Home/Daniel Larison/The Nuclear Deal Saboteurs and the 2020 Election

The Nuclear Deal Saboteurs and the 2020 Election

John Bolton and his allies on the National Security Council continue their efforts to drive Iran out of the nuclear deal, and they are pressuring Trump to force the issue in the next year:

National Security Council officials are pressing President Donald Trump to force Iran out of its 2015 nuclear accord with world powers before the 2020 election, warning him that Tehran’s defiance and its expanding nuclear work could pose political problems for his campaign, two sources familiar with the discussions told McClatchy.

National Security Advisor John Bolton and his aides are exploring aggressive sanctions moves that would target the nuclear agreement at its core and potentially collapse the deal outright. His camp within the West Wing is making a case that Trump’s withdrawal from the agreement was not enough – and that only full termination of the accord will complete the circle on his 2016 campaign promise and secure his legacy with voters.

The Trump administration has been seeking to drive Iran out of the deal for more than a year, so it isn’t surprising that the same hard-liners that have supported the policy up until now are trying to get as much as they can out of Trump while they still can. There is no question that Iran hawks want to create an even bigger crisis with Iran, and they want it as soon as possible. The odd thing in this report is the argument that the hard-liners are using to appeal to Trump’s vanity.

Bolton and his allies want Trump to think that failing to force Iran out of the deal will be a political liability for him, but it is much more likely that Iranian withdrawal would expose Trump to much more well-deserved criticism and political backlash. Trump’s general election opponent would have a field day if the nuclear deal collapsed because of the Trump administration’s pressure campaign. It would prove how dangerous and destabilizing Trump’s conduct of foreign policy is, and it would also confirm that he fails at everything he attempts. Above all, it would make him look foolish and irresponsible, and that would reinforce the argument that he needed to be voted out.

So far Trump has been able to get away with his cruel and destructive Iran policy because the costs have mostly been borne by the Iranian people, but that policy also put the U.S. and Iran on a collision course that has brought our governments dangerously close to war. War with Iran is a political loser for Trump, and causing Iran to abandon the nuclear deal would prove that his policy is as irrational and reckless as his critics said it was. Because the Trump administration has disingenuously claimed that they are trying to get Iran to negotiate, they cannot say that forcing Iran out of the deal means their policy “worked.” According to their own stated goals, it would mark the Iran policy as an unmitigated failure. The only way that they can claim any kind of vindication is if they admit that their “better deal” posturing was a deception and creating a major crisis was always their real goal. That also seems unlikely to be a big vote-winner.

The hard-liners in Trump’s administration probably think their time is running out, so they are trying to destroy the nuclear deal once and for all before Trump leaves office. If the hard-liners get what they want, that will contribute to Trump’s defeat and their own loss of power, but the damage they wanted to cause will have already been done. The hard-liners’ larger goal is not only to sabotage the nuclear deal, but to make it so that no future administration can repair the damage they have caused. The best thing Trump could do right now would be to fire Bolton and purge the NSC of the people that are leading him over the cliff, but it seems that Bolton can do whatever he wants without being fired.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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