Bolton Is Gone, but Tensions With Iran Remain High
The departure of Trump’s hawkish national security advisor raised hopes in Washington, but a sudden thaw with Tehran is unlikely.
The abrupt and acrimonious departure this week of John Bolton, U.S. President Donald Trump’s third national security advisor, has raised plenty of hopes in Washington and elsewhere for a diplomatic rapprochement with Iran.
That’s not at all likely, given the Trump administration’s stated desire to maintain its maximum pressure campaign and the Iranian regime’s repeated refusal to enter negotiations with the current administration. Instead, an economically strangled Iran will likely continue to violate its nuclear commitments under the 2015 deal and possibly seek to reignite confrontation in the Persian Gulf.
Because Bolton was such an unapologetic hawk, his departure has raised hopes for sudden diplomatic advances from North Korea to Venezuela to China—alongside Iran. Soon after his firing on Tuesday, reports surfaced that the Trump administration was considering easing sanctions on Iran to help pave the way for a meeting between Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Another report suggested Trump would embrace a French plan to establish a $15 billion line of credit for Iran.
But while Trump finally walked away from the 2015 multiparty nuclear deal with Iran shortly after Bolton joined the administration last year, the national security advisor was never the driving force behind the White House’s maximum pressure campaign on Iran—nor will his departure spell its end. Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Iran envoy Brian Hook, and others in Washington have been equally determined to keep the pressure tightly focused on the country that they view as the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism and a main source of instability in the Middle East.
On Thursday, a senior State Department official told the Jerusalem Post that “U.S. Iran policy is the president’s Iran policy” and vowed to continue the maximum pressure campaign, including severe sanctions on Iran’s oil exports, until Iran stops its disruptive behavior.
The growing influence of Pompeo, now rumored as a possible dual-hatted replacement for Bolton, only underscores that continuity. Pompeo outlined 12 demands that Iran must meet in order to get relief from U.S. sanctions. And the secretary of state, like Bolton, was a proponent of U.S. military retaliation for Iran’s downing of an unmanned U.S. drone, which Trump canceled at the last minute.
“In our view, Bolton’s departure does not change the nature of U.S. face-offs with China and Iran,” said ClearView Energy Partners, an energy consultancy, in a note Thursday.
In part, that’s because it takes just one not to tango—and Iran’s leadership has doubled down in recent weeks on its reluctance to engage in negotiations with the Trump administration. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei last year banned direct talks with the United States, and Rouhani has spent the last two weeks furiously backpedaling the mere suggestion he’d be open to talking to Trump. Despite the U.S. president publicly pining for a meeting with Rouhani, the Iranian position has never changed: Sanctions must come off before a meeting takes place.
That casts into doubt on even a superficial handshake between Trump and Rouhani at the United Nations General Assembly later this month—let alone deeper talks meant to address thorny issues like Iran’s missile development or support for regional terrorist groups.
“Iran’s president has ruled out a photo-op with Trump, and its supreme leader has banned talks with this White House, period,” said Matt Reed, the vice president at Foreign Reports, a consultancy specializing in Middle East energy issues. “What else is there?”
One idea that has gained currency in recent days is a French proposal, floated at the G-7 meeting last month, to extend a European line of credit to Iran in order to buy its renewed compliance with the nuclear deal, which Tehran is steadily breaching. On Thursday, the Daily Beast reported that Trump is seriously mulling the French proposal as a way to reduce tensions without undoing all the scaffolding of economic sanctions.
The problem is that the French proposal raises more questions than it answers. It’s not at all clear how much money it would actually provide—headline figures suggesting $15 billion are apparently an Iranian wish list, not a European commitment—nor who would pay for it. It’s also not clear if the program would need to be run through the stillborn European special financial vehicle to facilitate trade with Iran, or if it is meant to simply open the market to some more Iranian oil exports, a no-go zone for U.S. officials.
Further complications: France wants Iran to put its missile program and support for regional proxies on the table as a condition of getting the credit line, something Tehran balks at. And, in any event, it is only designed to run through the end of the year, leaving Iran in the same cash-poor position as today in just a few months.
“It’s a good deal for Iran, a questionable one for the Europeans—because they can’t be sure when they’ll be paid back—and for the U.S. it’s not such a big deal, since Washington isn’t paying a dime for it,” Reed said.
“The Iranians have been crystal clear. They want cash with no strings attached, but the U.S. won’t permit anything that looks like a blank check because some or all of it could go to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps,” Iran’s spearhead for regional mischief, he said.
Almost a year and a half after the United States pulled out of the nuclear deal, Iran’s economy is cratering as its oil exports have dwindled dramatically; experts estimate that Iran is exporting around 200,000 barrels a day of oil, mostly to service debts to China, compared with about 2.5 million barrels a day before Trump imposed sanctions. Meanwhile, Tehran is accelerating its development of potential nuclear technologies and capabilities, and—despite Bolton’s departure—there is no off-ramp in sight. Worse, even with Bolton out of the picture, war could loom once again.
“The French proposal might be half-baked, but if it fails, Iran will be primed to lash out again like it did early this summer,” when it seized several tankers near the Strait of Hormuz, Reed said. Iran dialed back its aggression in the last couple of months, while Europe worked overtime to save the deal, he noted.
“But all bets are off if this letter of credit falls apart and Iran’s economic situation remains dire.”
This article has been corrected to reflect Iran’s pre-sanctions oil export volumes.
Keith Johnson is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @KFJ_FP