The Iran nuclear deal might have died Tuesday.
That, at least, is one potential upshot of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s ouster and likely replacement by CIA Director Mike Pompeo.Friends and foes alike of the nuclear deal say the switch might clear the path for President Donald Trump to act on his oft-expressed desire to abandon the July 2015 nuclear agreement with Tehran, a signature achievement of President Barack Obama that Trump has called “the worst deal ever.”
When Trump spoke about Tillerson at the White House on Tuesday, he mentioned only one specific point of contention with his deposed diplomat. “We disagreed on things,” Trump said. “When you look at the Iran deal—I think it’s terrible; I guess he thought it was OK. I wanted to either break it or do something, and he felt a little bit differently. So we were not really thinking the same.”
Tillerson spent months arguing with Trump over the president’s desire to upend the deal, but Trump and Pompeo might be on the same page. Pompeo has long been one of Washington’s most ardent Iran hawks. As a Republican member of Congress, he said he looked forward to “rolling back this disastrous deal.” He has called for the U.S. to take a more active role in bringing about the fall of Tehran’s hard-line Islamist regime, which he has said is “intent on destroying America.” Last year, in a signal of his deep contempt for the Iranian regime, he placed the CIA officer who led the agency’s hunt for Osama bin Laden in charge of its Iran operations desk.
No wonder Pompeo’s fellow Iran hawks are ecstatic. “For anybody who thought that Trump was bluffing about his May 12 deadline to fix the deal or nix it, the appointment of Mike Pompeo as secretary of state should be a wake-up call,” said Mark Dubowitz, an executive at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies who has close ties to the Trump administration.
Tillerson was no Iran dove: He never shared the appetite of his predecessor, John Kerry, for sustained dialogue with Tehran and never spoke one on one with his Iranian counterpart. Nor is Tillerson a great fan of the deal’s terms, which unfroze billions of dollars in Iranian assets and lifted crippling Western sanctions in exchange for limits on Iran’s nuclear program that start to expire in about seven years. But he considered the costs of withdrawing from a U.S. commitment made along with France, Germany, Britain, the European Union, Russia and China to be unacceptable, and worked hard to find ways of appeasing Trump’s loathing for the signature Obama achievement.
That’s why, even as Tillerson learned his fate Tuesday, his top policy aide, Brian Hook, was headed to Vienna for Friday meetings with British, French, German and European Union officials aimed at coming up with new measures that can satisfy Trump before May, when a legal deadline requires him to decide whether to continue waiving U.S. nuclear sanctions. Trump has demanded new limits on Iran’s ballistic missile testing and development, greater access to suspected nuclear sites by international inspectors and an extended “sunset” period for the deal’s limits on Iran’s nuclear activities. So far, the Europeans—who believe an American exit from the deal would recklessly create a foreign policy emergency—say its impossible to reconcile Trump’s demands with the existing deal, which they insist on honoring. But Trump is not backing down. Dubowitz argued that Pompeo’s arrival could place “even more pressure on the Europeans to reach a trans-Atlantic deal that fixes the nuclear deal’s fatal flaws.” But other sources familiar with the talks are more skeptical, saying that Tillerson’s firing could further convince European leaders—already concerned that Trump will impulsively tear up the deal regardless of what they do—that imposing new terms on Iran is pointless.
The Europeans “will now see the writing on the wall,” said a former senior Obama administration official who participated in the nuclear negotiations. “They will realize Trump clearly wants out and won’t try as hard to work with him on a near-term fix.”
One Westerner who recently spoke with an Iranian official said Tehran has already reached the conclusion that Trump has no interest in preserving the deal. The Iranians believe that Trump’s recent demands for action to “fix” the deal were insincere, designed to set an impossibly high bar. When negotiations fail, they believe, Trump will blame others as he announces that the U.S. is restoring sanctions on Iran that will effectively invalidate the deal. Iranian officials are confident enough of this outcome that they have begun to discuss policy options, ranging from restarting their nuclear program to claiming the “moral high ground” internationally by continuing limits on their nuclear activities.
It’s still possible the deal can survive past Trump’s May decision point. Both Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and national security adviser H.R. McMaster share Tillerson’s view—although McMaster appears to be marked for removal himself, according to multiple media leaks.
And it’s not a given that Pompeo will egg Trump on. Asked about his scathing comments about the nuclear deal in a September interview with Fox News, Pompeo offered that he now sits “in a different place” and stopped short of calling for its termination.
It’s also possible that the game of musical chairs around Trump is beside the point. It’s harder than ever to predict the actions of a willful president who seems less and less willing to heed his advisers.
Asked how the change in top diplomats might affect the fate of the nuclear deal, one former Western official who was close to the negotiations replied: “The answer is, I don’t really know. Nobody can tell what’s going on in the great man’s mind. Ultimately, it depends on the mood of Donald Trump on the day.”