Thursday, 16 January, 2020

John Bolton’s ouster is great news for fans of Iran policy

President Trump’s decision to fire John Bolton as national security adviser over significant disagreements is great news for fans of Barack Obama’s Iran policy.

In breaking the Bolton news — where else, but Twitter — Trump wrote, “I disagreed strongly with many of his suggestions, as did others in the Administration, and therefore I asked John for his resignation.”

Over the course of his presidency, Trump’s policy toward Iran has vacillated wildly. The most dramatic demonstration was going back and forth over whether to order air strikes against Iran, which culminated in his decision to call them off. But the policy toward the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism has been erratic throughout his administration.

Early on in his administration, Trump punted on the decision of whether to pull out of the nuclear deal before eventually announcing his determination to pull out. Once he did, however, he granted many waivers to Iran that in effect helped preserve the deal. Though his administration has in several important ways ratcheted up sanctions on Iran, he still has avoided taking some of the final steps to dismantling the deal, most importantly by ending waivers for “civilian” nuclear cooperation.

Now, in the face of Iran’s aggression and findings by the International Atomic Energy Agency over unexplained traces of uranium at an atomic warehouse in Iran, Trump is responding by desperately seeking a meeting with Iranian leader Hassan Rouhani.

Trump’s erratic behavior toward Iran can be seen both in his own competing impulses (between wanting to appear tough and to unravel Obama’s legacy on one hand and his fear of international conflicts on the other) and in the eclectic mix of staffers in his administration. His foreign policy staffers and loose collection of advisers come from a range of views: hawks, Obama holdovers, Washington establishment types, and noninterventionist conservatives.

Throughout his administration, those sympathetic to the Iran deal and Obama’s broader accommodating policy toward Iran have had one ultimate goal: trying to keep the Iran deal alive as long as possible so they can wait out Trump and resurrect it when a new president takes office.

At first, they thought they could trick Trump into preserving the deal by getting Europeans to offer cosmetic “fixes” to it. Once they realized there were limits to that strategy, they shifted tactics and pursued a new strategy based around noninterventionists in Trump’s orbit: people like Rand Paul and Tucker Carlson. A key part of the strategy was to isolate Bolton within the administration by portraying him as a bloodthirsty hawk who would manipulate Trump into a war that would cost him reelection.

With Bolton’s departure, it’s clear that strategy has borne fruit. It is now much more likely that Trump will continue to keep the Iran deal warm and be led down the path of accommodation to a terrorist regime.

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