Grab your magnifying glass and your bubble pipe: there’s a plot afoot.
As Dan DePetris observed at Rare earlier this week, the tune in Donald Trump’s never-ending game of staff musical chairs may run out next when Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is without a chair. Trump, according to Axios, has been grumbling about Tillerson, calling him “so establishment in his thinking” and marveling at the fact that many of the political jobs at Foggy Bottom have yet to be filled (a hypocritical complaint in this administration if ever there was one).
Trump was also reportedly irked by Tillerson’s recommendation last month that the nuclear deal with Iran be re-certified. The president is required under the Nuclear Agreement Review Act to affirm Iran’s compliance with the agreement every 90 days, and last time around the decision cut a schism across his administration, with Tillerson and H.R. McMaster arguing for approval and Steve Bannon saying no. The president ultimately sided with his Secretary of State, but reluctantly — so reluctantly that he’s since instructed another group of advisors to explore de-certifying Iran and has declared, “If it was up to me, I would have had them noncompliant 180 days ago.” (Um, you’re the president. It is up to you.)
Enter John Bolton, George W. Bush’s former ambassador to the United Nations and red-eyed uber-hawk on foreign policy. Bolton thinks we should be bombing Iran rather than doing business with it. At the beginning of the Trump administration, the entire GDP of the neoconservative brain trust was put toward ensuring that Bolton got a top job at the State Department, which he only didn’t get reportedly because Trump didn’t like his mustache. On Monday, Bolton published a grandiloquent “memo to Donald Trump” over at National Review in which he innocently explained how the administration might pull the plug on the Iran deal, should they just happen to be thinking about doing so.
The outline of the plot thus becomes clear: Trump wants the Iran deal gone. He’s planning to de-certify it after the present 90-day period expires. Tillerson’s sober advocacy for the agreement may cost him his job. Bolton is already positioning himself as a replacement Secretary of State should that happen. And mainstream leftists who might defend the Iran deal are so busy scaring little children at random over Russia that they’ve scarcely noticed this is happening.
Realists and advocates of foreign policy sanity need to push back against these machinations, and the good news is that the preponderance of evidence aligns with them. While Iran has violated a couple UN Security Council resolutions by continuing to test ballistic missiles (for which it’s been sanctioned by the United States), the International Atomic Energy Agency has verified seven times that Iran has complied with its commitments under the nuclear deal by shuttering or converting its research facilities, shipping its atomic fuel out of the country and allowing rigorous inspections. The nuclear deal is just that: a way to prevent Tehran from acquiring a nuclear bomb, and on that count, it’s worked well so far.
Critics retort that Iran isn’t being sufficiently transparent, because it won’t allow inspectors into all of its military facilities. But bear in mind that Tehran and Washington have been enemies for decades; it’s unrealistic after such a fraught history to expect Iran to display all its military capabilities before American eyes. The inspection regime under the Iran agreement — round-the-clock camera coverage of nuclear facilities, enrichment monitored from mine to reactor — is already the most intrusive in the history of the world. Why would Trump have us relinquish such an advantage? Why would he undermine Iran’s relatively moderate president Hassan Rouhani, already in a precarious spot thanks to his country’s powerful hardliners who oppose the deal? Why would he needlessly isolate America from Europe, which stands united in favor of the agreement?
What Citizens United is to the left, the Iran deal has become to the John Bolton right: a red towel that they mindlessly charge at irrespective of law, pragmatism or results, an emblem of their political enemies that must be shredded. It’s war that Bolton and Tom Cotton want, and they know the best way to get it is by abrogating the deal. Trump was elected on a pledge to repudiate the neoconservative foreign policy consensus; only seven months in, he’s threatening capitulation to it in the most destructive manner imaginable.