The 2015 Iran nuclear agreement is in peril after a recent shake-up in President Donald Trump’s foreign policy team, experts and advocates say.
In replacing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with CIA Director Mike Pompeo, and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster with John Bolton, Trump has elevated two Iran hawks and spurned two cabinet officials who had urged caution in moving forward with his campaign promise to rip up the multilateral deal.
The ascension of Bolton, in particular, has set off alarm bells among the deal’s proponents. The former ambassador to the United Nations under President George W. Bush has a long record of saber-rattling statements directed at the Iranian regime. And with a May 12 deadline approaching, at which Trump must renew a sanctions waiver in order to keep the deal intact, his appointment comes at a crucial time for the president’s strategy.
Bolton has called the Iran deal “appeasement,” saying it included “weak, ambiguous and confusing language” in a 2017 Wall Street Journal op-ed. And he’s suggested that a pre-emptive strike against Iranian reactors may be necessary. “I don’t make any disguise of the idea that ultimately it may take an Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear program to stop it,” he told the conservative Washington Free Beacon in August.
“The feeling here is the same feeling that we’re seeing across the foreign policy establishment, which is alarm and a real deep, deep concern about the turn that the White House is taking,” said Logan Bayroff, the director of communications for J Street, the dovish Jewish Middle East policy lobby. “It looks like they’re preparing what you’d call a war cabinet.”
For hard-line Jewish conservatives, though, the choice was cause for celebration.
“I have no doubt that the sensitivity and skill that permeates everything he does will be evident to the entire nation in his new role as President Trump’s national security adviser,” said Joseph Frager, the first vice president of the National Council of Young Israel, a hawkish Orthodox group. “Mazel tov, old friend, on your well-deserved appointment.”
Tom Dine, who headed AIPAC in the 1980s and knows Bolton well from his time in Washington, says that Bolton — who maintains his support for the 2003 invasion of Iraq — is a strategic and smart thinker, if also a bit difficult to work with.
“When I was in the Clinton administration I got yelled at by John,” he said. “If he doesn’t get his way, sometimes he gets quite emotional.”
AIPAC has a policy of not commenting on presidential appointments, according to spokesman Marshall Wittman. It opposed the Iran deal when it was negotiated and maintains a position that it is “fatally flawed,” claiming it doesn’t feature enough oversight and will allow Iran to rapidly develop nuclear weapons when it expires in 2031.
But Dine speculates that, despite what they might say in public, many congressional Republicans have been hoping to keep the agreement largely intact.
Trump has asked that Congress work out a revised deal strengthening international oversight on the Iranians. Meanwhile, diplomatic negotiations are ongoing between the United States and the six other nations involved in the agreement. Bayroff said J Street is turning its efforts to Congress as a last hope for preserving the deal.
But Dine says that if the United States were to pull out of the deal now, it would need the five other United Nations countries involved to re-impose sanctions to have any hope of slowing Iran’s nuclear development. He doesn’t think that’s likely to happen.
“I don’t think Capitol Hill wants to see the nuclear agreement thrown out,” Dine said. “They may take a public position, but ultimately they don’t have to make the decision. They can advise and I hope they do, because I think right now there’s no alternative to what we have. I don’t see opting out as an alternative.”
Bolton has also said that a Palestinian state isn’t viable. Instead, while accepting Bar-Ilan University’s Guardian of Zion Award last year, he advocated for a “three-state solution which would merge Gaza with Egypt, and parts of the West Bank with Jordan.”
“I don’t think there are institutions on the Palestinian side that can live up to the commitments of a treaty with Israel, that could give Israel or the U.S. or anyone confidence that such a state could provide for the well-being of the Palestinian people or could resist takeover by terrorist elements,” he said.
Trump has said he is agnostic on two states, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has retreated from his backing for the outcome. The Palestinian Authority is still committed to the outcome.
JTA News and Features contributed to this article.