WASHINGTON – Five days before President Donald Trump pulled out of what he called the “horrible” Iran nuclear deal, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told diplomats from Britain, France and Germany that he believed the pact could still be saved.
If Pompeo could win a few more days for negotiations, he told the Europeans in a conference call May 4, there was a chance — however small — the two sides could bridge a gap over the agreement’s “sunset provisions,” under which restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program expire in anywhere from seven to 13 years.
By May 7, when Britain’s foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, made the rounds in Washington, that hope had vanished. Pompeo told him that not only had Trump decided to pull out of the deal brokered by his predecessor, Barack Obama, but he was also going to reimpose the harshest set of sanctions on Iran he could.
The frantic final days before Trump’s announcement demonstrate that the Iran deal remained a complicated, divisive issue inside the White House, even after the president restocked his war Cabinet with more hawkish figures like Pompeo and John Bolton, the new national security adviser.
How that debate unfolded offers an insight into the shifting balance of power on Trump’s national security team in his second year in office.
Bolton is emerging as an influential figure, with a clear channel to the president and an ability to control the voices he hears. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who opposed leaving the deal but did not push the case as vocally toward the end, appears more isolated. And Pompeo may play a swing role, a hard-line former congressman and CIA director who, in his new job, seems determined to give diplomacy a fair shot.
Beyond the bureaucratic maneuvering, analysts said, the Iran debate lays bare a deeper split on Trump’s team — between those, like Mattis, who want to change the behavior of hostile governments and those, like Bolton, who want to change the governments themselves.
“Since 9/11, there has been a persisting policy tension over whether the U.S. objective toward ‘rogue’ states should be regime change or behavior change,” said Robert Litwak, senior vice president and director of international security studies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
Those in the regime change camp, Litwak said, believe that changing behavior, either through sanctions or military pressure, is inadequate because the threat comes from the very character of the regimes.
For more than a decade, and as recently as the summer, Bolton advocated “the overthrow of the mullahs’ regime in Tehran.” On Friday, he told Voice of America that leadership change was “not the objective of the administration.”
Trump’s Cabinet was hardly dovish before Bolton’s arrival. Mattis, in particular, nursed a grudge against Iran that dates to his days as a Marine commander. But he was opposed to leaving the deal, two people close to him said, because he feared that a trans-Atlantic rift over Iran would weaken the NATO alliance and could complicate looming negotiations with North Korea.
Even if Mattis had wanted to fight for the deal, it is not clear how much he would have been heard. Bolton, officials said, never convened a high-level meeting of the National Security Council to air the debate. He advised Trump in smaller sessions, otherwise keeping the door to his West Wing office closed. Bolton has forged a comfortable relationship with the president, several people said, channeling his “America First” vocabulary.
When the president addressed the nation Tuesday afternoon, his words bore the imprint of Bolton, who had called for the agreement to be scrapped almost from the moment it was signed.
“I don’t really have much to add to the president’s speech,” a pleased Bolton told reporters afterward in the White House briefing room. “This deal was fundamentally flawed. It does not do what it purports to do. It does not prevent Iran from developing deliverable nuclear weapons.”
As Bolton consolidates power, Mattis finds himself in a lonelier position. He lost the alliance he had built with Pompeo’s predecessor, Rex Tillerson, who joined him in persuading the president not to rip up the pact on two previous occasions.
Though he was less close to Bolton’s predecessor, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, McMaster also argued in favor of preserving the deal. With both men gone, only Mattis still held that view.
In future such debates, Pompeo may end up standing somewhere between Mattis and Bolton. While in Congress, Pompeo regularly called for the Iran deal to be scrapped. And as CIA director, he spoke over the summer about the benefits of changing the North Korean government — a stance he has since disavowed.
But as secretary of state, Pompeo impressed European diplomats with his willingness to keep negotiating fixes to the deal, even given Trump’s obvious hostility.
“Pompeo was not a nixer,” said Mark Dubowitz, chief executive of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and an outspoken critic of the deal. “He had a very high threshold for fixing it, but he also had credibility to present that to the president.”
It is not that Pompeo was reassuring, European officials said. He warned them May 4 that the negotiators faced an uphill struggle: Trump was strongly inclined to follow through on his threat to pull out of the pact. Still, he acknowledged that the two sides had made genuine progress toward a compromise. After weeks of grueling negotiations, the United States and Europe had reached consensus on 90 percent of the text in a supplemental agreement, according to people involved in the talks.
The Europeans agreed to enact restrictions on Iran’s ballistic missile program and to confront Iran’s aggression in the Middle East, two of the three demands Trump made in January when he said he would not stay in the deal unless the Europeans agreed to rework it.
But the two sides were stymied by the U.S. requirement that the deal’s restrictions on Iran’s nuclear fuel production be extended in perpetuity. The United States proposed that if Iran fell below a threshold of being 12 months away from a nuclear “breakout,” sanctions would automatically snap back in place. Europe viewed that as a violation of the deal.
On May 5, the State Department’s top negotiator, Brian Hook, spoke one more time to his British, French and German counterparts. But they failed to break the deadlock on the sunset provisions, which led to Pompeo’s downbeat message to Johnson two days later.
For critics like Dubowitz, who favored fixing the deal rather than nixing it, the failure to close the final gaps suggests Trump was never serious about finding a remedy — he was merely going through the motions before killing it.
Representatives of Bolton, Pompeo and Mattis played down any suggestion of divisions. Bolton, a National Security Council spokesman said, consulted widely with his colleagues and European allies on Iran. Mattis, a Pentagon spokeswoman said, gave his confidential advice to the president and did not feel cut out of the debate.
State Department officials said Pompeo concurred that the deliberations were open and thorough. However polite his conversations with the Europeans, they said, he did not seek an extension to save the deal, since the outcome was clear last week.
With the Iran deal in the rearview mirror, the next major test for Trump’s team will be his negotiation with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un. Until now, Pompeo has taken the lead in preparing for that meeting, relying heavily on his former staff at the CIA and making little use of the State Department or the National Security Council.
But Bolton has lost no time expressing his views about how the negotiation should be handled — he cited Libya’s voluntary surrender of its nuclear program in 2003 as a precedent — and why pulling out of the Iran deal will strengthen, rather than weaken, Trump’s hand.
“When you’re serious about eliminating the threat of nuclear proliferation, you have to address the aspects that permit an aspiring nuclear weapons state to get there,” Bolton said. “The Iran deal did not do that. A deal that we hope to reach — the president is optimistic we can reach with North Korea — will address all those issues.”