Amidst everything else this week, consider the following two questions. Did French President Emmanuel Macron, who spent all Tuesday in the White House flattering and cajoling Donald Trump, convince the president not to do what observers are nearly unanimous he will do next month – namely, trash the nuclear deal with Iran when the next, recurring deadline occurs on May 12? If not, can German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who arrives in Washington later this week, pull it off?
It’s not looking good. Despite Trump’s proclamation after his touchy-feely meeting with Macron that he’s looking for “a new deal with Iran,” chances are slim to none that the president can get one. As for the existing agreement, Macron himself was gloomy. “My view is … that he will get rid of this deal on his own, for domestic reasons,” said the French president, just before leaving for home.
And with the recent appointment of ultra-hawk John Bolton as Trump’s national security adviser, and the confirmation of another hawk, Mike Pompeo, as secretary of state, the president has assembled what looks like a war cabinet – with its guns trained on Tehran.
Bolton and Pompeo replace former General H.R. McMaster and former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson, respectively, both of whom were widely seen as the “adults” in Trump’s Romper Room, serving as a check of sorts on the president’s most erratic, bellicose instincts. Now, they’re gone. And one of the last remaining so-called grown-ups on the administration’s national security team, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, is himself a notorious hawk when it comes to Iran, making it unclear whether the general, frequently called “Mad Dog” by Trump, will act to prevent the president from pulling the United States out of the deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
“Bolton and Pompeo will be enabling Trump’s worst instincts,” Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), tells Rolling Stone. “Instead of officials around Trump that will push back against reckless moves such as killing the Iran deal, they will encourage him to go in that direction. At this point, it appears the Iran deal is dead and that May 12 only will be a formality.”
Paul Pillar, a professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies and the U.S. intelligence community’s former chief intelligence analyst for the Middle East, agrees. “Trump reportedly is often swayed by the last person who talks to him,” Pillar tells RS. “Bolton is now in position to be that last person on most national security issues. His appointment makes U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA highly likely, even though withdrawal will make no sense in terms of U.S. interests.”
Trump, who has lambasted the Iran accord for years, has promised to cancel it, and to reimpose economic sanctions on the country, unless other signatories – including three key American allies, France, Germany and Great Britain – agree to reopen the terms of the agreement, to “fix” it by adding on new demands and conditions unrelated to Iran’s now-frozen nuclear research. But Iran, largely satisfied with the JCPOA as it stands, says that it won’t even consider an effort to renegotiate it. Russia and China, the other two signers, are utterly opposed to the idea of redoing the agreement, which, they point out, is backed by the resolution of the UN Security Council. And all that makes it extraordinarily unlikely that the French and German leaders will be able to find a formula that both convinces Trump to stay with the accord and gets Russia, China and Iran on board.
“Pompeo has been as die-hard an opponent of the JCPOA as anyone else. For him as well as for other opponents of the agreement, talk about ‘fixing’ the agreement is mainly a smokescreen for trying to get rid of it,” says Pillar, who retired from the CIA in 2005 after nearly three decades. “Any flexibility by the Europeans is likely to be met with a hardening of the Trump administration’s demands. Seven countries are parties to the JCPOA, not to mention it being endorsed by the UN Security Council. All seven would need to agree to any revision of the agreement. Nobody is talking about any inducements to Iran to try to get it to make further concessions, and so there is no reason to expect any such concessions.”
If the United States withdraws from the deal, it could set off a series of domino-like consequences – at the end of which the U.S. and Iran could be at war. And, were that to happen, it would be a conflict far larger and more devastating even than the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, much smaller and less powerful nations that border Iran.
Indeed, a renegotiated or “fixed” Iran deal is exceedingly unlikely. Far more likely is an escalation of the ongoing military effort being waged jointly by the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia to contain Iran and its allies across Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and the Arabian peninsula. A bitter opponent of the Iran deal, Israel, which conducted an air strike against Iranian positions in Syria on April 9, has struck Syria more a 100 times since 2012. Israel and Saudi Arabia, both strongly backed by the Trump administration, have entered into a tacit alliance aimed at Tehran. And Bolton, in an op-ed last year in the New York Post, enthusiastically endorsed the growing bond between Israel and Saudi Arabia following Trump’s visit to both countries last May. “But actions must follow,” he argued, including “concrete steps to eliminate Iran’s nuclear-weapons program, and ultimately the ayatollah’s regime.”
