US Iran policy after Bolton

Sep 13, 2019 | AIJAC staff

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Update from AIJAC


Update 09/19 #02

This Update is devoted to analysis of the US Middle East policy in the wake of the firing of US National Security Advisor John Bolton by President Donald Trump on Wednesday – with a special focus on the future on the US policy of “maximum pressure” on Iran to renegotiate the controversial 2015 JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) nuclear deal.

We lead with American columnist Jonathan Tobin, who asks does the departure of Bolton, known for being hawkish on Iran, look likely to lead to a significant shift in US policy toward Iran? With much talk about a possible meeting in the near future between Trump and Iranian President Rouhani, and possible sanctions concessions as an incentive to the Iranians, Tobin sees a possible strengthening of the more isolationist streak in the Administration with Bolton gone. While a summit would not necessarily be disastrous, Tobin argues, a bad outcome is now more likely both on Iran and Afghanistan. For his complete analysis,  CLICK HERE.

Next up is an analysis of whether Bolton’s departure will affect US-Israel relations, written by JTA journalist Ron Kampeas, quoting some key experts. He notes that the key source of disagreement between Trump and Bolton appears to have been Afghanistan – but Iran policy also appears to have played a role. Kampeas also interviews foreign policy expert Danielle Pletka saying core American policy on Israel is unlikely to change, but Kapeas also suggests policy on Iran, which matters greatly to Jerusalem, still might. For all the details, CLICK HERE.

Finally, we offer a good analysis of the current state of play concerning Iran and the JCPOA nuclear deal – written before Bolton’s departure – by Olli Heinonen, former deputy director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and his thinktank colleague Tzvi Kahn. They look at Iran’s most recent announcements about increasing research on advanced centrifuges in violation of the JCPOA, in terms of a larger program of blackmail to gain billions of dollars to return to adherence to the deal. In addition to arguing that giving into this blackmail would make productive negotiations unlikely, Heinonen and Kahn also review some new evidence from Israeli intelligence and the latest IAEA report suggesting that Iran was already violating the JCPOA before the US pullout from it. For their insights and arguments in full,  CLICK HERE.

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With Bolton gone, will Trump make a deal with Iran?

As national security adviser, John Bolton acted as a break on US President Donald Trump’s neo-isolationism. With Bolton’s departure, the future of US diplomacy with North Korea, the Taliban and even Tehran now hangs in the balance.

 by  Jonathan S. Tobin

 JNS.org, Published on  2019-09-11

Perhaps it was as much about personalities as policy. The notoriously brusque and hard-driving John Bolton was always an awkward fit as national security adviser for a president like Donald Trump, who prefers subordinates to be sycophants. The relationship between two men with, to put it mildly, very strong personalities was probably always fated to be of relatively short duration. But there’s no avoiding the conclusion that the events that precipitated Trump’s demand for Bolton’s resignation was driven by their profound disagreements about how the United States should deal with rogue nations like Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela, as well as the question of whether or not to sit down for talks with the Taliban.

So while those predicting a sudden shift in American foreign policy are probably wrong, there’s also no question that without the stubborn Bolton acting as a break on the president’s neo-isolationist “America First” instincts, the chances that Trump will continue to push for dramatic diplomatic breakthroughs that are likely illusory on those fronts will certainly increase.

The last straw for Trump was almost certainly the result of the fallout from the announcement that his proposed Camp David summit this weekend with leaders of the Taliban was canceled. Trump, with the reported support of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, was eager for some kind of an agreement about winding down US participation in the war in Afghanistan. Bolton opposed the proposed deal with the Taliban and was rightly against the idea of hosting terrorists with American blood on their hands at Camp David to seal the agreement, especially just days after the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. Having the Taliban at the presidential retreat was a terrible idea, though the dramatic nature of the gesture apparently appealed to Trump.

The effort collapsed when Trump was finally persuaded that the Taliban wouldn’t cease involvement in terrorism and couldn’t be trusted to keep the peace in the wake of a US withdrawal. The president deserved credit for having the guts to walk away from a bad deal, despite badly wanting to conclude a pact that would have allowed him to keep his promise to withdraw American troops from the country’s longest war.

Yet reportedly, Trump couldn’t stand Bolton taking credit for a decision that came with no gains and so finally got rid of him.

Bolton was a foreign policy hawk who had little faith in efforts to appease regimes like that of North Korean, Venezuela and Iran. His willingness to advocate for threatening the use of US force against Iran and other foes always put him at odds with a president who was elected by pledging to end American participation in Middle East wars, similar to the one Bolton advocated for during his time serving in the George W. Bush administration.

