Trump can use JCPOA as leverage to force Iran’s hand
The significance of the Trump-MBS meeting is not only to seek Saudi input on the status of the Iran nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — while addressing its deficiencies, which primarily center on sunset clauses — but their discussions were tied to US President Donald Trump’s upcoming quarterly deadline to assess whether Tehran is complying with the JCPOA. Trump’s deadline is in May.
Given these dynamics, the timing of the attacks is arguably also directly linked to Trump’s recent appointment of John Bolton as his national security adviser and Mike Pompeo’s nomination to become secretary of state. Because Bolton and Pompeo are well known for their positions on Iran, coupled with the fact that Trump made his opposition to the JCPOA a centerpiece of his presidential campaign, uncertainty is growing in Washington about whether they will pull out of the agreement.
It is well understood in Washington policy circles that Trump’s objective of creating uncertainty over whether his administration will pull out of the JCPOA is meant to financially squeeze Tehran, which depends on sanctions relief to operate its government and prevent the economy from collapsing.
Bolton and Pompeo expected to be able to build on US president’s hardball stance against Tehran to forge a grand bargain with Iran that includes changes to its regional policies.
When it comes to the Bolton and Pompeo nominations, it is known in Washington policy circles that “personnel equals policy.” Bolton’s appointment is therefore a logical step toward implementing Trump’s anti-Iran policies and raising the pressure on Tehran over other issues, such as ballistic missile testing and arming proxies.
The same can be said about Pompeo’s nomination, as it signals the administration’s decision to increase pressure on the ongoing diplomatic process between Washington and its European partners in the JCPOA (France, Germany and the UK) on issues pertaining to the so-called sunset clauses of the agreement and Iran’s intercontinental ballistic missiles.
If and when a US-EU consensus on these issues can be found, the next step for the diplomatic process would be to take the revised position to Russia for input. It is widely thought that, if Russia endorses the changes or provides its own modifications, China will support the revisions as well.
There are, however, no guarantees that Russia would accommodate the US request to revise the JCPOA, especially at a time when the US-Russia relationship is at an all-time low. In light of the recent decision to expel 60 Russian diplomats over Moscow’s alleged role in attempting to kill a former spy and his daughter in the UK, a US-Russian rapprochement is impossible at this moment in time.
On the flip side, a potential failure to find common ground with Moscow over the JCPOA could leave Washington with little choice but to walk away from the agreement all together.
Amid these developments, Trump has agreed to attend a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jung-un to discuss Pyongyang’s controversial nuclear and ICBM programs. It is understood in Washington policy circles that, if confirmed, Pompeo would spearhead the diplomatic file with North Korea to prepare for the summit in question.
Amid the lingering uncertainty over Trump’s position on the JCPOA, US-Iranian tensions are increasing, as the White House has sought to strengthen its ties with Saudi Arabia and Israel as part of a strategic effort to isolate Tehran.
During the initial Trump-MBS meeting at the White House, the US-Saudi defense relationship dominated the agenda. The two leaders also discussed Yemen, Iran and other regional security issues.
Meanwhile, Trump’s decision to create uncertainty over the future of the JCPOA is, for all practical purposes, putting Iran on notice by using the agreement as leverage — as well as publicly supporting the recent Iran demonstrators — as part of a strategic effort to force Tehran to modify its regional policies.
Building on the US-Saudi momentum vis-a-vis Iran, Pompeo’s primary responsibility will be to do a deal with his international counterparts to “fix” the JCPOA — if that is even possible — while Bolton’s responsibility is to coordinate policy, including on Iran, at the White House.
To that end, Bolton and Pompeo can build on Trump's hardball stance against Tehran to forge a grand bargain with Iran that includes regional policies. This is where the JCPOA is leverage, a fact many observers have missed.
• Sigurd Neubauer is a Middle East analyst and columnist based in Washington.
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