An outspoken critic of the Iran nuclear deal says he was asked by President Donald Trump’s former strategist, Steve Bannon, in July to draft a proposal on how the United States could withdraw from the agreement.
But after Bannon and other Iran hawks at the White House were sacked in recent weeks, the Iran deal skeptic — former U.N. ambassador John Bolton — decided to publish his plan on Monday, saying he feared his ideas would never reach the president.
“I offer the Iran nonpaper now as a public service, since staff changes at the White House have made presenting it to President Trump impossible,” Bolton wrote in the National Review, which posted his blueprint for exiting the deal. “Although he was once kind enough to tell me ‘come in and see me any time,’ those days are now over.”
A source involved in the Iran policy discussions at the White House confirmed that Bolton was in and out of the Oval Office for at least several weeks. At one point, he was even offered the possibility of serving as deputy national security advisor, with the idea that he might eventually get to replace H.R. McMaster.
The source said Bolton declined, preferring to wait until he was offered the top job.
A spokesperson for Bolton declined to comment and the White House did not immediately respond to requests for comment from Foreign Policy.
Bolton was in the running initially for the number two position at the State Department before Trump entered office, but Republicans in Congress opposed the idea and he was never nominated.
It now appears that with Bannon gone, Bolton no longer has access to the Oval Office.
“If the president is never to see this option, so be it,” wrote Bolton, a former ambassador to the United Nations and unabashed neoconservative who served in George W. Bush’s administration. “But let it never be said that the option didn’t exist.”
Bolton’s public appeal reflects a deep frustration among opponents of the Iran deal who until recently viewed the White House as an ally in their effort to undercut the agreement. In a matter of weeks, the political dynamics at the White House have shifted after Trump forced out Bannon and other White House officials, including Sebastian Gorka and senior officials on the National Security Council, Derek Harvey and Ezra Cohen-Watnick.
Critics of the Iran agreement say they are worried Trump’s advisers and officials at the State Department are not providing the president with a full range of options, including the possibility of either abandoning the accord or telling Congress that Tehran is not complying with the terms of the agreement.
“People close to the president during the campaign, Bannon and others, longtime conservatives and Iran deal skeptics are pretty much frozen out of the decision making process,” said one source with ties to the administration.
The 2015 nuclear agreement between Iran and world powers imposes strict limits on Tehran’s nuclear program in return for lifting an array of economic sanctions that damaged Iran’s economy.
The Obama administration presented it as a diplomatic triumph that averted a potential war with Iran and placed Tehran’s nuclear work under international inspections. But opponents say it legitimizes Iran’s nuclear infrastructure for future use and fails to take into account Tehran’s ballistic missiles as well as its support for Hezbollah and other militants across the region.
In his proposal, titled “Abrogating the Iran Deal: the Way Forward,” Bolton argues that Washington should withdraw because Iran is violating the agreement, refusing to allow inspections of military sites and supporting “terrorism.”
He also stresses the need to explain the decision to allies in the Middle East and in Europe privately and then following up later with a public campaign. And he calls for citing intelligence reports that would back up the argument.
“We can bolster the case for abrogation by providing new, declassified information on Iran’s unacceptable behavior around the world,” Bolton said.
Supporters of the Iran agreement say there is no evidence that Iran has violated the nuclear deal in any significant way and allege the intelligence agencies are under pressure from the administration to come up with information that shows Tehran is flouting the deal.
Bolton also suggests considering more drastic measures, including supporting “democratic opposition” to the Iranian regime, backing the rights of various ethnic and religious minorities in Iran, ending all landing and docking rights for Iranian aircraft and ships at allied ports, and shutting off all U.S. visas for Iranians, including for scholarly and sports exchanges.
The president is required to certify to Congress every 90 days whether Iran is in compliance with the nuclear agreement. Trump has reluctantly certified twice that Iran has been abiding by the deal.
But at a White House meeting on the issue in July, Trump complained to his advisers that he was unhappy with the options presented and that he was not ready to declare Iran in compliance indefinitely.
Trump was so frustrated that he encouraged aides to prepare a potential plan for withholding certification of Iran at the next 90-day review of the nuclear deal scheduled for October. But a number of the staffers expected to draft such an option are no longer in the administration, and it’s unclear if and how the assignment would be carried out by those remaining.
As a candidate, Trump was a harsh critic of the Iran deal. But after certifying Iran was in compliance with the agreement twice since he was sworn in, supporters came away puzzled, according to Bolton.
“Many outside the administration wondered how this was possible: Was Trump in control, or were his advisers? “
Jana Winter contributed to this article.
Photo credit: DREW ANGERER/Getty Images