Mike Pompeo, John Bolton and Donald Trump are the American triumvirate who have just passed judgement on the survival of the Iran nuclear deal. There could not be three men less suited to the job.
According to Britain’s Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson on his trip to Washington to try and save the deal, the US State Department was already labouring with its German, British and French counterparts to improve aspects of the agreement. These efforts were apparently in vain.
Enthusiasm in the State Department for tweaking the deal was in any case discouraged by the newly-appointed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who is a fierce “Tehran-sceptic” and simply wanted it to be torn up. There were also fewer serious officials, analysts and diplomats employed by the Department he inherited. Many, though not all, of the sensible or experienced personnel had left. Like most professionals in international affairs, they were pro-nuclear deal.
Alongside Pompeo, there has also been John Bolton to worry about. Bolton has a view of the world as prickly as his moustache, in which evil foreign enemies deserve little but total military destruction. This is a man who has never and will never understand the value of compromise. Of course, this doesn’t reflect Bolton’s own view about military service for his country; he was a draft-dodger in the Vietnam War, as was his boss Donald Trump.
In contrast, Pompeo is at least an ex-military man so has seen first-hand the dreadful misery that war causes. He was also a lead attacker against his predecessor Hillary Clinton during the Benghazi scandal, which simply showed his fondness for politically-motivated conspiracy theories.
Bolton is a conspiracy theorist too, and not just about Benghazi. In his various White House roles he has a reported history of falsifying evidence to his superiors in order to fit whatever pro-war narrative he fancies at the time.
The third member of this dreadful trio has been Trump. The US President has zero grasp of detail, which is much needed in dealings with Iran. He is also a conspiracy theorist; hates Muslims unless they are very rich and Sunni; possibly has dementia or some sort of psychiatric disorder; and could do with a foreign conflagration to distract the country from his likely pending impeachment. Flanked by Bolton and Pompeo, Trump is at his most immoderate and aggressive.
North Korea is also coming off the boil. If a war needs to be started or a diplomatic crisis concocted to keep the President in power, Iran is looking like a good target.
Whether Iran is cheating on the nuclear deal or not is hard to divine exactly, but independent inspectors now say that they are certain, based on what they have been shown, that Iran has decommissioned thousands of centrifuges, exactly as requested. Doubts remain, though, over whether Iran has shown these inspectors everything, or just the parts of its nuclear programme which are compliant. Access to certain military bases remains a problem, as Iran balances national security with contractual obligations.
An article published earlier this week by the Gatestone Institute, chaired until last month by none other than John Bolton, argued that the Iranians had replaced some of the thousands of disbanded centrifuges with more efficient units. That means their production capacity may actually have stayed flat. His link to that think tank is important because it does say a lot about Bolton’s world view.
He is fiercely Islamophobic, in that he fears Muslims, and is irrational, as is Gatestone. Bolton wrote somewhat sparingly for the group while chairman, but focused frequently on Iran. He argues that the only reason that the Europeans are supporting the deal is because European industry is enjoying making money out of a rejuvenated Iranian economy.
Pompeo has also lambasted Iran for supporting “the murderous Assad regime”, amongst the usual litany of legitimate criticisms of Iran’s democracy-cum-theocracy. This is all a bit rich from Pompeo, especially on the Damascus issue. As CIA director, it was Pompeo himself who shut down the entire US programme of support for the anti-Assad rebels, strengthening Iran’s hand in the proxy war and thereby strengthening the same murderous Assad regime.
The two most powerful foreign lobbies in Washington – the Israelis and the Saudis — have clearly convinced Pompeo, Trump and Bolton of their case. Pompeo in particular recently made the point that in tearing the Iran deal up the US is standing up for Israeli and Saudi state interests, not just America’s.
The likelihood of the breakdown of the deal precipitating serious regional violence is significant but similarly hard to predict; it could be that the risks are over-egged. Israel and Iran’s border spat felt more like posturing than an invasion. One Israeli reservist told me that she and her colleagues had been called in at short notice to review some aerial photography of Syria, which is their speciality. She dutifully turned up, as rockets were flying, air shelters were filling and it felt like Israel was on the verge of a major conflict.
By the time she finished her shift, her superiors asked her if she might come in for another day, but the urgency had clearly dissipated. She said that she was needed at her day job, and the Israel Defence Forces let it lie.
This says a lot about how neither Israel nor Iran really want a war. Israel is in a strong strategic position, with its own nuclear arsenal already developed, locked and loaded, and aimed at Damascus and Tehran. It has routinely misled nuclear inspectors while building its arsenal; stolen the materials and know-how; and now denies having nuclear weapons at all. Successive Israeli governments have also declined to sign the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), as well as other key treaties restricting weapons of mass destruction, like the Missile Technology Control Regime or Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention.
The real problem is with Saudi Arabia. Iran could continue to respond fiercely if Riyadh-Washington-Tel Aviv continue to goad Tehran. The Iranian government views the newly audacious foreign escapades of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as a threat to its own security. Tehran has watched an enormous conventional arms build up in both countries, which began in 2010 when sanctions against Iran were at their height and the war in Syria was unforeseeable.
Saudi Arabia would almost certainly respond with its own bomb; in March, the bullish Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman warned that he would build a nuclear arsenal rapidly if Iran did. He even went so far as to offer commercial incentives to specialist American nuclear contractors if Washington allowed more uranium into the country. Now that the US has pulled out of the deal, he has announced that he intends to start enriching uranium. The nuclear arms race may have begun, and it is Saudi Arabia in pole position.
Trump’s reasoning for pulling out are clearly illogical. He said that he opposes the agreement because of Iran’s continued support for Hezbollah, which was not the focus of the deal at all, and because it does not cover ballistic missiles, which were also not a negotiated aspect of the deal. It is not possible for Iran to be reneging on any agreements that it did not make.
Awkwardly for Bolton, Pompeo and Trump, Hezbollah is actually facing an acute “funding crisis” as of last week, according to a report in Asharq Al-Awsat picked up by the Jerusalem Post. Those reports suggest that recent efforts by Western intelligence agencies to prevent Iranian funds going to Hezbollah have been hugely effective. Rather than rewriting an entire deal to include funding, it would surely make more sense to rely on intelligence efforts.
The elephant in the room is Russia. Just before Christmas 2015, a Russian ship left Iranian waters carrying most of Iran’s stocks of low-enriched uranium. It was a major step forward. Vladimir Putin will continue to provide restricted assistance to Iran as the country seeks to keep its nuclear programme as close to operational capability as the agreement allows.
Of course, Trump has his own loyalties to the Kremlin to abide by, given that the Russians helped him to enter the White House. It seemed at one stage that these sympathies might override his desire to eradicate the deal. It was not to be. With Pompeo and Bolton at his side, it was no surprise. The wise men have left the room. Now just the buffoons are left.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.