Iran deal at risk due to John Bolton’s extremism

Financial Times | : The failure this week of France, Germany and the UK to convince the EU to slap new sanctions on Iran for its behaviour in Syria and the Middle East is relative.

The main purpose of the exercise was to persuade President Donald Trump not to withdraw the US in May from the nuclear restraint deal these four powers plus Russia and China sealed in 2015. Emmanuel Macron, the French president, and Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, both due to meet Mr Trump in Washington this month, may come to conclude the US president is not really biddable on this anyway.

It has never been clear whether Mr Trump really wants or expects a rewrite of this historic international accord, which he has derided as “the worst deal ever”. It would also appear that he cannot abide the formula — set by Congress — that requires him at regular intervals to re-endorse the deal and lose face with his base.

While anti-Iran lobbyists keep repeating the trite geopolitical jingle about the shortcomings they see in the Iran deal — “fix it or nix it” — their desire is actually to destroy it. Their success would be a serious threat to international security. The agreement, the unexcitingly named Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, is not perfect. Diplomacy is about compromise, especially when it works. The accord mothballs most of Tehran’s nuclear programme, verified by outside monitors, but only into the medium term. These “sunset clauses” are, alone, enough for the anti-deal camp to rip it up.

The active focus of their animus, however, is Iran’s ballistic missiles programme, and the way Tehran has used Arab proxies to build Iranian paramilitary power in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. It was the US that kept these contentious items out of the nuclear negotiations, for fear Iran’s wily negotiators would use them as pawns. It is just about conceivable the EU trio might be able to negotiate some restraint on missiles and regional mayhem with Iran, with eventual backing from Russia and China, too. That is wholly unlikely if the US pulls out of the agreement.

The other signatories will not follow. But Washington’s ability to cut Iran off from the US banking system, which is already denying Tehran much of the relief from economic sanctions it was promised, will probably kill the deal anyway. Hardliners in Iran, who always saw the accord as a slippery slope to regime change, will then push to withdraw — and restart the nuclear programme.

Now, into this already dangerous volatility steps John Bolton, Mr Trump’s new national security adviser. The president has nominated former CIA director Mike Pompeo, another ultra-hawk on Iran, to be secretary of state alongside Mr Bolton. But it is important in the present context to recall Mr Bolton’s record of reckless extremism. This national security adviser does not believe in arms control treaties.

Astonishing though it still seems, he was undersecretary of state for arms control and international security in the first George W Bush administration in 2001-05. In that guise, Mr Bolton helped rip up the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, a landmark in arms control negotiated in 1972 with the then Soviet Union by Richard Nixon. He helped persuade Mr Bush to cancel the so-called Agreed Framework, worked out by Bill Clinton’s administration with North Korea in 1994.

That framework had renewed North Korea’s commitment to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty — another cornerstone of arms control Mr Bolton holds in contempt. It sealed North Korean nuclear facilities and placed inspectors on the ground, in exchange for fuel supplies, two light water reactors and a US pledge not to invade. Pyongyang cheated on uranium enrichment (which Iran would later be allowed within tight limits under its agreement).

Washington’s repudiation of the whole deal was histrionically muscular, Mr Bolton’s stock-in-trade. But it led North Korea to restart its nuclear weapons programme — with results that are now plain.

Mr Bolton was also a risibly optimistic advocate of the Iraq invasion, which not only incubated the Sunni jihadis of Isis but an Iran-aligned, Iraqi Shia paramilitary equivalent to Lebanon’s Hizbollah, except three times bigger. Not deterred by these smashing successes, Mr Trump’s national security adviser continues to push for regime change in Iran (as well as North Korea).

As the International Crisis Group argues in a new analysis of Iran’s regional motivations, “the negotiations that led to the nuclear deal . . . succeeded not only because sanctions had inflicted acute pressure on Iran’s economy, but also because the US took regime change off the table”.

In March, a coalition of 100 US security experts, diplomats and politicians — representing generations of foreign policy expertise — published 10 reasons why keeping the Iran deal prevents an Iranian nuclear weapon, enhances US security and stature and decreases tension in the Middle East. Among its signatories were former senators Richard Lugar and Sam Nunn, whose non-proliferation initiative, known as co-operative threat reduction and passed by Congress in 1992, secured vast quantities of “loose nukes” in the former Soviet Union. Theirs was an unassailable and bipartisan achievement also disdained by Mr Bolton and the Bush administration, a reminder of another era and saner ways of dealing with the world.