The National Interest | Jacob Heilbrunn: In 2015, John Bolton laid out a clear plan to stop Iran from building a nuclear arsenal. He declared in the New York Times, “The inescapable conclusion is that Iran will not negotiate away its nuclear program. Nor will sanctions block its building a broad and deep weapons infrastructure. The inconvenient truth is that only military action like Israel’s 1981 attack on Saddam Hussein’s Osirak reactor in Iraq or its 2007 destruction of a Syrian reactor, designed and built by North Korea, can accomplish what is required. Time is terribly short, but a strike can still succeed.” The deal, in other words, was that there could be no deal.
Now Bolton has won. Regime change is in. Negotiations are out. In abrogating the nuclear agreement today at the White House, President Trump sided with Bolton, who stood nearby along with Vice President Mike Pence, another longtime foe of the accord. All that was missing from Trump’s remarks was a reference to an end to evil.
Perhaps the most important effect of Trump’s move is that he has now put his own stamp on the administration’s Middle East policy. He, and he alone, must now take responsibility for the course that America is charting in this turbulent, violent and hostile region. The political stakes could not be higher. Trump will now be measured by the success or failure of his approach to both Iran and North Korea. Coming weeks will show whether he really seeks a policy of rollback or containment.
Democrats immediately declared that Trump’s Iran move was, as Sen. Dick Durbin put it, a “mistake of historic proportions.” Sen. Mark Warner lamented that the Trump has created a “wedge between us and our allies.” Meanwhile, tensions with Europe are going to rise dramatically. Trump’s new ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, issued what amounted to a diktat on Twitter today: “As @realDonaldTrump said, US sanctions will target critical sectors of Iran’s economy. German companies doing business in Iran should wind down operations immediately.”
The Europeans will try to maintain the accord, but their chances of success are slender indeed. None of French president Emmanuel Macron’s air kisses were enough to help dissuade Trump from saying au revoir to the deal and British foreign minister Boris Johnson, who flitted aimlessly around Washington for the past few days seeking an audience with Trump, was reduced to tweeting today, “Deeply regret US decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal. UK remains strongly committed to the JCPoA, and will work with E3 partners and the other parties to the deal to maintain it. Await more detail on US plan.” He may be awaiting awhile.
Jacob Heilbrunn is editor of the National Interest.