NIAC Congratulates Trump for Firing Bolton

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Tuesday, September 10, 2019
CONTACT: Mana Mostatabi | 202.386.6325 x103 | mmostatabi@niacouncil.org

Washington, DC – Just now, reports broke that President Donald Trump dismissed John Bolton from his role as National Security Advisor.

In response, NIAC President Jamal Abdi released the following statement:

“We congratulate President Donald Trump on what may become the best decision of his Presidency. This single move dramatically reduces the chances of a new, catastrophic war in the Middle East. We have long said that the key first step in resolving the crisis with Iran was for Trump to fire Bolton. So long as Bolton was in the administration, he would always be the fox in the henhouse working to sabotage diplomacy.

“John Bolton should have never been in the White House to begin with and nearly took this country into the disastrous war with Iran that he has long dreamed of. Bolton came into Trump’s administration with a long agenda on Iran to kill the nuclear deal, start a disastrous war, and empower radical undemocratic groups like the MEK. Now the work can finally begin to put out the fires that Bolton started.

“The timing of this move is fortuitous given recent French efforts to facilitate dialogue between the U.S. and Iran. Bolton was a major obstacle to any resumption of diplomacy and, now that he has been dismissed, the Trump Administration should take proactive steps to enable dialogue and a diplomatic resolution with Iran. As with Bolton’s time in office, the time has come to dispense with the ‘maximum pressure’ campaign and halt necessary sanctions to enable talks to move forward.

“If Trump prefers to be a dealmaker rather than a war-starter, his Administration and National Security Advisor must reflect this. We hope the White House will find someone to succeed Bolton who aims to resolve challenges through diplomacy rather than endless wars.”

NIAC Policy Brief

From the Hill: NIAC Asks if the U.S. and Iran are on a Collision Course

NIAC Policy Brief

The Trump administration’s sanctions on Iran risk “impoverishing the Iranian middle class, crushing the Iranian civil society and eliminating prospects for peaceful democratic change,” warned Sina Toossi. “It is really creating a destructive situation internally.”

Toossi was speaking at a briefing on Capitol Hill examining the Trump administration’s pressure campaign against Iran. Moderated by Laicie Heeley, the editor-in-chief of Inkstick, the panel included Ned Price, a former Special Assistant to President Obama for National Security Affairs who currently works at National Security Action; Sina Toossi, a research associate at NIAC; and Barbara Slavin, the Director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council.

Price highlighted that the Trump administration’s push was highly focused on pressuring Iran, but that it was likely to fall short of the efforts of the Obama administration which had secured the buy-in of the international community. Regarding Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s 12 demands of Iran, it was unclear to Price “how the administration could come close to any one of these objectives, let alone all twelve.” According to the Atlantic Council’s Barbara Slavin, Trump’s exit out of the JCPOA humiliated our allies in Europe, who helped negotiate the nuclear accord, engaged with the State Department’s Brian Hook to seek to improve it and were furious when Trump decided to snap back sanctions anyway.

Price argued that the administration’s frequent statements on Iran were designed not only to try to increase pressure on Iran but also to “engender additional domestic political support for the administration’s hardline approach to Iran” that is similar to the approach toward Iraq undertaken by the George W. Bush administration. Price also warned that there is an increasingly likelihood of a confrontation in Syria, where the administration has stationed troops and begun to shift goals from ISIL to forcing Iran out of the country. “The administration has gone to great lengths to say that regime change whether by proxies or by force is not the goal,” stated Price. “[B]ut I think that is belied by the fact that this administration has begun… to implement this maximalist position.”

Toossi gave further insights into the effects of Trump’s Iran policy on the political spectrum inside Iran. He called Trump’s narrative of Iran’s regime being on its last legs, “wishful thinking” given that there is not currently a broad revolutionary movement within the country. He emphasized how these policies not only harm forces pushing for greater openness and moderation, but also stiffen hardline opposition to the administration’s demands and deepen their opposition towards negotiating with the West all together.

Slavin further warned that the Trump administration’s Iran policy has highlighted the danger of “putting all our eggs in one basket in a region,” following the “brutal murder” of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of thugs in the Saudi Consulate in Turkey.

“It’s pretty devastating that it had to take the murder of a U.S. resident and Washington Post contributor to put a spotlight on the hypocrisy of the Trump administration’s policy towards the Middle East,” stated Price. He noted that Mike Pompeo’s article on the administration’s Iran policy in Foreign Affairs this week included a section entitled “Acting with Moral Clarity.” Yet, Price noted “this is the same Mike Pompeo that we saw yesterday smiling with Mohammed bin Salman” in Riyadh following Khashoggi’s murder. The hypocrisy combined with America’s isolation following the snapback of sanctions will “shine a very harsh light” on Trump’s approach to the Middle East, warned Price.

