The Trump administration’s plans for killing the Iran nuclear deal were never a secret. For one thing, a version has been on the internet, publicly available for all to read, for nearly a year.
In August 2017, John Bolton, who has since become President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, laid out a roadmap for a United States withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and the re-imposition of sanctions on the Iranian regime and economy. He wrote it at a time when he was temporarily blocked from seeing Trump—during the newer, stricter regime instituted by chief of staff John Kelly—and when he, Bolton, had to get a bit more creative about getting messages to his future boss.
That period of sequester didn’t last long. Even before he became a physical presence at the White House, Bolton had been urging Trump over the phone to pull out of the JCPOA. He advised Trump for months in an unofficial capacity while his predecessor, H.R. McMaster, had been advocating for a diametrically opposite approach.
It wouldn’t be fair to say Bolton played the role of anti-Iran puppet master, since Trump himself had grown increasingly irritated by the prospect that he was not only living with, but routinely renewing, former President Barack Obama’s signature foreign policy achievement. But he did act as a counterweight to other voices in the administration—chiefly Defense Secretary James Mattis, who has been far more skeptical of ditching the Iran deal. And by reinforcing the president’s inclinations, he helped pave the way for the public announcement at the White House on Tuesday afternoon that the deal was officially dead.
The announcement constituted the most daring international gambit of the Trump presidency to date—a policy decision that rebalances economic relations, diplomatic arrangements, and nuclear negotiations across the globe.
It also underscored the ascendance of a new wave of advisers who are echoing and enhancing the president’s characteristic instincts: bellicosity toward American adversaries, closeness with Israel and its political leadership, and antipathy toward anything associated with Trump’s predecessor. Alongside Bolton are newly confirmed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who is also a vehement Iran deal critic, and Trump’s new chief economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, who was a vocal critic of the deal when he eyed a Senate run in 2015.
Unlike their predecessors in the administration, this trio is far more ideologically aligned with the president. In some cases, they see him as an avatar for their long-held beliefs.
That’s certainly true vis-a-vis Iran. Numerous sources across the administration had said privately for weeks that at the senior level, including in the West Wing and the Treasury Department, officials were preparing for Trump to kill the Iran deal after he repeatedly said his last approval of the deal would in fact be the “last time” he would do so as president.
In private conversations over the past several months, Trump has shown little sign—“zero indication, zilch,” in the words of one longtime Trump associate—that he had any desire to remain in the nuclear agreement. Trump would complain often about how “pathetic,” “horrible,” and “lousy” he viewed the deal, multiple sources close to the president told The Daily Beast.
“It was an illusion to think that he wouldn’t do this,” one senior White House official said. “People who said he wasn’t going to do what he kept saying he was going to do weren’t following.”
But it is one, notably easier, task to end a nuclear deal. It’s quite another to put a separate one back together. And now the job falls to Trump’s new coterie of senior diplomatic and national security officials to renegotiate a deal with Iran and other parties to JCPOA, in conjunction with parallel negotiations over a separate deal with North Korea. If such a deal with the former can’t be reached, it’s not entirely clear how the Trump administration would proceed.
Bolton, just one month into the job, described an Iran deal withdrawal as a culmination of months of consultation and preparation. “We’ve been in extensive consultation with [European allies] over the past several months,” he told reporters shortly after the president’s announcement. “Since I’ve been here I’ve spent more time in consultation with them than almost anything else I’ve done.”
But those allies appeared to be awaiting some crucial details on where U.S. policy toward Iran goes from here. “Deeply regret US decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal,” wrote U.K. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson on Twitter. “Await more detail on US plan.”
It’s more than a diplomatic question for countries that, under post-2015 sanctions relief, began establishing firm economic ties to the Islamic republic. European Union nations do considerably more business in Iran than does the U.S. Once all U.S. sanctions are re-imposed—within six months at most—American companies will be barred from exporting most goods to the country. But U.S. sanctions could also target foreign companies that do so, unless wide swaths of exemptions are granted for firms in countries that remain party to the deal.
The re-imposition of sanctions against Iran is likely to put tremendous pressure on the federal agency tasked with enforcing those measures. But the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) has been under-staffed and starving for cash for several years, and officials there are already focusing their efforts on imposing and enforcing sanctions against North Korea, Russia, Venezuela, and other nations. Congressional sources who work with the administration predicted on Tuesday that it would take months for the 200-employee agency to fulfill the White House’s requests—even with a cash infusion on the way.
On top of that, even major U.S. companies affected by withdrawal from the deal seemed unsure on how they would proceed. Boeing, which is at risk of losing out on a multibillion-dollar commercial aircraft deal, said in a statement that it would “consult with the U.S. Government on next steps.”
At least one Republican senator, Jeff Flake of Arizona, echoed the feeling of uncertainty. A frequent Trump critic who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Flake suggested that the president went against the advice of his own military leaders and diplomats, in addition to that of key U.S. allies with whom the Trump administration will have to work together on other diplomatic efforts including North Korea.
Other GOP lawmakers, including Sens. Bob Corker (R-TN) and Susan Collins (R-ME), were hoping that the U.S. and its European partners could work out a framework that would tweak the deal to the Trump administration’s liking. Those efforts stalled out recently, multiple lawmakers and aides briefed on the negotiations told The Daily Beast, even after French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel traveled to Washington to appeal directly to Trump.
And with the May 12 deadline approaching, the White House wasn’t willing to wait any longer.