Trump fires his Iran policy architect: Update 2

  • : Crude oil
  • 19/09/10

Updates throughout

US president Donald Trump today fired White House national security adviser John Bolton, a proponent of strong pressure tactics against Iran and Venezuela.

Trump said he and other administration officials disagreed strongly with many of Bolton's views. Bolton's "priorities and policies just do not line up with the president," the White House said.

"The president has the right to put someone who carries out his agenda" but that was no longer tenable with Bolton, a senior White House official said.

The final straw for the president came after he was forced to call off talks with the leaders of the Taliban insurgency, scheduled to take place at the presidential retreat at Camp David on 7 September. Bolton opposed the talks and the prospect of inviting Taliban leaders to Camp David just days before the 18th anniversary of the 11 September 2001 attacks drew rebukes even from Trump's loyalists in Congress.

Bolton, responding via Twitter after Trump's announcement, said he offered to resign last night and "President Trump said, 'Let's talk about it tomorrow.'"

More than any other individual, Bolton had laid out the case for the "maximum pressure" campaign against Iran through sanctions and diplomatic pressure even before becoming Trump's national security adviser in April 2018.

Bolton had argued that the pressure of unilateral US sanctions will either result in the overthrow of the Iranian government or force it to negotiate a new deal on US terms. He suggested that Trump ought to publicly discuss the prospect of talking with Iran after withdrawing the US from the nuclear deal, but only to address his allies' concerns.

Bolton's policy of maximum pressure has resulted in a near cutoff of Iranian crude exports, but it also has sparked a string of incidents on oil tankers and infrastructure in the Middle East. Iran has selectively stopped compliance with restrictions on its nuclear program. The two countries nearly came to a military confrontation in June, but Trump decided not to retaliate after Iran shot down an unmanned US military drone.

And Trump appears interested in negotiating with Tehran, rather than just going through the motions of a dialogue. At the suggestion of French president Emmanuel Macron, Trump has floated the possibility of meeting Iranian president Hassan Rohani at the UN General Assembly later this month, even though the US insistence on maintaining oil sanctions on Iran makes the meeting unlikely.

Trump also seems open to discussing the French proposal to provide an economic lifeline for Tehran by oil-backed loans from the remaining participants of the nuclear deal, in return for Iran's return to full compliance with that agreement.

But US secretary of state Mike Pompeo and treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin insisted today that the "maximum pressure" policy will not change despite Bolton's departure — even though both appeared visibly satisfied at the news.

"The president has made clear he is happy to take a meeting with no preconditions, but we are maintaining the maximum pressure campaign," Mnuchin said at a news briefing shortly after Bolton's termination was announced. Mnuchin and Pompeo announced a consolidation of several existing sanctions programs to better target groups Washington considers terrorist, including Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its component Quds Force in this category alongside extremist groups Isis and Al-Qaeda in a calculated slight to Tehran.

Pompeo cited his own disagreements with Bolton and said that Trump "should have people that he trusts and values and whose efforts and judgments benefit him in delivering American foreign policy."

Bolton's equally confrontational approach to force out Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro has not worked out so far. The US recognizes Venezuelan National Assembly speaker Juan Guaido as the country's interim president. US sanctions in place have cut off Venezuela's primary export destination, forcing that country to redirect its crude exports to China and India.

Mnuchin said the Venezuela policy will not change. "We have a massive sanctions program that is working."

Bolton was Trump's third national security adviser. The first, Michael Flynn, resigned after less than a month in the office and is awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with the Russian ambassador in Washington in 2016. Flynn's successor HR McMaster lasted 13 months on the job before Trump forced him out in March 2018 to pursue a more confrontational course on Iran.

Trump said he would appoint a new national security adviser next week. Bolton's deputy Charlie Kupperman, formerly an executive at Boeing and Lockheed Martin, will serve as acting national security adviser.

Pompeo may not serve until the end of Trump's term in office either. Senior Republicans are pushing him to run for the Senate from Kansas next year, and Pompeo has until June 2020 to make the decision. Pompeo has not ruled out his candidacy, while insisting that he will continue to serve as secretary of state as long as Trump keeps him on board.

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