Trump discussed easing Iran sanctions, prompting Bolton pushback
By JENNIFER JACOBS, SALEHA MOHSIN AND JENNY LEONARD | Bloomberg | Published: September 11, 2019
President Donald Trump discussed easing sanctions on Iran to help secure a meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani later this month, prompting then-National Security Advisor John Bolton to argue forcefully against such a step, according to three people familiar with the matter.
After an Oval Office meeting on Monday when the idea came up, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin voiced his support for the move as a way to restart negotiations with Iran, some of the people said. Later in the day, Trump decided to oust Bolton, whose departure was announced Tuesday.
The White House has started preparations for Trump to meet with Rouhani this month in New York on the sidelines of the annual United Nations General Assembly the week of Sept. 23, according to the people. It’s far from clear whether the Iranians would agree to talks while tough American sanctions remain in place.
One scenario, shared by two of the people, would be that Trump joins a meeting between Rouhani and French President Emmanuel Macron. The people said they had no indication it would actually happen.
Brent oil prices fell more than 2% to $61.05 per barrel on the news.
While Trump has made no secret of his willingness to sit down with Iranian leaders — a move that would break more than four decades of U.S. policy — there are considerable political hurdles Trump would have to navigate if he wants it to happen. Nevertheless, Bolton’s ouster on Tuesday improves the odds of a meeting.
Bolton built his career on a hard-line approach toward Iran, long calling for preemptive strikes on the country to destroy its nuclear program. His sudden dismissal immediately fueled speculation — and worry in some quarters — that the U.S. “maximum pressure” campaign might ease in a bid to lure Iranian leaders to the negotiating table.
Easing any sanctions without major concessions from Iran would undercut the pressure campaign that not only Bolton, but also Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and Trump have said is the only effective way to make Iran change its behavior.
America’s European allies, frustrated by Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear accord and stymied by U.S. sanctions in their bid to trade with Iran, have been desperate to find a way to broker a deal between Washington and Tehran. Macron even invited Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, to talks on the sidelines of the Group of Seven summit in France last month and won verbal support from Trump for a sanctions reprieve. Then nothing happened.
“Bolton made sure to block any and all avenues for diplomacy w/ Iran, including a plan being brokered by Macron,” Suzanne DiMaggio, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said on Twitter. “The French are offering Trump a facing-saving way out of a mess of his creation. He should grab it.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, on the other hand, may have lost one of its staunchest allies with Bolton’s departure. Israeli officials, worried about legitimizing Iranian leaders, are concerned that the chances for such a meeting are increasing. Their chief fear is that U.S. sanctions could be scaled back and pressure on the regime eased, an Israeli official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
But Iranian leaders, at least publicly, have spurned the suggestion of a Trump-Rouhani encounter, which would be opposed strongly by more conservative factions in Iran, especially if there’s no easing of sanctions essentially blocking Iranian oil sales. Mnuchin on Tuesday indicated sanctions will remain, saying, “We are maintaining the maximum-pressure campaign.”
Pompeo, who last year set out 12 demands that he said Iran must fulfill in order to become a “normal country,” still could try to prevent Trump from softening his stance. However, Pompeo recently has taken a more moderate tone in lockstep with the president, saying in a briefing Tuesday that Trump is prepared to talk without preconditions.
One thing all sides agree on is that tensions have soared in recent months, with a spate of attacks on oil tankers in and around the Persian Gulf that have been blamed on Iran. The Islamic Republic shot down an American drone it said was over its territorial waters, prompting Trump to consider military strikes that he said he called off at the last minute.
Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that at the very least, Bolton’s exit reduces the chances of a military escalation.
“It’s too hard to say if a meeting will happen given the question of whether it’s politically palatable for both leaders,” said Kupchan. “But the likelihood of a meeting has gone up because one of its main detractors is now out of a job.”
In recent weeks, top Iranian officials have sought to stamp out talk of a direct meeting between the leaders, with Zarif calling it “unimaginable” and Rouhani saying he’s not interested in a photo-op with the American president. That’s a subtle reference to America’s outreach with North Korea, which, despite three meetings between Trump and Kim Jong Un, hasn’t resulted in any breakthrough.
For Rouhani, sitting down with Trump would be an immense political gamble, with his nation’s economy weighed down by crippling American sanctions and no guarantee of an agreement that would allow Tehran again to sell oil legally. Mindful of the political risk of talks with the U.S., Iranians have long favored quiet discussions instead. The 2015 nuclear deal was preceded by years of back-channel diplomacy among lower-level officials in Oman.
Nevertheless, Rouhani adviser Hesameddin Ashena tweeted on Tuesday that Bolton’s departure is a “decisive sign of the failure of the U.S. maximum pressure strategy in the face of the constructive resistance from Iran.”
Trump, with his 2020 re-election campaign already underway, also would have to step out of his political comfort zone. Isolating and weakening the Islamic Republic is one foreign policy issue Republican lawmakers and conservative national security experts broadly agree upon. It’s also a rallying cry for conservative Jewish supporters of Israel and key Trump backers, such as casino magnate Sheldon Adelson.
Regardless of whether a direct meeting takes place, diplomatic efforts to address Iran-U.S. tensions will be at the forefront of the UN gathering. Impromptu chats and sideline diplomacy are a hallmark of the annual gathering.
In 2015, a backstage handshake between President Barack Obama and Zarif generated headlines across the Middle East — and accusations by Iranian hard-liners that Zarif was “unrevolutionary.” At this year’s assembly, Macron and Japan’s Shinzo Abe plan to meet Rouhani as they try to break the impasse.
Bolton’s departure also leaves Pompeo, who had clashed with Bolton over several issues, in the unchallenged role as Trump’s closest aide on foreign policy. While Bolton often made his differences with the president clear, Pompeo has spent more than two and a half years in Trump’s orbit without letting much daylight come between himself and the president.
Asked on Tuesday whether he could foresee a meeting between Trump and Rouhani during the UN meeting, Pompeo responded, “Sure,” adding, “The president’s made very clear, he is prepared to meet with no preconditions.”
Bloomberg’s Ivan Levingston, Jordan Fabian, Nick Wadhams and David Wainer contributed.