Did Obama seek back-channel talks with Iran during his 2008 campaign?

PolitiFact – Amid media reports that President Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner sought secret “back-channel” communications with Russia before Trump’s inauguration, some conservative commentators say outraged liberals have a short memory.

They say Barack Obama did pretty much the same thing during the 2008 presidential campaign, secretly sending former Ambassador to Ukraine William Miller to Iran. Like Kushner, they say, Obama went around the existing administration to forge his own diplomatic path with a foreign adversary.

“Let me set the scene for you. It’s 2008, we are having an election, and candidate Obama, he’s not even president-elect, sends William Miller over to Iran to establish a back channel and let the Iranians know that should he win the election, they will have friendlier terms,” Wall Street Journal columnist Kimberley Strassel said on NBC’s Meet the Press on May 28.

Candidate Obama faced criticism for saying he would talk to Iranian leaders as president. And after he took office, his administration pursued back-channel communications — meaning secret dialogue outside normal diplomatic processes — with Iran as part of achieving the nuclear deal. Journalists reported on thoseprocesses extensively.

We were intrigued by the claim that Obama sought secret communication channels with Iran before he even won the 2008 election. When we started to dig into it, we were surprised to find that the evidence supporting that narrative is slim and ultimately insufficient.

As far as we can tell, this allegation stems solely from the commentary of Michael Ledeen, a conservative Iran and Iraq expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a critic of Obama’s foreign policy.

Ledeen was also a national security consultant to President Ronald Reagan’s administration. He recently co-authored a book with Trump’s ousted National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, The Field of Fight: How We Can Win the Global War Against Radical Islam and Its Allies.

Strassel hasn’t replied to our requests for comment, but she defended her comment on Twitter by citing Ledeen’s work.

By Ledeen’s account, Miller told him that Obama sent him to Tehran in 2008. Ledeen has made this claim a number of times since at least 2013, in blog posts, on conservative talk radio, on Twitter in prepared remarks, and in a phone interview with PolitiFact June 1.

“During his first presidential campaign in 2008, Mr. Obama used a secret back channel to Tehran to assure the mullahs that he was a friend of the Islamic Republic, and that they would be very happy with his policies,” Ledeen wrote in 2014 for conservative website PJ Media. “The secret channel was Ambassador William G. Miller, who served in Iran during the shah’s rule, as chief of staff for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and as ambassador to Ukraine. Ambassador Miller has confirmed to me his conversations with Iranian leaders during the 2008 campaign.”

We called up Miller. He said Ledeen’s claims are “totally untrue.”

Miller told us that he supported Obama’s 2008 candidacy and knew some of the campaign’s foreign policy staff from his decades-long public service career, but he had no role in the campaign or the subsequent administration.

Miller does have extensive experience with Iran, starting out as a diplomat there in the 1950s and 1960s. President Jimmy Carter chose Miller to be a lead negotiatorduring the 1979 hostage crisis, while Miller was serving as staff director of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. And as a private citizen, he played a role in the release of American hikers who were imprisoned in Iran from 2009-11.

But “the assertion that Obama sent me as an envoy is totally false,” he said, adding that he’s met Ledeen a few times but doesn’t really know him. Miller said he travels frequently to Iran but didn’t in 2008.

When we told Ledeen that Miller was telling a different story, Ledeen stood by his account.

“(Miller has) changed his mind,” Ledeen said. “He’s decided he didn’t go to Tehran.”

So either Ledeen or Miller isn’t telling the truth.

We’re sensitive to the idea that someone who was involved in secret communications might not be forthcoming with us about those communications. But it’s also telling that there have been no independent news reports to corroborate Ledeen’s claims, given the extensive reporting on the Obama administration’s relations with Iran and negotiations over the nuclear deal.

Marie Harf, who headed the State Department’s Iran nuclear negotiations communications strategy during Obama’s second term, said she hadn’t heard of these allegations until we called her.

“Never in my time at the State Department or working on Iran negotiations did any back channel prior to when we were in office come up,” she said.

Wall Street Journal foreign affairs reporter Jay Solomon, author of The Iran Wars, said he “could never prove” that Obama sought a back channel to Iran as a presidential candidate, but he can’t definitively say it didn’t happen.

Like Solomon, National Iranian American Council President Trita Parsi never came across any evidence for the alleged back channel while researching either of his two books about the Obama administration’s relationship with Iran, including the upcoming Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran and the Triumph of Diplomacy.

Parsi questioned Ledeen’s credibility and said, “At this point, I’m completely convinced this is all B.S.”

Our ruling

Strassel said that in 2008, Obama’s presidential campaign secretly sent former Ambassador William Miller to Iran to talk with Iranian leaders.

This is a case of he-said-she-said. A single conservative scholar says Miller told him about his secret ‘08 campaign mission to Iran. Independent journalists who have covered U.S.-Iran relations extensively haven’t been able to confirm the account. There is no corroborating evidence, and Miller says it’s not true; he says he never worked on behalf of the Obama campaign, and he didn’t travel to Iran in 2008.

At PolitiFact, we believe the burden is on the speaker to back up their claim with evidence. The evidence here is insufficient, so we rate this claim False.