His departure will cause isolationists like Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) and Fox News Channel host Tucker Carlson to celebrate. Carlson, in particular, has sought to push Trump to reject the advice of people like Bolton and Pompeo, both of whom have been strong advocates of a policy that puts maximum pressure on Tehran to renegotiate a bad nuclear deal, cease their support for terrorism and end to their quest for regional hegemony.

So the question now must be whether Bolton’s departure leads to a significant shift in US foreign policy, particularly toward Iran.

The reason why it has been so hard to predict Trump’s intentions on this issue is that he has always been torn between his disdain for Obama’s dangerous nuclear pact and his instinctive abhorrence for American involvement in overseas conflicts. The basic contradiction between these two impulses only seemed to be resolved in the last 18 months, once he put a foreign policy team in place – in the form of Bolton and Pompeo, who agreed on getting tough with Iran and in solidifying the alliance with Israel. The US withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal and the reimposition of devastating sanctions that have brought Iran’s economy to its knees soon followed.

Still, having achieved so much, despite the opposition of the Democrats at home and America’s feckless European allies abroad, Trump is now interested in talking with the Iranians.

That appalled Bolton, as it did Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Both of them believe that negotiations with Islamist dictators will never achieve a thing, and both fear that talks with Iran will inevitably lead to appeasement.

Yet Trump has faith in his negotiating skills and, as has been the case with his futile efforts at forging a relationship with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, thinks a meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani later this month at the United Nations might start a negotiation that leads to a new and better nuclear deal.

In theory, such a meeting doesn’t undermine the “maximum pressure” policy that Pompeo and Bolton have been implementing. Indeed, an Iranian realization that they must talk with the United States and make concessions was the goal of that policy, not a war that no one wants.

No harm will come from a meeting as long as the president and his team stand their ground on the nuclear and terrorism issues. Most importantly, they must not pay for a photo opportunity by lifting the sanctions that are backing the Iranians into a corner.

But with Bolton gone and the possibility that Pompeo will leave the State Department sometime in the next several months to run for a Senate seat in Kansas, there is a real chance that Trump will make some choices that will be disastrous, even though they may be perceived as good politics. He might choose to cut and run in Afghanistan – leaving its people to the tender mercies of the Taliban, who could once again allow the country to become a haven for terrorists – and agree to his own weak deal with Iran just to have a foreign policy “success” that could aid his re-election campaign.

Though he might not have enjoyed working with Bolton, Trump benefited from his hard-boiled and realistic view of bad international actors. If the president chooses to listen instead to the voices urging him to undermine America’s long-term security interests by abandoning its overseas responsibilities, then we may look back at this as the moment when Trump started to repeat some of Obama’s mistakes in the Middle East.

What does John Bolton’s departure mean for Israel?


JTA, Sept. 10, 2019

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Benjamin Netanyahu had quite a Tuesday.

One week before Israelis go to the polls in their country’s second election this year, the Israeli prime minister went on live television with a promise that if re-elected, he is prepared to annex sensitive areas of the West Bank in “maximum coordination” with President Donald Trump. Netanyahu cited the U.S. leader’s “great faith in our friendship.”

Netanyahu’s pre-election announcement of plans to annex the Jordan Valley in “maximum coordination” with the Trump Administration came just before the Bolton bombshell.

Literally minutes later, Trump dropped a bombshell on Twitter with his announcement that he had requested the resignation of one of Israel’s closest allies in the White House and a leading proponent within the administration of a hard line against Iran: National Security Adviser John Bolton.

Worse, Trump said he was dumping Bolton because the two had “strong disagreements” on policy. Worse still, Trump’s secretary of state confirmed that the president was ready to meet with the president of Iran without preconditions.

The most immediate source of disagreement between Bolton and Trump appeared to be Afghanistan. Bolton reportedly was trying to hold back Trump from leaping into a peace agreement with the Taliban, and his pressure was said to be behind the scrapping of a meeting this week at Camp David to announce the deal.

But there were other tensions closer to Israel’s interests. Bolton has spearheaded American efforts to isolate Iran and pressed for a military response to the downing by Iran of an American drone over the summer — a strike that Trump approved and then abruptly called off.

Then last month, Netanyahu reportedly scrambled to intervene after reports emerged of a possible meeting between Trump and Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister, who made a surprise appearance at the G7 meeting in France.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, speaking Tuesday afternoon at a hastily convened news conference to tamp down speculation about Bolton’s firing, said Trump was open to meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on the sidelines of the upcoming U.N. General Assembly.

“Sure, the president’s made very clear, he’s prepared to meet with no preconditions,” Pompeo said.

The Iranians, meanwhile, were cheering Bolton’s departure, with Hesameddin Ashena, an adviser to Rouhani, tweeting that it was a “decisive sign of the failure of the U.S. maximum pressure strategy” toward Iran.

