White House

Bolton pushes Trump to crush what’s left of the Iran deal before the 2020 election

‘You’ll find out’ Trump says about US planning action against Iran

Minutes after a senior U.S. military officer said Iran shot down a U.S. drone over international waters, President Donald Trump stated on June 20, 2019 that "Iran made a very big mistake" but suggested it was an accident rather than an error.
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Minutes after a senior U.S. military officer said Iran shot down a U.S. drone over international waters, President Donald Trump stated on June 20, 2019 that "Iran made a very big mistake" but suggested it was an accident rather than an error.

National Security Council officials are pressing President Donald Trump to force Iran out of its 2015 nuclear accord with world powers before the 2020 election, warning him that Tehran’s defiance and its expanding nuclear work could pose political problems for his campaign, two sources familiar with the discussions told McClatchy.

National Security Advisor John Bolton and his aides are exploring aggressive sanctions moves that would target the nuclear agreement at its core and potentially collapse the deal outright. His camp within the West Wing is making a case that Trump’s withdrawal from the agreement was not enough – and that only full termination of the accord will complete the circle on his 2016 campaign promise and secure his legacy with voters.

The 2020 Democratic primary field is already latching on to a narrative that Trump has failed to jumpstart negotiations or produce a better alternative to the nuclear deal – and has only made matters worse. Several candidates warned last week that Trump’s brinkmanship with Tehran in June spawned from a crisis of the president’s own making, precipitated by his withdrawal from the 2015 accord.

While Trump pulled the United States out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in May of last year, the deal still lives. France, Britain and Germany launched new trade channels to Iran on Friday in an effort to preserve what remains of the agreement, and many Democratic presidential aspirants are vowing to re-enter the Obama-era pact should they win the Oval Office.

Former Vice President Joe Biden called Trump’s policy a “self-inflicted disaster” following Trump’s aborted strike against Iran on June 21, while others, including Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Kamala Harris of California, are accusing Trump of seeking credit for putting out a fire he lit himself.

“Trump told us when he got out of it that he was going to give us a better deal,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, said at the debate with her rivals in Miami. “He’s made us less safe than we were when he became president.”

One administration official said on the condition of anonymity that the prospect of Iran increasing its stockpile and enrichment of uranium – the core material used to fuel nuclear weapons – while still enjoying benefits under the deal and refusing to negotiate would challenge the president’s image of toughness on the campaign trail.

“Can you imagine Iran announcing a new nuclear milestone every other month during the close of the campaign while the deal still stands?” the official said.

Among those pushing the administration toward an even tougher line on the Iran deal are Republican Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas, who recently lobbied the White House to return the harshest sanctions against Tehran, including those passed through the U.N. Security Council.

Iran and five world powers – France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Russia and China – are still working to keep the deal alive and shield Iran from renewed American sanctions. But Iran increased its stockpile of low-enriched uranium on Monday, according to international watchdogs. And Iranian officials say they will increase their enrichment of uranium to higher grades, beyond limits set by the deal, starting on July 8 unless European capitals deliver on their commitment to sanctions relief.

That move could be used politically against the president, who is promoting a campaign of maximum pressure that he claims will force Tehran back to the negotiating table over its nuclear work, its ballistic missile activity, and its support for proxy groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen.

“We must restore the longstanding nonproliferation standard of no enrichment for Iran,” the White House said in response to Iran’s moves on Monday. “Maximum pressure on the Iranian regime will continue until its leaders alter their course of action. The regime must end its nuclear ambitions and its malign behavior.”

Should Iran exceed limits set by that deal – shortening the “breakout” time it would need to sprint toward a nuclear weapon – Bolton and his staff may push to respond by resuming U.S. sanctions on nuclear cooperation between Iran and other world powers. That move would neuter the ability of parties within the agreement to continue enforcement without becoming subject to U.S. sanctions.

Administration officials believe that both sides are working to regain the leverage they had back in 2013, when two years of negotiation first began and led to the existing nuclear accord, in anticipation of a second round of diplomatic talks.

