Known to be a man who loves making deals, US President Donald Trump apparently came close to talking about the ultimate deal – a comprehensive new nuclear deal with Iran – only for his aides in the White House to sabotage his efforts.
The revelation is one of the most significant made in former US national security adviser John Bolton’s new book The Room Where It Happened.
Bolton tells the story of killing Trump’s ambition to resume talks with Tehran with a sense of achievement, suggesting that efforts made by himself and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s backing, had halted Trump from going for a comprehensive US-Iran deal that was being pushed by French President Emmanuel Macron with support from other European and world leaders.
Bolton’s story in the book makes sense, as when Trump withdrew the US from the Iran nuclear agreement on 8 May 2018 his goal was not to kill off the deal, but to return to the negotiating table and renegotiate a wider deal with Iran called the “Trump Deal”.
The White House told many dismayed European and international leaders that the nuclear agreement reached during the time of former US president Barack Obama lacked a regional dimension and emphasised that Trump wanted to renegotiate the deal to make it better and more agreeable to the other Gulf states.
The European leaders were told that the Middle East in general would benefit from a new and comprehensive agreement related to Iranian activities in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
Since the Trump administration unilaterally walked out of the Iran nuclear deal and imposed a harsh package of sanctions on Tehran, Trump’s eye was on the moment when Tehran would crack under the sanctions, with no option but to come to the negotiating table.
The European countries, mainly France, were also intent on taking advantage of any available opportunity for Iran and America to negotiate a new comprehensive deal brokered by France.
But when the opportunity came, it was wrecked by Pompeo, Netanyahu and Bolton himself according to his new book. Netanyahu is mentioned dozens of times, and most of these are descriptions of conversations between the Israeli prime minister and US officials regarding Iran.
The only story Bolton tells in more detail is of how Pompeo, Netanyahu and Bolton himself disrupted Trump’s plans to open diplomatic channels with Tehran last summer.
Their intervention reflects a complex and uneasy relationship with Trump.
For them, Trump was not decisive enough with Iran and did not favour military action, and as a result there were many disagreements with him. According to Bolton, in June 2019, Trump stunned Bolton and the other Iran hawks in the administration by abandoning a military strike against Iranian targets in retaliation for an Iranian attack on a US military drone at the last minute.
Bolton describes that event as one of the most unprofessional decisions he had ever witnessed in his career in US national security.
Later that summer, while the situation in the Middle East was deteriorating, Macron, in constant contact with the Iranians, offered help in efforts to resume the talks between Washington and Tehran, with France as mediator.
Macron’s efforts did not come out of the blue, as he was aware of Trump’s desire to resume the negotiations. Bolton says that Macron’s plan was for Trump to meet with a senior Iranian official in late August in the French coastal town of Biarritz, when France would be hosting a meeting of the G-7 countries with the US president in attendance.
Bolton reveals that he and Pompeo, the administration’s two most prominent Iran hawks, acted during the summer to stymie Macron’s diplomatic efforts and persuade Trump to reject the proposals.
Nonetheless, the French president, who knew the depth of resentment towards Iran among Trump’s top aides, surprised everyone by inviting Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to the G-7 gathering, opening the door to a potential meeting between Iran’s top diplomat and Trump.
For Pompeo, Netanyahu and Bolton, this was intolerable, especially as Macron was also promoting an international “credit line” to Iran that would ease some of the economic pressure being placed on the country by the US sanctions.
Bolton writes that when Trump arrived in Biarritz in August, he had an unscheduled one-on-one meeting with Macron, during which Iran was the sole topic of discussion. According to Bolton, Trump later described the conversation as “the best hour and a half he’d ever spent.”
The next day, rumours about Zarif’s arrival in the south of France began to surface in the world media.
Bolton received an anxious call from Pompeo, who had spoken earlier with Netanyahu about attacks against Iranian targets in Syria that had been attributed to Israel.
After the call, Bolton heard from Trump’s staff that Macron had invited the president to meet with Zarif and he was “eager” to go to the meeting.
Bolton’s reaction was to ask his own staff to prepare a flight for him to return to the United States. If the meeting were to go ahead, he would resign immediately from the White House.
Pompeo and Bolton continued to communicate, hoping to pressure Trump not to meet Zarif. Bolton writes that both of them were at the same time also talking to Netanyahu and Israeli Ambassador to Washington Ron Dermer.
Bolton says in his book that he asked Pompeo to tell Netanyahu and Dermer that he “felt like the Light Brigade” – meaning that despite his best efforts, he was unlikely to be able to stop the meeting.
According to Bolton, two other senior administration officials, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, were in favour of the meeting with Zarif going ahead.
Pompeo complained to Bolton that “we have Mnuchin and Jared, two Democrats, running our foreign policy.” Bolton told Pompeo of his intention to resign, and the secretary of state replied that if the meeting went ahead he would do the same thing, according to Bolton.
In the book, Bolton writes that he then had a conversation with Trump in which he told the president that if the United States relaxed any of the pressure on Iran, it would be “very difficult” to put it back in place.
He urged Trump not to go ahead with meeting Zarif. Bolton also said he was encouraged by the fact that Trump had turned against the credit line idea for Iran, saying that “they’re not getting any line of credit until the whole deal is done.”
Trump’s hardline position was the opposite of what Macron had suggested about opening a line of credit as a gesture of goodwill that would lead to further negotiations.
According to Bolton, Netanyahu was trying to talk to Trump directly to express his opposition to the meeting but could not get through to the president. Bolton said Kushner was against connecting the two men, because he thought it inappropriate for a foreign leader to try to dictate whom Trump should speak to.
In the end, the meeting never took place, to the relief of Bolton, Pompeo and Netanyahu. Bolton does not give any specific explanation for the collapse of Macron’s efforts. “I don’t know if I had talked Trump out of meeting Zarif,” Bolton says in his book.
But European sources suggest it was the Iranians who had demanded an easing of the sanctions before giving Trump a photo opportunity.
As for Bolton, “the decision [not to hold the meeting] was enough” for him not to resign. He eventually left the White House in September 2019, leaving behind him a Middle East in a worse situation.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 2 July, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly