At a cabinet meeting last week, Donald Trump made the case that his policy toward Iran is on the right track. "You know, a lot of progress has been made," the president claimed, pointing to nothing in particular. For good measure, he added, "A lot of progress has been made."
Reality suggests otherwise. Iran has recently been accused of shooting down an American drone, seizing a British oil tanker, and expanding its uranium enrichment. As of this morning, as NBC News reported, Iranian officials have also claimed to have captured 17 people who were allegedly spies working for the CIA.
Those looking for "a lot of progress" will be searching for a very long time.
It's against this backdrop that Politico reported last week that the president played a round of golf with Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who volunteered for a diplomatic mission. According to the article, the Kentucky Republican, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, suggested that he sit down privately with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif during his trip to New York for U.N. meetings.
The day after the Politico piece ran, a reporter asked Trump whether the GOP senator would serve as his emissary to Iran. "No," the president replied. "I don't know anything about that."
And the day after that, Trump switched gears. A reporter asked the president what he expects Rand Paul to do for the administration with respect to Iran. Trump said:
"Well, Rand is a friend of mine, but I have, really, 53 very good friends, and they're in the Senate."I also have a lot friends -- you saw that the other day when they brought a ridiculous vote up, and only four Republicans out of hundreds voted against. So I have a lot of great friends. I'm 94 percent in the Republican Party approval rating."Rand is a friend of mine. And Rand asked me if he could [get] involved. The answer is yes.... We'll see what happens. But I have many people involved. And Iran is going to work out very nicely. Iran is showing their colors. It's going to work out very nicely."
It's difficult to understand where the president's optimism is coming from.
First, in the wake of Trump's bizarre decision to abandon an effective international nuclear agreement with Tehran, Iran has become considerably more dangerous and its actions have become far more provocative. The American president may have convinced himself that things are "going to work out very nicely," but his agenda has created the opposite conditions.
Second, Rand Paul is a curious choice for a diplomatic mission. In 2015, during delicate international talks, Paul was one of the Senate Republicans who signed onto a letter to Iran, urging Tehran not to trust the United States. When the Kentucky senator was asked to explain why he tried to help sabotage his own country's diplomatic efforts, Paul struggled to speak coherently on the subject.
Dispatching a senator from the president's party to engage in talks with an Iranian leader may be a perfectly sensible approach, but Rand Paul's history suggests he's a less-than-ideal choice for the gig.
And finally, there's the question of whether the Kentucky Republican knows what he's talking about.
Paul, speaking to Fox News Thursday, said he supported diplomacy and thought there was a possible opening for an agreement under which Iran would agree to never develop nuclear weapons."I think there is a possible opening that Iran would sign an agreement saying that they won't develop a nuclear weapon, ever," Paul told Fox News' Neil Cavuto on Thursday. "That would be a huge breakthrough.""I think President Trump is one of the few people who actually could get that deal," Paul said. "And he will get it because he's strong, and he is showing maximum pressure, but he is also willing to talk."
In reality, President Obama already struck that deal, despite Paul's and his allies' efforts to kill it. The preamble of the international nuclear agreement with Iran (the JCPOA) explicitly said, "Iran reaffirms that under no circumstances will Iran ever seek, develop, or acquire any nuclear weapons."
This was, by Rand Paul's own description, "a huge breakthrough." And yet, this was the same Senate Republican who opposed the deal, and whose party's president derailed it.
To be clear, I'm not at all opposed to renewed diplomatic efforts, but I'd feel more confident about the outcome if the process were in the hands of people who knew what they were talking about.