The exit of John Bolton, and Israel’s diminished influence on Washington, signal a possible reduction in tensions.
“Israel and John Bolton have been the two major obstacles to a direct encounter between the two Presidents as a prelude to a possible rapprochement between the U.S. and Iran. Mr. Trump, despite his close relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, seems to have concluded that the Israeli leader is too dependent on the U.S. and especially on Mr. Trump to attempt to block such a meeting if he decides to go ahead with it. Mr. Netanyahu seemed to confirm this understanding this week when he stated: “Obviously, I don’t tell the U.S. President when to meet or with whom.”
If it is not Afghanistan, then it must be Iran. U.S. President Donald Trump desperately needs a dramatic foreign policy breakthrough before the 2020 elections to establish his reputation as a strategist who can shape afresh the contours of American foreign policy. His lovefest with Kim Jong-un has petered out without producing any noticeable reduction in North Korea’s nuclear arsenal or any curbs on its ballistic missile program. His attempt to get the Taliban to accept a ceasefire so that he could begin withdrawing American troops from Afghanistan, and thus fulfil the promise he had made during the 2016 election campaign, has also stalled because of Kabul’s opposition and the Taliban’s unwillingness to stop military action before a settlement is announced.
This leaves Iran as the only arena where Mr. Trump can demonstrate his diplomatic dexterity even if it means returning to the status quo that had existed when President Barack Obama left office. However, Mr. Trump would like to add a dramatic flourish to turning the clock back.
Some of Mr. Trump’s closest associates, especially the recently sacked National Security Advisor John Bolton, have been promoting a policy that amounted to advocating a regime change in Iran, even if by force. However, Mr. Trump is fundamentally averse to leading the U.S. into an open-ended war with Iran. This stance is prompted largely by his attachment to his campaign promise of bringing American soldiers home that garnered a significant number of votes for him in the last election. He, therefore, abhors the idea of sending more of them to the volatile West Asia.
Zarif’s visit to Biarritz
These instincts were on display at the recently concluded G7 meeting in France following an unscheduled visit by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to Biarritz for talks with the French President Emmanuel Macron announced at the conclave that a Trump-Rouhani meeting was likely to take place in the “coming weeks”.
Mr. Trump said that he had no intention of imposing regime change on Iran and declared that under the right circumstances, he would certainly agree to a meeting with Mr. Rouhani.
In a speech hours earlier, Mr. Rouhani had also signaled that he was willing to talk with Trump. He has since qualified his positive response by adding that he would meet Mr. Trump only after Washington lifted the sanctions re-imposed on Tehran after Mr. Trump pulled the U.S. out of the nuclear deal in 2018. But the signal that Iranian leaders are not averse to talking with their American counterparts has been sent by Tehran and received in Washington. In turn, Mr. Trump reciprocated by stating that he has no problem meeting with President Rouhani. “It could happen. It could happen. No problem with me,” he said earlier this week.
Israel and John Bolton have been the two major obstacles to a direct encounter between the two Presidents as a prelude to a possible rapprochement between the U.S. and Iran. Mr. Trump, despite his close relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, seems to have concluded that the Israeli leader is too dependent on the U.S. and especially on Mr. Trump to attempt to block such a meeting if he decides to go ahead with it. Mr. Netanyahu seemed to confirm this understanding this week when he stated: “Obviously, I don’t tell the U.S. President when to meet or with whom.”
Differences with Israel
Nonetheless, this relative softening of their respective stands by the U.S. and Iran have worried the Israeli establishment. This is why, of late, Mr. Netanyahu has once again been making shrill noises about Iran’s nuclear weapons capability. He has even gone to the extent of identifying a nuclear facility near Isfahan that, according to him, the Iranians destroyed after he had made its existence public. In response Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif promptly tweeted: “The possessor of REAL nukes cries wolf — on an ALLEGED ‘demolished’ site in Iran.” It is clear that there is a fundamental disjuncture between American and Israeli objectives regarding Iran and recent events have begun to bring the fissures in American Israeli approaches to this issue into the open.
Mr. Bolton, an outspoken foreign policy hawk, has been the standard bearer of the hard line vis-à-vis Iran and is directly or indirectly responsible for many of the harshest measures adopted by the Trump administration in regard to Iran. He was also strongly opposed to the deal that Zalmay Khalilzad had worked out with the Taliban in order to begin an orderly withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan. Mr. Bolton’s virulent opposition to any deal with Iran short of complete denuclearization and regime change, both objectives beyond the realm of possibility, had angered Mr. Trump, especially because it ran counter to his instinctive antipathy toward getting involved in overseas military conflicts.
However, the firing of John Bolton, when combined with the visible diminishing of Israeli influence on U.S. policy toward Iran, signals that Washington is interested in easing tensions with Tehran. This is confirmed by the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s statement on September 10 that it was possible that a meeting between Mr. Trump and Mr. Rouhani could take place this month on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session in New York. Such a meeting, even if it does not immediately resolve all the contentious bilateral issues, could form the beginning of a de-escalatory process that is likely to benefit both Washington and Tehran in the long run.
(The author is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of International Relations, Michigan State University, and Senior Fellow, Center for Global Policy, Washington, DC)