Barack Obama holdovers are driving the State Department’s Iran policy.
For the second time during Donald Trump’s brief tenure as president, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the State Department won in the inter-administration battle over the fate of the nuclear deal with Iran, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). That victory, however, may end up being short lived given the trajectory of the administration’s overall developing policy toward the regime in Tehran and the process by which the reoccurring 90-day certification of Iran took place in April and again on July 17.
The whole ordeal cast a light on the shrinking esteem in which the president seems to hold Secretary Tillerson and the crew of Obama-era holdovers upon whose guidance he relies.
Washington was briefly abuzz on the afternoon of July 17 when rumors began to circulate that President Trump was eager to declare that Iran was in breach of the conditions laid out in the 2015 Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA).
Those receptive antennas were further heightened given the previous signals sent. After all, the State Department already released talking points to reporters on the decision to recertify Iran. The Treasury Department also had a package of fresh sanctions on over a dozen Iranian individuals and entities ready to announce to appease the hawks who were eager to cut loose from the deal.
But Trump didn’t want to recertify Iran, nor did he want to the last time around in April. That evening, a longtime Middle East analyst close to senior White House officials involved in the discussions described the scene to me: “Tillerson essentially told the president, ‘we just aren’t ready with our allies to decertify.’ The president retorted, ‘Isn’t it your job to get our allies ready?’ to which Tillerson said, ‘Sorry sir, we’re just not ready.’” According to this source, Secretary Tillerson pulled the same maneuver when it came to recertification in April by waiting until the last minute before finally admitting the State Department wasn’t ready. On both occasions he simply offered something to the effect of, “We’ll get ‘em next time.”
That for the second time, Team Tillerson forced the president to recertify Iran because they prepared no other options appears to have left a mark on Trump.
According to a recent report, the president assigned a White House team to focus on the Iran deal and sideline the State Department so that he has more options when the issue comes to the fore again in three months.
It’s not just Iran where the president sees a problem; the secretary has been actively tugging in the opposite direction when it comes to solving the Qatar crisis and on a host of issues related to Israel as well.
In many ways, the different view at the State Department should be expected, not just due to institutional issues where diplomats usually prefer finesse to force but because of personnel considerations as well.
Most pundits have pointed to the dwindling bench of the department’s roster. After all, many positions remain unfilled. When Tillerson chose Elliott Abrams to serve as deputy secretary, a well-known conservative who served under Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, Trump even intervened to quash the appointment. The problem, however, is more about the people already in the department, rather than those yet to be appointed or hired.
The author is a senior Middle East analyst at Wikistrat and former director of policy at the Jewish Policy Center in Washington. He can be followed on Twitter @RJBrodsky.