Iran hawks seem to be in pretty good spirits these days, with John Bolton having taken over as national-security adviser and Mike Pompeo as secretary of state. They are thrilled with the promotion of two high-ranking officials who want to tear up the nuclear deal, actively promote regime change in Tehran, and vigorously confront Iran throughout the region, just like many of them have been advocating for years—what’s not to like?
I get their enthusiasm—I even share many of their concerns about Iran—but I also know I’m not alone in worrying that an unbound President Trump, surrounded by these new advisers and under mounting domestic pressures, is about to set the United States on an unpredictable course in the region. It starts with exiting the nuclear deal without a plan, and it could end with a messy, violent, and unnecessary conflict. It’s been so easy for pundits like Bolton and others to denounce the results of recent U.S. policies, not just under President Barack Obama but under Trump while Rex Tillerson and H.R. McMaster were still around. Now we may find out what an alternative looks like.
It now seems likely that Trump will end U.S. compliance with the nuclear deal on May 12, when the next deadline for extending sanctions waivers comes up. It is of course still possible that Trump will take advantage of European gestures—like an agreement to sanction ballistic-missile activity, vigorously enforce inspections, and seek a follow-on agreement—to claim to have “improved” the deal thanks to his negotiating prowess, but that remains a long shot. It was always fanciful to imagine that the Europeans were going to agree to make fundamental changes to the nuclear deal (as if it were somehow in their power to unilaterally revise it without the support of the other parties to the agreement, namely Russia, China, and Iran), which is why that approach always seemed to me to be a ploy to kill the deal and blame others for its demise. It now seems pretty clear that Trump’s conditions for remaining in the deal will not be met (Bolton, in any case, has been explicit that he wants out regardless), which would mean that U.S. nuclear sanctions—including sanctions on third parties that do business with or buy oil from Iran—will come back into effect on May 12.