when the US sent a carrier strike group and bomber task force into the Persian Gulf in a show of force against Iran.
In London, UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said he was “extremely concerned” about the seizure of the tanker and was attending a security meeting to review “what we know and what we can do to swiftly secure” its release.
“These seizures are unacceptable,” Hunt said. “It is essential that freedom of navigation is maintained and that all ships can move safely and freely in the region.”
Hunt said the crews on the tankers “comprise a range of nationalities,” but included no British citizens. He said that the UK’s ambassador in Iran is in contact with Iran’s foreign ministry to resolve the situation.
CNN’s Jennifer Hansler, Allie Malloy, Kaitlan Collins, Abby Phillip, Kevin Liptak, Ryan Browne and Barbara Starr, Richard Roth and Jennifer Deaton contributed to this report