How Close is Close?

As negotiations reconvene here in Vienna, Iran and its six counterparts in the P5+1 are close to finalizing a comprehensive nuclear deal that would end over a decade of conflict. How close is close? Some P5+1 negotiators say the deal is 95 percent done – but the remaining five percent is the most difficult details. For both sides, the costs of failure are likely catastrophic. Precisely because the stakes have never been higher, it is important to nail down the sticking points and major obstacles that must be overcome. Six issues in particular are worth keeping an eye on.

Enrichment Capacity. Iran wants to maintain its 10,000 operational centrifuges and freeze centrifuge expansion for the duration of a deal. The P5+1 insists on cutting that number significantly – between 2,000 and 4,000. The sticking point is domestic politics, not science. Iran is insisting upon immediate-term enrichment levels that surpass its current needs. The P5+1 is pushing for immediate limitations that prevent Iran from enrichment levels that it does not have the technical capability to achieve. Unless both sides make the political decision to absorb and sell compromise – 5,000 to 6,000 centrifuges – the last best chance to resolve this conflict will be lost.

Sanctions Relief. The P5+1 wants to waive some sanctions and unblock frozen Iranian assets up front, while keeping banking, energy and UN sanctions in place until the deal expires. Iran insists on lifting banking and UN sanctions up front, while accepting waivers on energy sanctions for at least a few years. Iran gave more than it received in the interim nuclear deal, and is looking to collect on that investment. The P5+1 believes it must enforce oil and banking sanctions to ensure Iranian compliance. Neither position is politically feasible. A workable compromise in the first phase of a deal would continue to waive sanctions and unblock frozen Iranian assets, as well as lift bans on the SWIFT financial messaging system and Iranian banks blacklisted by the UN. To truly ensure reciprocity, the P5+1 should go a step further and begin dismantling UN sanctions. Without compromise, negotiations will fail.

Duration of the Deal. The P5+1 originally pushed for a deal lasting 20 to 25 years. Iran refused to accept anything longer than three to five years. Both sides were pursuing purely political objectives that are untenable. Two decades of treating Iranian differently than other Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) signatories fuels rather than allays Iranian suspicions of Western intentions. But decades of mistrust cannot be undone while President Obama is still in office. Negotiations will fail unless the two sides split the difference. Today, they are closer to a politically digestible compromise – in the single digits, six to eight years – with deep, up front reciprocal concessions across the board to help sell the deal and incentivize compliance throughout its duration.

PMD Allegations. Iran’s cooperation with the IAEA regarding its past nuclear activities – particularly possible military dimensions (PMD) – remains a point of contention, but not an insurmountable one. This issue is a direct function of its negotiations with the P5+1. Assertions to the contrary are less than honest. No amount of scrubbing sites or shifting soil can remove criminalizing traces of radiation, so the question is not if Iran answers PMD questions, but rather how. The process of doing so will be outlined in any comprehensive nuclear deal, not before a deal is signed. IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano acknowledged this in remarks to the Brookings Institution on November 5.

Hostile Legislators. As gaps between the two sides narrow, they both must contend with spoilers at home. In Washington, Congress is poised to pass new sanctions legislation in an effort to torpedo a deal. Obama will veto it, but with Republicans holding a majority in the House and Senate come January, Congress may override his veto. In Iran, a systemic decision has been made to resolve the nuclear issue – within reason. If Congress passes new sanctions, Iranians hardliners will respond in kind by reversing critical concessions made in the interim nuclear deal that moved Iran further away from nuclear weapons. Escalation benefits nobody at the negotiating table.

French Intransigence. Despite repeated proclamations of unity, France remains more hawkish than its P5+1 counterparts. Secretary of State John Kerry met with his counterpart Laurent Fabius in Paris on November 5 in an effort to get assurances that France would not try to undermine the P5+1 position like it did during negotiations in Geneva one year ago. According to some P5+1 diplomats, Kerry left Paris empty-handed. The French position matters: It holds a veto at the UN and EU, thereby making it critical to any future plan for sanctions relief that must be negotiated with Iran this week. It is unlikely France can stop a deal with Iran that other P5+1 members are satisfied with – but we will find out for sure in seven days.

An extension is a possibility, should the two sides not be able to close the gaps, but it carries its own risks. Hardliners in Congress and within Iran will have more time to throw up obstacles and wreak political havoc on the forces in both the US and Iranian administrations seeking to finalize a deal. While the gaps are few, they are significant, but the mood here in Vienna is determined.

This article was originally published in IranWire.