The Morning Jolt

National Security & Defense

Kerry’s Denial on Leaking to Iran Doesn’t Add Up

John Kerry, Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, delivers remarks during a press briefing at the White House in Washington, D.C., April 22, 2021. (Tom Brenner/Reuters)

On the menu today: why John Kerry’s categorical denial that he informed Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif about 200 Israeli attacks on Iranian targets in Syria doesn’t add up, redistricting will have a moderate impact on GOP efforts to win back the House in 2022, and the most overexposed man of 2020 makes “a rare public appearance.”

‘The Kerry–Zarif Special Relationship’

For what it’s worth, former secretary of state John Kerry denied late yesterday that he had informed Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif about 200 Israeli attacks on Iranian targets in Syria. “I can tell you that this story and these allegations are unequivocally false. This never happened — either when I was Secretary of State or since.”

Some of the usual suspects on Twitter, eager to defend Kerry, made an implausible claim that those Israeli attacks were public knowledge at the time, and asked, “You don’t normally believe anything that comes out of Iran. Why now?” (I welcome their newfound skepticism of statements from the Iranian regime, and hope they apply that skepticism consistently to any negotiations or discussions with the Iranians from here on out.)

Kerry defenders need to reread the New York Times piece that started all this. The comment comes from Foreign Minister Zarif, who met with Kerry many times while Kerry was secretary of state during Obama’s second term. In fact, you may recall Kerry and Zarif continuing their conversations after Kerry left government service, in an effort to preserve the nuclear deal. The two men are on a first-name basis, and were characterized as “friendly but not friends.” The Financial Times characterized it as “the Kerry-Zarif special relationship.

By Iranian standards, Zarif is one of the nicer guys, one who is more eager to engage with the West, and to the extent Kerry has a . . . maybe “friend” is putting it too strongly, but . . . to the extent Kerry has a reliable partner in the Iranian regime, Zarif is the guy. If this is all a big lie from Zarif to make Kerry look bad . . . why would Zarif do that? What would Zarif have to gain by trying to make the former U.S. government official most eager to reach a deal appear incapable of keeping secrets?

Sure, the Iranian regime lies all the time. But if this is a lie, why would the foreign minister lie about his favorite negotiating partner in this case?

This is the sum total of what the original Times article says about Kerry: “Former Secretary of State John Kerry informed him that Israel had attacked Iranian interests in Syria at least 200 times, to his astonishment, Mr. Zarif said.” This morning, subsequent reporting by the New York Times provides a little more context:

The recording in question captures Mr. Zarif speaking for hours to an interviewer producing an oral history of the current Iranian administration.

“Kerry has to tell me that Israel has attacked you 200 times in Syria?” says Mr. Zarif, who complains in the recording that Iran’s military has long kept him in the dark on crucial matters.

“You did not know?” the interviewer asks twice. Both times, Mr. Zarif replies, “No, no.”

In the recording, Mr. Zarif does not specify when Mr. Kerry was supposed to have made the comment.

From that, we don’t know whether the alleged leak was before or after public reports in September 2018 that Israel had struck 200 Iranian targets in Syria, but the fact that Zarif was surprised by what Kerry had told him — and that the Iranian military had not kept him in the loop — strongly suggests that this information had not yet appeared in news reports.

It is likely that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps already knew, or strongly suspected, Israel was behind these attacks. The IRGC probably suspected the Israelis every time something went wrong for the Iranians in Syria — something important blew up, or someone important died in mysterious circumstances. (I would guess that when Iranian hardliners stub their toes in the morning, they suspect the Mossad was behind it.)

But notice that the context of Zarif’s comment is not, “Boy, that John Kerry is a big blabbermouth.” He’s not setting out to stab his old negotiating partner in the back. He’s complaining about the Revolutionary Guard Corps. The context is, “I’m the foreign minister, but those jerks at the IRGC aren’t keeping me in the loop on anything; I have to learn about what the Israelis are doing from my American counterpart!”

And whatever the Iranian regime as a whole knew, believed, or suspected, Zarif didn’t expect Kerry to come out and confirm their suspicions. Zarif says he learned this “to his astonishment.”

So we’re left with my original questions from yesterday: Was this a deliberate Obama administration decision to tell the Iranians, or was Kerry freelancing?