“The Iranian regime continues threatening to shorten its nuclear breakout timeline by increasing its stockpile of enriched uranium and enriching uranium at higher levels – all of which is only possible because the terrible nuclear deal didn’t force Iran to permanently and irreversibly abandon its nuclear-related capabilities,” Garrett Marquis, spokesman for the National Security Council, told McClatchy. He emphasized the administration’s call for new negotiations. “The regime should stop its nuclear pursuit now and answer the President’s diplomacy with diplomacy, not terror.”

Division persists within the administration over the wisdom of snapping back sanctions that could break the deal for good. State Department officials – who just last month convinced Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to continue several of the nuclear waivers – continue to argue that the administration benefits from keeping them in place.

“It’s in the interest of the United States to see the waste from Bushehr return to Russia as soon as possible, and if the U.S. sanctions the ability for that to happen, it actually puts Iran closer to a nuclear bomb – dumb move,” said Patrick Clawson, director of research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, referring to a heavy water facility in Iran that has been capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium. “So the Bushehr waiver is obvious.”

Independent experts believe Iran retains enough plutonium in cooling ponds for up to a dozen nuclear warheads, unless it is shipped out to Russia as agreed to in the nuclear deal.

“You want to worry about them having a small arsenal of nuclear weapons in short order?” Clawson continued. “Wouldn’t it help the president politically a bit more if they exit the deal themselves? When the Iranians are loading a gun and pointing it at their foot, why would you take the gun away? The Iranians are clearly considering killing it, and if that happens, it has to be the Iranians to do so if you are ever going to get an international agreement.”

The administration is also considering a more dramatic diplomatic strategy, being pushed by Cruz, in which the U.S. would claim it is still a technical member of the nuclear agreement according to the letter of a U.N. Security Council resolution passed in 2015.

That resolution, 2231, allows any “JCPOA participant state” to unilaterally snap back Security Council sanctions on Iran over “significant nonperformance” to the nuclear agreement. While the Trump administration fully withdrew from the accord, and does not participate in JCPOA meetings, some in the administration believe the U.N. resolution will technically still allow the U.S. to act as a member.

The complex legal theory has reached Vice President Mike Pence, who was enthused by the idea, according to one source. A second source familiar with the deliberations said that State Department lawyers recently advised White House officials against the move, questioning Washington’s legal standing to snap back those sanctions, although an administration official denied this account.

The U.S. would face fierce opposition from other members of the U.N. Security Council, and would need an ally occupying the Security Council presidency to entertain the motion. The United Kingdom serves as president of the council in November, and the United States takes the gavel in December.

One U.S. official said the administration is already talking with allies, particularly Britain, about the consequences of Iran exceeding its JCPOA limits. Tehran argues that such a move would not amount to a violation of the agreement, which allows it to take reciprocal steps if other members fail to execute their own commitments.

A U.K. official told McClatchy that London is working concertedly to ensure that Iran continues to see economic benefits from the deal, noting the European Union’s efforts to set up a mechanism that would protect E.U. businesses from U.S. sanctions. But the official also said the U.K. government would not tolerate Iranian “violations,” nor would it settle for an agreement that’s only partially enforced by Iran and the remaining parties.

“We have always been clear that there will be consequences if Iran stops complying with the terms of the deal,” the U.K. official said. “The JCPOA is a reciprocal deal. Sanctions were lifted in exchange for Iran’s compliance with the limits it sets out – this includes, for example, limits on their enrichment stockpiles.”

“Our commitment to maintaining the deal – including our continued commitment to sanctions relief – depends on Iran meeting its obligations in full,” the official added.

Michael Wilner joined McClatchy as its White House correspondent in 2019. He previously served as Washington bureau chief for The Jerusalem Post, where he led coverage of the Iran nuclear talks, the Syrian refugee crisis and the 2016 US presidential campaign. Wilner holds degrees from Claremont McKenna College and Columbia University and is a native of New York City.