Bolton, who now sits at Trump’s elbow, has spent decades cultivating a well-deserved reputation as a shoot-first, don’t-ask-me-any-damn-questions hawk. Truth be told, it’s hard to think of anyone in the sphere of foreign policy and national security more radical than Bolton. A fervid supporter of the Iraq invasion in 2003, Bolton has long ago added Iran to his target list. Three years ago, Bolton penned a piece for the New York Times under the headline: “To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran.” A year ago, Bolton traveled to Paris to speak to the People’s Mujahedeen, a cult-like, terrorist-inclined Iranian opposition group. “The declared policy of the United States should be the overthrow of the mullahs’ regime in Tehran,” Bolton said. “The behavior and the objectives of the regime are not going to change and, therefore, the only solution is to change the regime itself.” In rising tones, Bolton proclaimed to the crowd: “That’s why, before 2019, we here will celebrate in Tehran!” And just three months ago, Bolton wrote in an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal that America’s goal when it comes to Iran “should be ending Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution before its fortieth anniversary.”
Pompeo, too, has for years been a fierce and uncompromising critic of the Iran accord. In 2016, Pompeo circulated a letter written by 190 retired generals, admirals and other military officers calling the accord “dangerous” and likely to lead to war. Before taking over as CIA director last year, in a string of more than two dozen press releases, three op-eds and numerous Fox News appearances, Pompeo has warned darkly about (nonexistent) secret codicils in the accord that allegedly undermine its integrity. And just before his nomination to lead the CIA was announced, Pompeo tweeted, “I look forward to rolling back this disastrous deal with the world’s largest sponsor of terrorism.”
Now, Bolton and Pompeo will serve as twin evil angels sitting on Trump’s shoulder as the May 12 deadline approaches.
They’ll be arguing against the best advice not only from America’s key allies, but from a broad spectrum of the U.S. foreign policy establishment. In March, 118 former top U.S. officials – leaders of the State Department, the CIA, the Pentagon, former senators and representatives, retired military men and women, ex-ambassadors, both Republicans and Democrats – signed a statement urging Trump not to withdraw from the agreement. The accord is working as intended, they argued. “Iran will be prohibited from exceeding severe limits on its nuclear program under continuing, unprecedented international monitoring, preventing it from moving toward a nuclear weapon for the duration of the agreement,” they wrote, on behalf of the National Coalition To Prevent An Iranian Nuclear Weapon. As rational as that may sound, the signatories of that letter are precisely the type of folks that Trump, his allies such as Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka, along with Bolton and Pompeo, campaigned against in 2016.
Of course, the Iran deal is indeed working as it is supposed to. In exchange for lifting many of the sanctions that had crippled the country’s economy, Iran agreed to drastic cutbacks in the number of its centrifuges enriching uranium, agreed to get rid of virtually all of its enriched uranium and to limit future stockpiles, to disable a controversial reactor and to shut down its underground enrichment facility, and to permit highly intrusive technical inspections of all its facilities, including constant monitoring by video cameras, by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Meanwhile, the IAEA’s inspectors have declared, again and again, that Iran is living up to its side of the bargain.
That may not be enough for Trump, especially if the Europeans, despite their best efforts, are unable to come up with a formula that both placates Trump & Co. while keeping the JCPOA intact. Of course, according to Trump, they’re all babies.
Back in 2015, Trump told CNN – as John Oliver reminded us this week – that President Obama’s national security team was, well, naïve. “They [the Iranians] have so out-negotiated our people, because our people are babies,” said Trump. “They have no idea what they’re doing. They will find out that if I win, we’re not babies. There’s no more being babies anymore.”
So what will happen if Trump, on May 12, does kill the deal? First and foremost, the European Union, led by Germany, France and the U.K., will have to screw up the courage to defy the United States, especially by resisting any American-led effort to reimpose sanctions on Iran. To do so, they’ll have to reaffirm a solid working relationship with both Russia and China with respect to Iran, isolating the United States. And the Iranians will have to act carefully to avoid responding to Trump’s decision by avoiding a confrontation and working to maintain the deal with the five remaining partners. But many observers are worried that the U.S.-Iran relationship could spiral into crisis. “Whatever Iran does, Trump killing the deal will trigger a series of escalations that quickly can get out of control and put the U.S. in direct confrontation with Iran,” says NIAC’s Parsi.