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Who’s winning the fight for Trump’s ear on Iran?

Sanctions on the Iranian foreign minister indicate that hawks are still calling the shots for “maximum pressure,” despite the influence of Sen. Rand Paul and Tucker Carlson.

U.S. President Donald Trump (far right) speaks alongside Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton. Credit: State Department via Flickr.
U.S. President Donald Trump (far right) speaks alongside Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton. Credit: State Department via Flickr.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

When the news broke that the United States would extend existing waivers on five different nuclear-related sanctions on Iran, the implications of the move seemed clear. The hawks inside the administration—led by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton—seemed to be in retreat. But two days later, when another announcement was made indicating that Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was being subjected to U.S. sanctions for his role as the public spokesman of the rogue theocracy, that assessment no longer seemed to be accurate.

Pompeo and Bolton have been pushing a policy of “maximum pressure” against Tehran, including the withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal and the unilateral implementation of economic sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy. But while President Donald Trump is a bitter critic of the nuclear pact concluded by President Barack Obama and long intended to dump the deal, he isn’t necessarily in sync with every aspect of his foreign-policy’s team’s aggressive approach to Iran.

Trump’s neo-isolationist instincts and dread of involving the United States in another armed conflict in the Middle East isn’t entirely consistent with the hard line against the Islamist regime that his administration has pursued. And while he listens to Pompeo and Bolton, they aren’t the only people influencing his decisions.

The president has also been listening to Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) on the issue. The advice he has been getting from that apostle of libertarian economics and withdrawal from foreign entanglements runs counter to Pompeo and Bolton’s advocacy for efforts to bring Iran’s economy to its knees in order to force it to renegotiate the weak nuclear pact.

Just as, if not more influential than Paul, is Fox News Channel host Carlson. He has been a critic of Pompeo’s and Bolton’s vision, in which America maintains its traditional role as the guardian of international security, especially in the Middle East. Reportedly, it was a conversation with Carlson that persuaded the president not to order a military strike against Iranian targets last month after Tehran’s forces had shot down an American drone.

The foreign-policy establishment is also firmly supportive of Obama’s signature international diplomatic achievement. America’s European allies are also aghast at Trump’s trashing of the deal and shocked that the sanctions are forcing them to give up trade with Iran, lest they be cut off from the U.S. financial system.

Trump has no interest in what the Europeans or foreign-policy experts think. But when he authorized the Kentucky senator to hold a meeting with Zarif two weeks ago when the Iranian was in New York to attend sessions at the United Nations, two things became clear.

One was that, despite the bravado that they would never negotiate with the United States without sanctions first being lifted, the pain inflicted on Iran by Trump’s policies had caused them to rethink that stand.

The second was that Trump meant what he said when he has indicated that his goal was not regime change in Iran—a goal that Bolton has embraced in the past—but a better nuclear deal. The Iranians have been advised by both their European trading partners and, scandalously, by former Secretary of State John Kerry to merely wait out Trump in the hope that he will be replaced in January 2021 by a Democrat who will bring the United States back into the nuclear deal and lift the sanctions.

The Iranians may not be able to wait that long. Another 18 months without sanctions relief for an Iranian economy that is tottering on the brink may be asking for trouble from a population already chafing under theocratic rule.

The Iranians also know that there is a reasonable chance that Trump will be re-elected. If they are eventually going to have to talk to the Americans, it’s in their interest to do so now, while the president is running for re-election and eager for a diplomatic triumph.

The deal Obama struck with Tehran was so full of holes, including sunset provisions that would eventually give the Iranians the right to build a nuclear weapon, sooner or later an American president was going to have to demand that it be renegotiated. It’s also possible to argue that it is so flawed that it can’t be fixed, and that Tehran will never give up the concessions that Obama made to them, which helped enrich and empower a regime bent on regional hegemony.

The waivers extended this week won’t mean much in the long run. But if Trump listens to those voices urging him to go easy on Iran, whose provocations have been designed to fuel a panic about a possible war that nobody wants, then it’s possible to envision negotiations in which America might settle for a new deal that isn’t much better than the last one, even though Trump could use any improvement on it as justification for ending the impasse. That’s a possibility that has to worry Israel and the Sunni Arab states directly threatened by Iran’s terrorist auxiliaries and nuclear ambitions.

This is why the sanctions placed on Zarif are significant. It was a sign that—far from fearing Iran or being unduly influenced by isolationist sentiment—Trump is not eager to be led down the same garden path of appeasement as Obama.

It’s just one episode in what is likely to be a long-running battle. The challenge for Trump is not so much which set of advisers he listens to (and to avoid the mixed signals of the last week) as it is whether he is serious about averting the Iranian nuclear threat, as well as forestalling its efforts to use terror to advance its goals of isolating American allies in the region. It will ultimately be up to him, along with the voters who will choose between Trump and a Democrat who will likely take a very different approach to Iran, to decide which path the United States takes.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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