The recent appointments of Mike Pompeo as Secretary of State and John Bolton as National Security Adviser signal that President Donald Trump is intent on fixing, or nixing, the nuclear deal with Iran.
Back in January, Trump said that he would no longer waive sanctions on Iran unless the deal was fixed. The three specific fixes demanded by the president were that the sunset clauses are ended and restrictions on Iran’s uranium enrichment are left in place, that Iran is prevented from ballistic missile development, and that the weak inspections regime is strengthened.
Pompeo and Bolton are well-placed to insist on these fixes given their past positions.
Pompeo, who had been Director of the Central Intelligence Agency for the first 14 months of the Trump administration has been a longtime critic of the deal, beginning when he was Congressman from Kansas. Bolton, who has served in various capacities in previous Republican administrations, including briefly as the United States Ambassador to the United Nations, has also been an outspoken critic of the deal.
Both Pompeo and Bolton have criticized side deals made between the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which is tasked with monitoring Iran’s compliance with the deal, and Iran. The two side deals governed Iran’s self-inspection of the Parchin military site, where Iran is suspected of testing detonators for nuclear weapons and whether it would be required to account fully for its past nuclear weapons research. Iran has continued to refuse inspectors access to Parchin or any other military site.
Iran was allowed to have its own personnel take samples from Parchin with no IAEA inspectors onsite (though they were monitoring remotely). The Obama administration later acknowledged that the IAEA was able to determine that there were particles of uranium found during the inspection of Parchin were likely tied to Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
Last year, former weapons inspectors David Albright, now the head of the Institute for Science and International Security, and Olli Heinonen, a former deputy-director of the IAEA, argued that the discovery of uranium at Parchin necessitated full access to Parchin by IAEA inspectors because “a comprehensive understanding of this work is critical to setting a baseline for effective monitoring to ensure early detection if Iran resumes work on nuclear weapons.” Without a full understanding of what Iran accomplished at Parchin, it is impossible to know if Iran is abiding by the terms of the 2015 nuclear deal.
Previously, Bolton observed that the reason Iran refused access to Parchin was because “warhead design and the like are far more likely at military sites like Parchin where the IAEA has never had adequate access.”
Both Pompeo and Bolton are very concerned with the information about Iran’s nuclear program that the deal has protected from scrutiny. It could mean that Iran is cheating on the deal but that the IAEA has no way of knowing.
Insisting that Iran allow IAEA inspectors into military sites would certainly strengthen the inspections regime.
Josh Rogin reported for The Washington Post earlier this week (and two days before Bolton’s appointment was announced) that talks between the U.S. and the United Kingdom, France and Germany have been making progress on the issues of strengthening inspections and restricting Iran’s ballistic missile development program. However, the “Europeans are less amenable to extending the length of the deal.”
So what happens if the U.S. and its European allies are unable to fix the deal in a way that satisfies Trump’s conditions and the president decides to withdraw the U.S. come May 12?
Bolton last year wrote a brief explaining the steps the U.S. needs to take if it is to withdraw from the deal. At the time Bolton had no access to the White House, but his appointment suggests that Trump is now amenable to his ideas.
The incoming National Security Adviser doesn’t recommend abruptly withdrawing from the deal. Rather, he suggested that the administration engage in diplomacy.
The U.S., he recommended, should consult with those allies most invested in the deal and its consequences, including the U.K., France, Germany, Israel and Saudi Arabia and explain which violations of the deal by Iran are prompting the U.S. withdrawal and “ask for their input.”
The next step would be for the administration to prepare a detailed case outlining how the deal is against U.S. national interests, highlight Iranian violations, of the deal, and how the deal has fueled Iranian aggression.
Following that, Bolton suggested a sustained diplomatic effort – especially in Europe and the Middle East – to emphasize the danger Iran presents. Finally, he recommended an effort at public diplomacy to build domestic and foreign support for leaving the deal.
Trump’s new appointments are well-placed not only to identify the dangers of the deal and advocate for the necessary fixes, but also to provide a way to exit the deal if necessary. It looks like these appointments show that President Trump is serious about fixing, or nixing, the nuclear deal.