by Ryan Costello
Trump’s firing of John Bolton has single-handedly dealt a two-pronged blow to those in Washington who sought to maneuver him into a devastating war with Iran. Not only has the likelihood of conflict gone down with Bolton dismissed from the White House, but the odds of negotiations that take war off the table have significantly increased. Regardless of how one feels about the President, a shift from a strategy for war to a push for negotiations would undoubtedly be a positive development that should be welcomed and encouraged.
Trump’s pattern for striking a deal has been consistent across issues. First, he provokes a crisis, then he shifts to engagement in order to cool the temperature and try to burnish his credentials as a deal-maker. In the case of North Korea, he threatened “fire and fury,” and reportedly considered strikes on the nuclear-armed authoritarian state before shifting to summitry with Kim Jong-Un. On Iran, the pattern appears to be repeating. He followed Bolton’s plan for exiting the nuclear deal and—according to his own account—ordered retaliatory strikes on Iran in June before thinking better of the decision and canceling them with ten minutes to spare.
The embodiment of a blood-thirsty war hawk, Bolton was reportedly “devastated” by Trump’s failure to follow him into war with Iran. To add to Bolton’s sense of betrayal, reports indicate that the President has recently been considering de-escalatory proposals from French President Emmanuel Macron in the hopes that it would set the stage for a meeting with Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani. With Trump seeking a deal and Bolton still committed to war (a new one with Iran and a never-ending one in Afghanistan), Bolton had outlived his usefulness and provoked an argument that resulted in his dismissal-by-tweet.
Regrettably, much of the criticism of Trump and Bolton has focused on the “chaos” surrounding the President’s decision-making and his desire to make a deal with yet another authoritarian regime. Yet, some of the same voices criticizing Bolton’s dismissal were until recently raising the risks of the President following Bolton off the cliff into a devastating war that could be more costly than the 2003 invasion of Iraq. To the extent that Trump should be criticized, it is for hiring an unrepentant warmonger in the first place, as well as provoking a needless crisis that has undermined U.S. credibility, shaken Iran’s adherence to far-reaching nonproliferation restrictions, and brought the U.S. within minutes of a war that would be a generational mistake.
It is this self-made crisis from which Trump, if he is serious about a deal with Iran, must now try to extricate himself. His commitment to “maximum pressure” has scuttled diplomatic opportunities with Iran throughout his presidency. Iran will not sit down for serious negotiations or a photo shoot simply because Trump has dismissed his worst advisor. Iran’s leaders—badly burned by Trump’s decision to exit the nuclear deal and impose punishing sanctions—will need to see a sign of a policy change, in the form of an easing of sanctions pressure.
Trump would not lack international interlocutors eager to encourage his negotiating instincts. The French proposal of a $15 billion credit line to partially offset Iran’s loss of oil exports may be sufficient for Iran to suspend its nuclear expansion and open the door for new negotiations. And, there will likely be many more nations—such as India and Japan—interested in exploring negotiations that could restore halted trade with Iran.
Where Trump would likely encounter fierce resistance is within his own administration and party. Iran hawks within the administration—including his own Secretary of State Mike Pompeo—are still well-positioned to frustrate a shift to serious negotiations. Unless Trump makes clear a desire for a deal, and fires those who stand in the way, any desires for a Trump-Iran deal or summit will likely be stymied.
While Trump could count on libertarian Republicans like Rand Paul and other pro-Trump legislators to support a pivot, those in Congress who share Bolton’s world view could pose a serious challenge. Senators Ted Cruz, Tom Cotton and Marco Rubio have already been pushing for the administration to revoke key sanctions waivers in the hopes that doing so would end Iran’s adherence to surviving nuclear deal restrictions, with Cruz stridently warning against Trump’s Iran policy falling victim to a fictitious Obama Deep State. If Trump eschews their pro-war advice, they could attempt to push through poison pills to handcuff the President. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who faces new elections in a matter of days, reportedly dreads the prospect of a Trump-Rouhani meeting and could easily take on the role of would-be spoiler again—if he is still in office. Finally, many of Trump’s own biggest donors poured substantial money into defeating Obama’s nuclear deal, and would likely be cool to Trump seeking a summit or grand bargain with Iran’s leaders—regardless of the content.
Yet, even if negotiations with Iran face long odds, they are preferable to the mad playbook for war or Iraq-style regime change that he has been following to date. Those serious about resolving our many national security challenges with Iran through diplomacy should recognize that there may not be a better opportunity for years. Rather than play political games and discourage a Trump pivot, they should encourage a shift from brinkmanship to deal-making.
Ryan Costello is policy director of the National Iranian American Council. Follow him on Twitter @RN_Costello.