Despite John Bolton exit, don't expect thaw in US-Iran relations
With US national security adviser John Bolton having recently departed the White House, the question being asked is whether president Donald Trump will decide to soften the hardline approach taken by his administration in dealing with an uncertain world or if he will stay the course.
It is hard to determine whether Mr Bolton resigned or was dismissed. Either way, the vacuum left by his exit might give the mercurial president a free hand to intervene in matters regarding foreign policy that could have profound consequences. Regardless of their differences or Mr Bolton's quirks, he did manage to protect his boss from making mistakes while guaranteeing consistency in US foreign policy. But with him gone, will there be shifts in American behaviour towards Iran, Afghanistan, Venezuela and North Korea?
The two men had been divided on how to deal with the world at large. Mr Trump places great emphasis on the art of deal-making for he views himself as a good negotiator but his brand of deal-making applies more to the business world than it does to foreign affairs. Brokering deals requires flexibility and Mr Bolton proved an obstacle in this regard because he valued consistency and toughness even more.
That said, one country towards which Mr Trump is unlikely to change his robust policy is Iran.
Thus far, he has avoided military strikes against the regime, despite concerns Tehran has been accumulating ballistic missiles, which prompted Mr Trump to shred the 2015 nuclear deal struck by his predecessor. While maintaining effective sanctions against the Iranian regime, as well as against militia groups it sponsors in the Middle East – including Hezbollah in Lebanon – Mr Trump has now signalled an openness to talk to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in the hope of reaching a more comprehensive deal than the one Barack Obama secured.
How will Bolton's departure affect US foreign policy?
Given that he is up for re-election next year, Mr Trump will be determined not to be dragged into a war with the Iranians. But securing a grand bargain with the regime will be a daunting challenge for his administration.
In response to the recent US pull-out, the Iranian regime has threatened to withdraw from the 2015 deal altogether and resume its nuclear activities. This is seen as a way to push the European parties to the deal to come up with ways to circumvent US sanctions while at the same time applying pressure on Mr Trump to soften his stance. This tactic has worked to the extent that the US president has expressed a willingness to talk.
France, meanwhile, offered Iran access to $15 billion in credit to stave off economic collapse, if Tehran returns to the terms of the deal and negotiates over security issues, including its regional policies. However, according to a source in Washington, the US has made it clear to French President Emmanuel Macron that his plan is unacceptable. The US reportedly told Mr Macron that it does not need him “to build a bridge” between Washington and Tehran, just for the sake of having a sit-down with the Iranian leadership.
There have been suggestions that a US-Iran meeting is possible on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting later this month in New York. The US sees this as an opportunity for dialogue but will not lift sanctions just to entertain the notion of having talks. That puts the US at odds with the position expressed by Mr Rouhani, who has insisted on the lifting of sanctions as a prelude to any talks. The question therefore is how this gap can be bridged, particularly with the French initiative dead in the water.
Meanwhile next week, even as the name of Mr Bolton's successor is expected to be announced, meetings are being scheduled to review US policy on Iran, following which new sanctions could be unveiled.
Sources have said even if a meeting were to be held between Mr Trump and Mr Rouhani, it would not be a significant nor substantial one, given that the US president will present a list of demands that Tehran is unlikely to accept. The broad outlines of these demands are already known: to renegotiate the parameters of the nuclear deal, halt the development and testing of ballistic missiles, and end support for groups Washington designates as terror organisations, such as Hamas and Hezbollah, in addition to Iran-backed paramilitaries such as the PMF in Iraq.
These militia groups have recently restated their loyalty to Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as well as to the country's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. In a speech this week marking the Shia Muslim celebration of Ashura, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said his party would accept being killed 1,000 times by the “Americans and Zionists” rather than abandon Mr Khamenei, whom he called the heir of Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Mohammed. Mr Nasrallah said his “axis of resistance” was prepared to take part in any war on behalf of Iran.
That Mr Nasrallah declared loyalty to Iran rather than his native Lebanon was telling, even more so at a time when David Schenker, the US assistant secretary for near eastern affairs, was making his first visit to Beirut. It was met with a robust response, with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reportedly calling for a “gloves-off approach” against Hezbollah and its backers. Mr Schenker himself told Lebanese officials: “The window of opportunity is still open but it has started to close. All those concerned must know we are very serious."
This could mean more sanctions. What is troubling, however, is whether it would translate to more than that.
Mr Schenker's Lebanon visit was purportedly to highlight the danger of Hezbollah's actions across the region, said to include manufacturing precision rockets in Lebanon. Lebanese leaders have been warned that unless they take action to rein in the group, their country could experience an outbreak of war. Confrontation remains a possibility.
Updated: September 14, 2019 05:39 PM