When John Bolton arrived at the White House, President Donald Trump welcomed him with a playful but direct message: “I’m not going to let you start a war with Iran.”
That was related by one former diplomat, who took heart in the commander-in-chief trimming his new national security adviser’s hawkish instincts from day one.
A senior White House official recalled the exchange a little differently, saying it was more along the lines of “I know in your last job, you wanted to start a couple wars. I’m not going to let you do that.”
Memory is plastic and Bolton’s press shop would neither confirm nor deny the accuracy of either quote. But multiple officials described a White House that isn’t seeking an armed confrontation with Iran, but rather to invert Teddy Roosevelt’s advice to “speak softly and carry a big stick.” Now, it’s “shout loudly, and hope you never have to come to blows,” as the administration uses its financial leverage on Iran to produce change.
Informal advisers to the Trump administration describe it like this: the president needed to fulfill a campaign promise by backing out of the Iran deal, aka the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action—an agreement so hard to reach, they couldn’t even agree to call it an agreement.
Nonetheless, Trump’s national security team is trying to keep the best parts of the Iran deal in place, by working with European allies in a good-cop, bad-cop play to keep Iran from returning to nuke-weapon building as the U.S. snaps sanctions back in place that have already devastated the Iranian rial and caused a 35-percent drop in crude oil exports since April.
That financial pain will get worse after Team Trump hits Tehran with a second round of punishing sanctions in November. The idea is to create so much churn that Iranian street protests spark an internal blame game at the highest levels of the government, while also driving up the financial impact of expeditionary military and terrorist campaigns in Syria, Yemen and beyond that are already unpopular at home.
The U.S. gripes publicly that the other parties to the Iran deal are trying to build workarounds to keep Iran financially afloat, but it continues to work with those countries behind the scenes.
Diplomats from those countries fear the Trump gambit will backfire and give Iranian leaders an outsider to blame for Iran’s economic woes and ongoing anti-government protests.
They also fear that Iran may follow through with threats to close Gulf waters to oil traffic, which might force the U.S. to bring back Navy ships now patrolling the Atlantic as a signal to an aggressive Russia to back off, and the Pacific, as a signal to an aggressive China that international waters will stay open.
The other fear is that Iran could successfully stage a terrorist attack aimed at U.S. or Western interests—and leave enough evidence pointing to Tehran to trigger a righteous conflagration. The U.S. already blamed Iran for complicity in recent attacks by Shi’ite militia on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad and consulate in Basra. And U.S. officials have also blamed Iran for a foiled bomb plot in Paris in July allegedly aimed at an Iranian opposition group.
European officials are urging Iran to keep honoring the Iran deal, suck up whatever sanctions are coming and wait for the Trump administration to get voted out. In the meantime, Iran will use the upcoming annual U.N. General Assembly to play the role of a reasonable international actor standing up to Trump’s bullying, while scrambling to build alternative markets with Russia, China, and even U.S. ally India, to stave off economic implosion.
Team Trump has offered a way forward, with Iran Special Envoy Brian Hook proposing negotiations on a treaty that would rein in Iran’s ballistic missile program and malign proxy warfare. So far, the Iranians have refused, saying the word of Washington no longer counts after Trump pulled out of the JCPOA.
So it seems the two sides are at impasse, setting the stage for a rhetorical showdown at the U.N. that plays to each country’s nationalist base, with no chance for diplomacy.
But some in Trump’s national security circle have another fear: that Iranian leaders may wise up to the fact that agreeing to meet Trump directly could lead to immediate sanctions relief—and a deal that isn’t actually that tough.
Trump does not want a war—and his base really doesn’t care about Iran’s meddling in Syria or Yemen or its larger alleged goal of creating a Shi’ite crescent of armed proxies spanning from Lebanon to Iran. Trump is simply seeking to upstage his predecessor President Barack Obama with what he can sell to his audience as a better deal.
Trump might have cut that deal a year ago, if only Iranian officials had said yes to his multiple entreaties to meet, so many that the Iranians “thought it was a joke,” as one party to the discussions put it. The Iranians, and the wider world, weren’t yet au fait with Trump’s ability to go from name-calling to conciliation at the speed of a tweet.
The quietly whispered worry from Trump advisers goes like this: If the Iranians are smart enough to pull a “Kim Jong Un,” and agree to meet with Trump, and then offer him some minor concessions—even a sliver of improvement over the original Iran deal—Trump may well take it, before the next round of sanctions have bitten hard enough to change Iran’s behavior and perhaps its leadership. But that would also tamp down the threat of miscalculation and accidental conflagration, and that wouldn’t be a bad thing.