White House officials blindsided by Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif's G-7 appearance

Some Trump aides said early in the day they were caught unaware of — and furious over — the French government's decision to invite Zarif.

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By Carol E. Lee, Hallie Jackson and Shannon Pettypiece

SAINT-JEAN-DE-LUZ, France — The White House was blindsided by the arrival of Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on Sunday in the coastal French town where President Donald Trump and other world leaders are meeting this weekend, three U.S. officials said shortly after Zarif's arrival.

But a senior administration official insisted the president himself was not caught off guard by Zarif’s arrival in Biarritz, France, the site of this year’s Group of Seven summit, despite simmering frustration among his aides about the French invitation. When asked about it early in the day, the president told reporters he had no comment.

A spokesman for Zarif announced that Zarif had arrived in Biarritz at the invitation of the French foreign minister “to continue talks” between the Iranian and French governments. The statement followed reports of an Iranian government plane landing in Biarritz.

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Zarif had intended to travel to China today — the first stop of an Asia swing to canvass support for the nuclear deal. An Iranian source said the switch to the French resort was a last minute decision after Zarif’s French counterpart extended the invitation.

“No one was expecting it,” one U.S. official said of Zarif’s arrival. “It was a surprise.”

U.S. officials said early Sunday, immediately following Zarif's appearance, that some in the administration were furious at the French government’s decision to invite Zarif to Biarritz without significant advance notice. But they could not characterize the president’s views.

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However, amid French claims that the U.S. had in fact been given advance notice, a senior administration official said later that "the president is never surprised by these types of actions" and that the administration "absolutely had an idea that he would be here," adding that they were "fairly certain" that Trump was "aware of this potential at least yesterday."

French President Emanuel Macron has been urging Trump and the Iranians toward a dialogue. France, Germany and the U.K. have tried to salvage the Iranian nuclear deal since Trump withdrew the U.S. from the pact last year.

Trump met privately with Macron for 90 minutes over lunch on Saturday after arriving in Biarritz.

Last month, the Trump administration imposed sanctions on Zarif. Treasury Secretary Stephen Mnuchin said at the time that the Iranian foreign minister “spreads the regime’s propaganda and disinformation around the world.”

Asked Sunday in Biarritz about Zarif’s arrival there, Mnuchin said to the extent Iran wants to negotiate, Trump has said he won’t set any preconditions to talks.

In his tweet confirming the trip, a spokesman for the country's foreign ministry stressed that "there will be no meetings or negotiations" with U.S. officials during the visit.

Zarif himself tweeted later Sunday that "Iran's active diplomacy in pursuit of constructive engagement continues," saying he had met with Macron on the sidelines of the G-7, followed by a joint briefing with UK and German officials. "Road ahead is difficult. But worth trying," he added.

Trump has signaled a willingness to meet with Iranian officials, but Tehran has resisted talks amid what the White House dubs the president’s “maximum pressure” campaign aimed at squeezing the Iranian economy.

“Iran wants to make a deal because the sanctions are not good for them,” Trump said recently at a rally in New Hampshire. “They are not happy.”

Zarif arrived as fissures emerged among G-7 leaders over how to deal with Iran, as well as the threat of a global recession and China.

Zarif was due to travel to Asia in the coming days as part of his tour to get support for Iran amid rising tensions with the U.S. since Trump withdrew America from Tehran's 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.

He told NBC News last month that the door is "wide open" to diplomacy if Trump removes the array of sanctions he has imposed since 2017 that have slashed the country’s oil exports and damaged its economy.

Iran announced sanctions on Saturday against the hawkish Washington-based think tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which spent years arguing against the Iran nuclear deal, and its CEO, Mark Dubowitz. Iran accused the group of “economic terrorism” and threatened possible action by Iran’s “security apparatuses” against those who work there.

A State Department spokesman responded to the move on Twitter, writing that the administration “takes the regime’s threats seriously” and would “hold Iran responsible for directly or indirectly compromising the safety of any American.”

On Sunday, Dubowitz criticized the idea of Zarif “being welcomed” to Biarritz, writing on Twitter that he hopes Trump and Macron are “making clear to him that further threats will lead to his banishment,” including from the United Nations General Assembly next month.

Max Burman contributed.