Israelis fear a Trump-Rouhani meeting would play out much like the summits between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in which the president trumpets his closeness with the autocratic leader even as North Korea’s arms testing continues.

Just hours before his departure, Bolton posted on Twitter: “Now that we’re two weeks from the U.N. General Assembly you can be sure Iran is working overtime on deception.”

American foreign policy expert Danielle Pletka suggests major changes on Israel policy are unlikely in the wake of Bolton’s departure.

Danielle Pletka, a vice president at the American Enterprise Institute, where Bolton also worked in the years he was not in government, cautioned against perceiving Bolton’s departure as a signal of a radical change in Israel policy. Others in the administration, including Pompeo and Jared Kushner, a senior adviser to the president and Trump’s son-in-law, are as pro-Israel as Bolton, Pletka said.

“I don’t think John Bolton is the author of Israel policy,” Pletka said.

Pompeo made a similar point at his news conference, saying that not too much should be read into Bolton’s departure.

“I don’t think any [world] leader should make the assumption that just because any one of us departs that [Trump’s] foreign policy is any different,” Pompeo said.

But a broader concern for Israel could be the reinforcement of Trump’s isolationist tendencies. Bolton was often seen as agitating for a more robust American military posture, a tendency Trump has resisted.

For decades, Israeli leaders have seen U.S. policy through two filters: the specifics of the bilateral alliance, including financial and other assistance to Israel, and the global projection of American power, which devolves on to Israel as one of its closest allies.

On the former, Trump is seen as an overall improvement over his predecessors, taking steps like moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, recognizing Israel’s claim to the Golan Heights and encouraging Sunni Arab states to ally with Israel even absent progress toward a peace agreement with the Palestinians.

On the second, the Bolton firing raises concerns.

“There are people in the president’s inner circle who disagree with American global leadership,” Pletka said. “There are people inside the White House who think defense spending and foreign aid are money wasted and we should deal with things at home.”

Compounding concerns was the bitter tone of Bolton’s departure.

On Twitter, Bolton contradicted Trump and insisted he had quit. Pompeo and Steve Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, both took shots at Bolton, with Mnuchin citing Bolton’s backing for the 2003 Iraq War as one of the reasons for his firing — as if that was not evident when Bolton became national security adviser in 2018.

Bolton’s proxies fired back. CNBC quoted a “source close to Bolton” as saying, “Since Ambassador Bolton has been national security adviser over the last 17 months, there have been no bad deals.”

Notably, Bolton got a fond farewell from the Republican Jewish Coalition, a group that has otherwise enthusiastically embraced the Trump presidency in the last year.

“Thank you for your longstanding friendship, moral clarity and passionate defense of America and our allies, especially Israel,” RJC Executive Director Matt Brooks said on Twitter.

Democrats were ready to pounce on an administration that has seen significant turnover in its upper ranks. Bolton was Trump’s third national security adviser in less than three years.

“This national security — and cabinet — turnover is unprecedented and a clear sign of Trump’s failed leadership, domestically and in the world,” Halie Soifer, the executive director of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, said on Twitter. “It also indicates the incoherence and danger of Trump’s erratic foreign policy.”

Iran is once again trying to blackmail the world for billions – we can’t give in

Olli Heinonen and Tzvi Kahn

Fox News, September 6, 2019

Iran is now speeding up research on advanced centrifuges like the IR6, which would greatly accelerate uranium enrichment, in violation of the JCPOA nuclear deal. 

Iran is once again trying to blackmail the world for billions of dollars, after announcing that it is beginning work to develop centrifuges to accelerate uranium enrichment – a step needed to start producing nuclear weapons.

The world must not give in to Iran.

In a letter to the European Union, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif announced that as of Friday his nation is no longer adhering to restrictions in the 2015 nuclear deal on its atomic research and development.

While the Islamic Republic claims it is only interested in developing nuclear power for peaceful purposes, its behavior points to its desire to keep its options open to develop atomic bombs. Those bombs would pose a threat to Israel, other U.S. allies in the Middle East, and eventually Europe and the U.S. itself.

Iran’s deputy foreign minister, Abbas Araghchi, stated that Tehran would further breach the nuclear deal if Europe fails to provide Iran with a $15 billion line of credit aimed at offsetting the impact of crippling U.S. economic sanctions.

The United States and Europe would be making a mistake of historic proportions if they surrender to this latest Iranian threat. Instead, they should stand firm and make clear that Iran will receive sanctions relief only if and when it negotiates a comprehensive new nuclear deal that meets the 12 conditions stipulated by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in a May 2018 address.

