But it wasn’t always so.
President Donald Trump came so close to meeting with Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif last year that former National Security Advisor John Bolton was going to resign, according to Bolton’s upcoming book.
Trump’s stated goal has been to get a “better deal” than the JCPOA, a 2015 agreement between Iran and six world powers signed by President Barack Obama. But after three years of missed opportunities, the United States and Iran are further from diplomacy than ever before.
“The Iranian public position has been: return to the JCPOA and we’re willing to talk about other things as well,” says Jarrett Blanc, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who oversaw JCPOA implementation at the State Department. “I think that is the smartest play for the United States.”
But the Trump administration took the opposite approach, ramping up the pressure on Iran. Trump insists that this is a negotiating tactic, but Bolton claims it is really a policy aimed at destroying the Iranian regime.
One question remains: can the winner of November’s election—whether it is Trump or former Vice President Joe Biden—avoid the pitfalls of the past three years?
“Worst Deal Ever”
The JCPOA was the most ambitious U.S.-Iranian deal to date, but it has its fair share of critics.
Iran agreed to cut down on its stockpile of nuclear materials—which could have been used to make a nuclear weapon—and submit its nuclear research facilities to round-the-clock international inspections. In exchange, the international community agreed to end economic sanctions on Iran and return Iranian money stuck in foreign banks.
The image of Iran getting billions of dollars “in actual cash, carried out in barrels and in boxes from airplanes,” enraged Trump, who called the JCPOA the “worst deal ever.”
Other advisors had different gripes.
Richard Goldberg, who worked at the National Security Council until earlier this year, told reporters a few months after leaving the White House that parts of the JCPOA “simply offered legitimacy” for a nuclear program that was “illicit” at its core.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has criticized the deal on the grounds that it ignores Iran’s other threats, claiming that “terror attacks around the world increased under the JCPOA.”
Trump decided to leave the deal on May 8, 2018, re-imposing some U.S. sanctions on Iran. A year later, Trump approved “maximum pressure,” a policy of trying to cut Iran’s oil exports to zero.
The Trump administration has repeatedly claimed that its goal is not to overthrow the Iranian government. At the time, Pompeo issued a list of twelve behaviors he wanted Iran to change.
He told Gen. Joseph Dunford, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that “only regime change would ultimately prevent Iran from possessing nuclear weapons.”
Dunford agreed, according to Bolton.
Goldberg, now a senior advisor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, downplays Bolton’s claims about regime change.
“I am confident that President Trump is both sincere in his stated willingness to negotiate an agreement in which Iran dismantles its nuclear and missile capabilities, but also clear-eyed that negotiating with anyone other than the Supreme Leader is a waste of his time,” he wrote in an email to the National Interest.
Trump insisted that he wanted to negotiate as maximum pressure began to bite in spring 2019. The President believed that “Iran was dying and had to make a deal,” according to Bolton.
And problems were escalating for the United States, as well. Iran was ramping up its nuclear activities. Oil tankers also began to explode off the Iranian coast, prompting the U.S. military to begin building up its forces in the region.
Iran shot down a drone on June 20, and Trump ordered air raids on Iranian targets in response. But he changed his mind a few hours before the combat was set to begin.
Bolton called it “the most irrational thing I ever witnessed any President do.”
French president Emmanuel Macron saw an opening in August. He flew Zarif into France for a surprise visit to the G7 international conference, and offered to arrange a meeting between the Iranian chief diplomat and Trump.
Macron was trying to push a bargain that could bring both sides back to the JCPOA: Iran would rein its nuclear program back in and restore security in the Persian Gulf, in exchange for a $15 billion loan backed by oil sales.
Bolton and Pompeo panicked. Both were prepared to resign if the President met with Zarif, according to Bolton, while Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu frantically tried to reach Trump.
Pompeo has called Bolton’s book a collection of “lies, fully-spun half-truths, and outright falsehoods.”
The real impediment ended up being Trump’s own insistence that Iran is “not getting any line of credit until the whole deal’s done,” according to Bolton. Both the French and Iranians wanted economic relief up front, but Trump insisted that he is “not agreeing to anything just to get them to stop violating the [JCPOA].”
It’s not clear whether Trump or any other U.S. officials ever actually met Zarif. Bolton, Pompeo, and “senior Israeli officials” were left anxious that Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin or Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner could have met Zarif in order “to create a future channel of communication.”
“Clear Way Forward”
Nonetheless, nothing public came of the G7 conference.
The U.S. Treasury continued to escalate the economic pressure, while Iran retaliated by allowing Iraqi militias to attack U.S. forces, who were ostensibly in Iraq to fight ISIS.
Bolton was fired in September.
And then a rocket killed an American translator in Iraq in late December, prompting Trump to escalate with military force.
By time the violence was over in mid-January, Iran’s spymaster Maj. Gen Qassim Suleimani lay dead, obliterated by a U.S. drone. And over a hundred U.S. troops were left injured in an Iranian ballistic missile attack.
The combat in January “weakened the moderate/reformist discourse [within Iran] that used to argue that diplomacy and engagement is the only solution,” says Negar Mortazavi, an Iranian journalist based in Washington. “Now there is less will and more reluctance to talk to Trump.”
But, she emphasizes, the “political consensus in Tehran, repeatedly stated by both the Supreme Leader and the President, is that Iran would abide by the deal if the U.S. does. That calculation hasn’t changed.”
“Privately, [the Iranians] have communicated a slightly more accomodating line,” Blanc adds. “They would be willing to talk to the Trump administration in exchange for pretty substantial upfront sanctions concessions, but not necessarily full U.S. reentry into the JCPOA.”
The sanctions relief would at least have to bring Iran back to the situation it was in before the Trump administration tried to end all Iranian oil exports, Blanc claims.
“The President will be in a much stronger position to negotiate after completing a snapback of all UN sanctions and restrictions, thereby denying Iran the last remaining strategic benefits of the Iran nuclear deal,” Goldberg insists. “You can't really negotiate a new deal when the old deal still exists and Iran is on track to reap its strategic benefits.”
UN sanctions on Iran are set to expire in October, but Iran also has the November election in mind, according to Goldberg.
“The regime is like a marathon runner who is completely out of gas but can still see the finish line in the distance,” he explains. “Snapback takes away that last glimmer of hope—and leaves Iran under enormous pressure and without strategic wins no matter who wins the presidential election.”
Trump is also thinking about November.
“Don’t wait until after U.S. Election [sic] to make the Big deal. I’m going to win,” Trump wrote on Twitter soon after a June prisoner exchange. “You’ll make a better deal now!”
But Iran seems to be done dealing with Trump, and ready to talk to his successor.
Iranian state media claimed on Tuesday that Trump’s “scramble to use the 'negotiation' card” is simply “a tool to win over his democratic [sic] rival Joe Biden” in November’s election.
Biden foreign policy advisor Anthony Blinken has said that the United States will return to the JCPOA if—and only if—Iran does the same.
“Under its own terms, President Trump’s approach to Iran has been a very, very strong failure,” he said last month.
He claimed that rejoining the JCPOA would make U.S. allies “much more likely to join us in trying to curb other actions by Iran that we find objectionable.”
Blinken added last week that “obviously all sanctions would remain in place” unless Iran returned to “full compliance.”