Donald Trump and his top officials reportedly discussed the possibility of easing sanctions on Iran on Monday, as a means of engineering a meeting with Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, at this month’s UN general assembly.
According to the account by Bloomberg News, the then national security adviser, John Bolton, argued forcefully against such a meeting, a day before his abrupt departure from the White House.
His removal followed deep differences with Trump over the president’s wish to score some quick diplomatic successes, by meeting Rouhani, the Taliban and other US adversaries.
According to the Bloomberg account, the treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, argued for a lifting of sanctions as a means of restarting negotiations with Iran. Asked on Wednesday on whether he would meet Rouhani, Trump said: “We’ll see what happens.”
“I do believe they’d like to make a deal,” the president said.
On Wednesday, Trump criticised Bolton for his positions on a range of foreign policy issues, stretching back to his role in advocating the 2003 Iraq invasion.
“He made some very big mistakes,” the president said. “John is known as a tough guy. He’s so tough, he got us into Iraq.”
Bolton had been “way out of line” on Venezuela policy and was “not getting along with people” in the administration, Trump added.
Bolton’s departure from the White House is widely seen in Washington as clearing the way for a more conciliatory foreign policy towards US adversaries in the run-up to next year’s elections, as the president seeks to launch his campaign looking more like a dealmaker than a warmonger.
Securing a meeting with Rouhani at the UN general assembly is likely to be challenging without significant sanctions relief, a U-turn from the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” policy. The Iranian president’s options are limited by domestic politics and the views of the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, who has thus far been adamant in his rejection of a return to talks.
Foreign policy analysts suggested that to score a quick foreign policy win – or at least the appearance of one – getting nuclear talks with North Korea back on track looks an easier hill to climb. Pyongyang has said it is prepared to restart discussions later this month, although the regime followed the offer with two short-range missile tests and a warning that the US would have to change its negotiating position.
“With Trump flailing around and looking for a Kodak moment, to my mind North Korea seems more ripe than Iran,” said Barbara Slavin, director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council. “The Iranians must be smelling weakness now, with Trump looking for his fourth national security adviser. Now is not the time to go easy on him.”
Trump acknowledged on Wednesday that Bolton’s presence was an obstacle to negotiating with the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-un, after the former adviser suggested the “Libyan model” of disarmament for Pyongyang.
“Take a look at what happened to Gaddafi… and he’s using that to make a deal with North Korea?” Trump said. “I don’t blame Kim Jong-un for what he said after that. He wanted nothing to do with John Bolton. That’s not a question of being tough; that’s a question of being not smart.”
Suzanne DiMaggio, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who has been involved in back-channel negotiations with both Tehran and Pyongyang, said: “Bolton’s removal provides an opportunity for the Trump administration to reassess its failed ‘maximum pressure’ approach to both Iran and North Korea.”
She added: “Much would depend on whether Trump has the capacity to empower seasoned diplomats to carry out real diplomacy on both fronts.”
Emmanuel Macron has being trying to orchestrate a Trump-Rouhani meeting at the UN general assembly, and Trump appeared to be open to the idea at the G7 summit last month in Biarritz..
Rouhani’s office said on Wednesday the Iranian president had talked by phone to Macron, and told him: “From the point of view of the Iranian government, parliament and people, negotiating with the US under sanctions is pointless.”
Ariane Tabatabai, a political scientist and Iran expert at the Rand Corporation, said that Iran was amassing bargaining chips in anticipation of an eventual return to talks with the US.
One by one, Tehran has ceased observing the limits on its nuclear programme imposed in the 2015 deal: it has harassed oil shipping going through the strait of Hormuz, seizing a British tanker, the Stena Impero, and it has stepped up arbitrary arrests of westerners visiting Iran, including two British-Australian dual nationals and a third Australian.
“What I think they are actually pursuing is more leverage than anything else,” Tabatabai said. “A lot of their activities currently are just them trying to build this pressure campaign of their own, so that they can come back to the table with more chips, so that the US does not go straight for their red lines.”
Rouhani’s decision on whether to meet Trump at the UN will be influenced by the degree to which the US eases the oil and banking embargo on Iran, but also by the dynamics of Iranian politics.
“Rouhani has an opportunity here. There’s an American president who is desperate for something that looks remotely like a foreign policy success,” said Alex Vatanka, an Iran expert at the Middle East Institute. But he added that Rouhani would not meet Trump without the approval of Iran’s ageing supreme leader. Khamenei was furious with the president for even taking a phone call from Obama at the UN general assembly six years ago.
“I think the supreme leader is thinking in terms of succession, and passing the baton on to someone that he would like, and not doing anything to empower Rouhani.”
Trump has options too, when it comes to diplomatic breakthroughs. One is a return to a partial nuclear deal with North Korea, which was under discussion before Trump’s second summit with Kim Jong-un in Vietnam in February.
At that meeting, Trump switched to a harder-line position advocated by Bolton that North Korea disarm completely in return for full sanctions relief.
Victor Cha, former director of Asian affairs at the national security council, said Trump could decide to accept a North Korean offer of dismantling a handful of sites, including parts of the nuclear complex at Yongbyon, in return for partial sanctions relief.
“It would certainly be lower-hanging fruit than Iran,” Cha, now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “There is already stuff on the table and with Bolton gone, there is nothing stop him.”