Either way, it seems extraordinarily unlikely that the Israelis had signed off on Kerry revealing this information to Tehran. We’re left where we started: John Kerry knowing about military actions that an allied country had taken in Syria that were not meant to be public knowledge — and sharing information about them with the Iranian foreign minister.

Also note that by speaking this bluntly and critically of the Revolutionary Guard Corps and the late Major General Qasim Soleimani, it seems clear Zarif did not expect this interview to go public at this time. Maybe he thought his comments would be revealed far in the future, after his retirement or after his death — if they were ever revealed at all. For what it is worth, the Iranian foreign ministry says the recording was never meant to be released to the public:

Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said today that the recording was not supposed to be released to the media. The interview took place with economist Saeed Leylaz, who is a supporter of the Rouhani administration. Khatibzadeh said the recording was a “typical discussion within the administration.” The intention of the talks was a Rouhani administration initiative that all Cabinet members record their experiences in order to serve as documents to help the next administration.

It seems pretty clear that we in the West were not meant to hear this interview anytime soon, if ever — which makes it even more implausible that this is some sort of Iranian misinformation effort to undermine John Kerry’s reputation. However, it does feel as if somebody in the Iranian government wanted to kneecap Zarif, and/or his political allies. Iran is scheduled to have a presidential “election” in June 18. (Those scare quotes are deliberate.) While the final ballot has yet to be set, take a look at who a bunch of the top contenders are:

A number of Iranian military leaders, from both the army and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), are among the likely candidates for Iran’s presidential election, which will be held on June 18. Among these candidates are the former IRGC air force commander and former defense minister in the Rouhani government Hossein Dehghan; former IRGC commander and current Secretary of Iran’s Expediency Discernment Council Mohsen Rezaee; and the former head of the IRGC’s Khatam Al-Anbiya Construction Headquarters Brig. Gen. Saeed Mohammed, as well as other politicians with a military background, including Ali Larijani, Parviz Fattah and Mehrdad Bazrpash.

If you’re the IRGC or an ally of that faction within the Iranian government, and you come across an audiotape of the foreign minister trashing your beloved brigadier-general-turned-airport-highway-speedbump, you’re sure as heck going to release that.

This isn’t a lie designed to smear Kerry. There’s no good reason to think Zarif is lying to the interviewer. Kerry’s reputation is collateral damage in a fight among factions within the Iranian government.

We as Americans have very little ability to influence who runs what within the Iranian regime. But we can decide which people can be trusted with secrets within the U.S. government — and John Kerry isn’t one of those people.

Redistricting Is a Medium Deal — Not a Big Deal, but Not Small Potatoes

Is it significant for the GOP that Colorado, Florida, Montana, North Carolina, and Oregon are each gaining a House seat in post-census redistricting, and Texas is gaining two? Sure.

Is it significant that California, Illinois, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia are losing one House seat in post-census redistricting? Sure.

But redistricting is only going to shift the balance of the House of Representatives by a few seats. The House is currently 218 to 212, with five vacancies. The recently elected Troy Carter of Louisiana will be sworn in soon, making it 219 to 212. Republicans will probably win the special election in Texas May 1, bringing them to 213, but Ohio Republican Steve Stivers will resign May 16, taking the GOP back to 212. Republicans would be favored in an upcoming special election. The other three vacancies are in pretty heavily Democratic districts, so a full House with no vacancies would be 221 to 214. Republicans would need to flip four seats in the 2022 midterms to win back control.

But remember that the GOP currently has all three seats in West Virginia, and now they have to reduce it to two. In Ohio, the retirement of Stivers probably makes redistricting easier, and probably shifts the current 12–4 Republican advantage to an 11–4 Republican advantage. (Shifting voters from Stivers’s R+9 district to surrounding districts probably makes those Republican seats a little redder.)

Meanwhile, Up in New York . . .

A headline that seemed unthinkable at the end of 2020: “Cuomo, in Rare Public Appearance, Says: ‘I Didn’t Do Anything Wrong’

ADDENDUM: Speaking of John Kerry, man, this Kevin Williamson column has a lot of good lines, but this one is going to leave a mark: “From Joe Biden’s vantage point, John Kerry is a promising young man.”


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