March 23, 2018 | New York Daily News
With John Bolton, the Iran deal ‘nixers’ have an upper hand over the ‘fixers’
My long-standing hope for a fix to the fatal flaws of Barack Obama’s Iran nuclear deal may have just gone on life support with the appointment of John Bolton as President Trump’s national security adviser. While we are both strong critics of the deal, Bolton and I have dueled it out in Op-Ed pages on what to do about it.
I advocated that the deal be fixed; Bolton believed that it was so dangerously deficient that it had to be nixed.
Now, in his new powerful position as the President’s top adviser on the deal, it seems that Bolton has won the argument. That is, unless the Europeans make some big moves in the next few weeks to save the deal.
Over the past year, Bolton’s predecessor, H.R. McMaster, and his national security staff developed a strategy which I strongly supported.
The strategy had three phases. First, the President would refuse to certify that the nuclear deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, is in America’s interest. Second, the administration would launch a global pressure campaign against Iran, using all instruments of American power. Finally, we needed to convince our three key European allies — France, the UK and Germany — to reach a new understanding on the nuclear accord’s most glaring deficiencies.
Trump adopted this strategy in October, declaring to Congress that he would not certify the JCPOA because it gave too many economic concessions to Iran in exchange for too little nuclear concessions.
In January, he went further and gave the Europeans until May 12 to address three of the deal’s most fatal flaws: the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program that expire in roughly a decade; the lack of attention to Tehran’s nuclear-warhead carrying missile program; and the inspection regime that failed to get into military sites where the Islamic Republic conducted clandestine military-nuclear activities in the past.
If the Europeans refused, Trump made it clear he would abrogate the deal.
Over three rounds of meetings in London, Paris and Berlin, the American and European negotiators have been struggling to forge an agreement before the May deadline. They’ve made headway on missiles and inspections, and on a range of related issues like sanctioning the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the regime’s praetorians, and Hezbollah, its most deadly terrorist proxy.
But with two months left before the deadline, major gaps still exist. The Europeans refuse to budge on the deal’s sunset provisions. Failure to address them will give Iran a patient pathway to an industrial-size nuclear weapons capability, near-zero nuclear breakout, and an easier, advance centrifuge-powered clandestine sneakout.
Trump, always looking for leverage, has now made two big changes to his national security team, with far reaching consequences for U.S. policy on Iran. He has fired Iran deal supporter Rex Tillerson as secretary of state and replaced him with CIA Director Mike Pompeo. Pompeo has put the spy agency on much more aggressive footing against Iran. As a former congressman, he hammered home the threats posed by the Iranian regime and the dangers of the nuclear deal.
The Bolton appointment confirms the shift. Make no mistake: Bolton is a highly effective bureaucrat, a disarmingly deft diplomat and an articulate defender of American interests. But he is controversial: He backs regime change in Iran and he has recommended preemption against North Korea if it won’t yield on its nuclear arsenal.
The heads of the political elite are now exploding across Washington and in Europe’s capitals. The consensus is that Bolton’s ascension, along with Pompeo, puts us on war footing. But this may be an overreaction: perhaps there’s a hope that Trump’s, Bolton’s and Pompeo’s tough talk on military force will make it less likely it is used.
Still, the fate of the Iran deal now is in deep peril.
With just over six weeks before the May 12 deadline to fix the agreement, the Europeans must now understand that the failure to reach consensus with the United States will give Bolton exactly what he wants.
The Europeans can no longer offer minimal fixes; they have no choice but to offer meaningful changes to the JCPOA and much tougher action against Iranian missile and terrorism threats. Otherwise, there’s no chance that Trump’s top adviser recommends keeping the deal intact.
The ball is in Europe’s court. That’s the remaining sliver of hope that “fixers” like me are clinging to as one of the most powerful “nixers” John Bolton prepares to enter the Trump White House.
Mark Dubowitz is the chief executive officer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow Mark on Twitter @mdubowitz.
Follow the Foundation for Defense of Democracies on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington-based nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.