Washington should make clear that these sanctions will remain in place until Iran concludes a new agreement ensuring, in a verifiable manner, that it has abandoned its pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Premature concessions would merely incentivize Iran to engage in further nuclear blackmail, thereby undermining the International Atomic Energy Agency’s ability to verify the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program. The agency is the United Nations body tasked with monitoring and verifying Iran’s key nuclear-related commitments.

Iran’s latest efforts to intimidate the world come in the wake of multiple Iranian violations of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal.

According to a report issued last month by the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran has exceeded the nuclear deal’s limits on uranium stockpiles, uranium enrichment, and installations of advanced centrifuges known as the IR-6.

“Evaluations regarding the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities for Iran remained ongoing,” the report added, effectively acknowledging that the International Atomic Energy Agency has yet to confirm the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program.

At the same time, Iran has reportedly refused to answer the International Atomic Energy Agency’s questions about radioactive material at a covert nuclear warehouse in Tehran exposed by Israel last year.

Iran’s failure to declare this material may constitute a violation of a separate set of accords in addition to the nuclear deal, known as the Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement and that agreement’s additional protocol.

These agreements, which Iran signed in 1973 and 2003 respectively, obligate Iran to provide the International Atomic Energy Agency with information about all nuclear facilities, materials and activities in its territory.

In its August report, the International Atomic Energy Agency alluded to these possible breaches, stating that its interactions with Tehran regarding the Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement and the additional protocol “require full and active cooperation by Iran.”

In addition, Iran may have violated the three agreements it concluded by failing to declare nuclear sites, equipment and materials identified in the nation’s covert atomic archive, which Israel seized from a Tehran warehouse last year.

The archive discloses a range of sites, equipment and activity previously unknown to the International Atomic Energy Agency, thereby raising the possibility that illicit conduct continues today without the agency’s knowledge.

Iran’s threat to infringe the nuclear deal’s restrictions on centrifuge research and development marks a further escalation.

In theory, depending on the rate of Tehran’s research and development activity, Iran’s breakout time – that is, the amount of time needed to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for one nuclear weapon – could drop in half by this time next year.

According to an estimate by the Institute for Science and International Security, Iran’s breakout time as of August was 7.3 to 11.74 months, down from a range of 7.7 to 12.4 months just two months earlier, before its latest nuclear deal violations.

In the face of Iran’s defiance, France is negotiating with Tehran – in coordination with other parties to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – on a $15 billion letter of credit that would enable Iran to receive hard currency, thereby compensating it for the loss of oil sales resulting from U.S. sanctions.

Former IAEA deputy director-general Olli Heinonen: “Iran’s breakout time could drop in half by this time next year”


At the root of this proposal lies the apparent assumption that Washington’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal – and the consequent economic crisis Iran faces – has spurred an Iranian decision to achieve a nuclear breakout in retaliation. Thus, by mitigating Iran’s economic woes, the world could supposedly incentivize Iran to return to compliance with the nuclear deal.

The truth is more complicated. In reality, Iran’s incremental nuclear violations aim not to start a war, but to project resolve and to weaken U.S. deterrence.

Iran recognizes that so long as the U.S. is not a party to the nuclear deal, Tehran’s only path out of its economic predicament is to negotiate with the United States. But by extracting funds from the international community, Iran can help stabilize its economy as it waits out the clock until America’s 2020 election, hoping that President Trump loses to a candidate who seeks to reenter the nuclear deal.

Trump withdrew the U.S. from the nuclear agreement with Iran over a year ago, fulfilling a campaign promise.

“At the heart of the Iran deal was a giant fiction, that a murderous regime desired only a peaceful, nuclear energy program,” Trump said at the time. “Today, we have definitive proof that this Iranian promise was a lie.”

Should the world capitulate now to Tehran’s threats, it would make productive negotiations less likely. After all, Iran would have no incentive to compromise on its nuclear program if it faces no meaningful economic penalties for its misbehavior.

Ultimately, Iran will only negotiate a stronger nuclear deal if the costs of its nuclear misconduct far exceed the benefits.

The United States and Europe should, therefore, double down on economic sanctions against Iran. In the absence of such measures, Iran will likely continue its efforts to blackmail the international community, pocketing concessions without altering the malign behaviour that spurred the crisis in the first place.

Washington should make clear that these sanctions will remain in place until Iran concludes a new agreement ensuring, in a verifiable manner, that it has abandoned its pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Olli Heinonen is senior adviser on science and nonproliferation at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He is a former deputy director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency and head of its Department of Safeguards. Follow him on Twitter @OlliHeinonen. Tzvi Kahn is a senior Iran analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @TzviKahn.


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