If Mike Pompeo and John Bolton agree on something, how likely would Donald Trump to go in the opposite direction? The smart money would normally go against it, but according to Josh Rogin’s sources, that’s precisely what will happen this week on Iran. Trump has decided to extend sanctions waivers on Iran again after Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin argued he needed more time to negotiate:
After an internal policy battle, the Trump administration is set to announce later this week that it will once again waive five different nuclear-related sanctions on Iran, preserving a key part of the Obama-era Iran nuclear deal. The decision will upset Iran hawks in Washington and be welcomed by Russia, China, European allies and the Iranian leadership. The issue is emblematic of the tension inside the administration over the implementation of President Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy.
In an Oval Office meeting last week, Trump sided with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who argued that the administration should again renew sanctions waivers related to five separate parts of Iran’s nuclear program. Mnuchin prevailed over the objections of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton, according to six administration officials. Pompeo, who is the lead official on the issue, will nevertheless support Trump’s decision when it is announced later this week.
Mnuchin, these six officials said, argued to Trump that if the sanctions were not again waived as required by law by Aug. 1, the United States would have to sanction Russian, Chinese and European firms that are involved in projects inside Iran that were established as part of the 2015 nuclear deal. The Treasury Department asked for more time to navigate the collateral effects of these sanctions.
Is that the real reason, though? According to NBC’s sources, the decision allows for the retention of the skeleton of Barack Obama’s deal with Iran. Some within the administration want it kept on life support, so to speak, as a potential opening position for a new deal, a view shared by US allies in Europe:
The underlying argument that has played out at the White House over the past year hinges on whether the United States would have more leverage in any future talks with Iran by totally dismantling the 2015 deal, or whether it is better to preserve the accord as a starting point for negotiations, U.S. officials say.
Proponents of keeping the waivers believe “the best way to position for a new deal, is to keep the old deal around in the meantime,” one source said. “There is an active group within the State Department, Treasury Department and Energy Department that sees value in keeping the rump JCPOA alive.”
Britain, France and Germany had urged the White House to extend the waivers, saying that it was in the interests of the United States and Europe to ensure Iran stuck to a plan to convert various nuclear sites to civilian purposes.
Perhaps it’s just that the administration would prefer to concentrate on one crisis at a time. The existing sanctions have already caused Iran to start lashing out in the Persian Gulf, actions that have created further distance between Tehran and Europe. Better to let those play out to their natural end before doing something that could shift focus in Europe back to the Trump administration rather than on the real threat in Iran.
That won’t make John Bolton too happy, of course, and at least theoretically he’s correct. Cranking up the pressure is better than standing pat, and it may be better to completely jettison the JCPOA and start over on any negotiations from scratch. However, that’s still outside our power; Europe is still clinging to the JCPOA in hopes of keeping Iran accountable. Until they’re ready to let it go completely, it still has to stay in our calculations too.
It’s tough to imagine that these waivers will last forever, though. It’s not in Trump’s nature to keep loopholes open for antagonists, especially not when Pompeo and Bolton are both on the other side of that decision. If Europe wants to keep a “rump JCPOA” alive much longer, they’d better get the mullahs to come back to the table soon.