A government of hardliners seemingly reveals an opening for moderates. Will that create a window for world-shifting negotiations? Barack Obama thought so when that described Iran, but will Iran think so after reading the Washington Post’s curious inside look at a supposedly pitched battle within the White House? Because it certainly reads as if that’s the objective:
The Trump administration has been on high alert in response to what military and intelligence officials have deemed specific and credible threats from Iran against U.S. personnel in the Middle East.
But President Trump is frustrated with some of his top advisers, who he thinks could rush the United States into a military confrontation with Iran and shatter his long-standing pledge to withdraw from costly foreign wars, according to several U.S. officials. Trump prefers a diplomatic approach to resolving tensions and wants to speak directly with Iran’s leaders. …
“They are getting way out ahead of themselves, and Trump is annoyed,” the official said. “There was a scramble for Bolton and Pompeo and others to get on the same page.”
Bolton, who advocated regime change in Iran before joining the White House last year, is “just in a different place” from Trump, although the president has been a fierce critic of Iran since long before he hired Bolton. Trump “wants to talk to the Iranians; he wants a deal” and is open to negotiation with the Iranian government, the official said.
Could this conflict be on the level? Of course. James Mattis headed for the exits over a similar vacillation from Trump on sticking around in Syria, although Trump ended up closer to Mattis’ position in the end. Trump initially brought in people who shared his innate impulse toward non-interventionism, but then made the surprising decision to add noted and articulate interventionist John Bolton as his top nat-sec adviser. It’s not difficult to imagine that Trump might have found Bolton’s approach only temporarily appealing before falling back to his normal instincts on foreign policy.
Still, this seems almost too perfect as a mirror image of what Iran usually does to get foreign governments to offer up concessions. Its hardliners make aggressive steps, at which point the supposedly reasonable moderates step up to assure Westerners that they need an agreement to keep the hardliners from starting a war. It’s all stage-managed by the mullahs, who don’t allow anyone in power who might cross them up on their hegemonic ambitions in the region and their genocidal goals when it comes to Israel. And Western leaders trip over themselves in hopes of making progress in Iran while boosting the mullahs in the end. Barack Obama wasn’t the first, and he won’t be the last either.
Either interpretation suggests that armed conflict is a long way off. If Trump’s pulling a Reverse Tehran with a twist, he’d better know that the difficulty on that dive is astronomical. They may catch the mullahs at a weak enough moment that they’d be willing to engage Trump directly to shake off Bolton’s influence, but more likely they’d be more willing to wait it out until after the next election. If Trump’s around in 2021 and Bolton is still his nat-sec adviser, then perhaps it’s time to make a deal. If not, the mullahs know they can rely on a Democratic president to re-embrace the JCPOA and perhaps even give Tehran a few more concessions to get them back into “compliance” with it.
If Trump’s really as frustrated as the picture painted by the Post suggests, Bolton won’t be around much longer. The North Koreans have made Bolton’s presence an issue in their negotiations as well, and if Trump really wants to try talking to Iran, he can kill two birds with one stone by asking Bolton to step down. The fact that Trump didn’t do that after the Hanoi summit suggests that Trump has a specific plan for Bolton’s presence, one with “frustration” necessarily built into it.