Former US Ambassador to the United Nations and uber-hawk John Bolton says that former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon asked him to draw up a plan for how to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal in July. But after the White House ejected Bannon in August, Bolton lost access to the administration and his plan never made it to Trump's desk.
Now he's decided to publish his plan publicly, and it's ... not very good.
The five-page memo is basically a strategic public relations campaign to convince the world that the US has a case for pulling out of the deal. That case hinges on one central claim: that Iran is clearly violating the deal and has thus rendered it a meaningless agreement.
But experts say that this claim isn’t grounded in evidence, and that Iran is meeting international standards in complying with the deal’s requirements for inspections and monitoring.
Bolton’s argument, they say, simply assumes that Iran has nefarious intentions to build nuclear weapons despite the absence of any proof. And some analysts warn that his argument suffers from the same kind of war-hungry reasoning that led the US to invade Iraq on questionable evidence in 2003.
“There’s a lot of talk of Iran’s noncompliance with the deal, but there isn’t a lot of evidence of Iran’s noncompliance,” Jeffrey Lewis, an arms control expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, told me. “That’s sort of how Iraq happened, where the Bush administration said, ‘Let’s go find the evidence of weapons of mass destruction,’ rather than asking, ‘Does Iraq have weapons of mass destruction or not?’”
There’s no compelling evidence that Iran is violating the deal
In 2015, the Obama administration and its allies struck the nuclear deal with Iran, which called for lifting punishing Western economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for Tehran curbing its nuclear program.
The accord helped cool rising tensions between the US and Iran, which could possibly have led to yet another US military intervention in the Middle East. Tehran has already received tens of billions of dollars in sanctions relief in exchange for shipping out a large chunk of its enriched uranium and taking thousands of centrifuges offline.
In his memo, Bolton asserts that Iran’s “outright violations” of the terms of the deal give the US license to scrap the deal and reimpose crippling economic sanctions on the country unilaterally.
But experts say there is no evidence of Iran refusing to comply with the deal in substantial ways.
“Washington's partners in the deal and the European Union have all clearly stated that Iran is complying with the deal, and more importantly, the US intelligence community is pointing to Iran’s compliance with the agreement,” Kelsey Davenport, the director for nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association, told me.
"Based on the evidence that's been presented to the intelligence community, it appears that Iran is in compliance with the rules that were laid out in the JCPOA," Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress in July.
In the runup to the invasion of Iraq, Bolton served as the undersecretary of state for arms control and international security in the Bush administration. Both Davenport and Lewis point out that he was a key player in pushing for the war based on cherry-picked intelligence suggesting that Iraq’s leader Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.
“Bolton was pretty central to that and he’s replicating that experience,” Lewis said.
In addition to his concerns about compliance, Bolton also points out that Iran’s international behavior is strategically at odds with the US’s. Iran backs militant groups like Hezbollah and others that threaten US allies in the Middle East.
But that conduct is not prohibited by the agreement, and it’s unclear how pulling out of the Iran deal would allow the US to rein in Tehran.
Davenport points out that there are “clear signals that Washington’s partners are not interested in going along with Trump’s plan to exit the deal.”
Why does that matter? If the US is the only one one to scrap the deal and decides to reimpose sanctions, then its penalties won’t have much bite. It was the combined force of the international community’s isolation of Iran that suffocated its economy and made it inclined to curb its program and negotiate for relief.
Parties to the deal, like France and China, have already begun to do business with Iran again. They’re not eager to reverse that without good cause.
So if the US pulls out of the Iran deal when Iran is in fact complying with it, the other parties to the deal have little reason to join the US in dropping it as well and restarting sanctions. Iran would then be in a better position to pursue nuclear weapons than it was before the deal was struck.