Report: Trump considered easing sanctions on Iran two days ago to encourage talks — over Bolton’s strong objection

Golly, whoever leaked this to Bloomberg must have been pretty high up the food chain to know what the president was thinking on a matter as sensitive as Iran diplomacy.

And they must have a pretty sizable axe to grind with him if they’re willing to make him sound this weak, particularly in comparison to Bolton.

Any theories? Do any current or former disgruntled national security aides with a reputation for score-settling in the press present themselves as logical suspects?

The post-Bolton era will be a golden age of natsec leaking, my friends.

President Donald Trump discussed easing sanctions on Iran to help secure a meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani later this month, prompting then-National Security Advisor John Bolton to argue forcefully against such a step, according to three people familiar with the matter.

After an Oval Office meeting on Monday when the idea came up, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin voiced his support for the move as a way to restart negotiations with Iran, some of the people said. Later in the day, Trump decided to oust Bolton, whose departure was announced Tuesday.

The White House has started preparations for Trump to meet with Rouhani this month in New York on the sidelines of the annual United Nations General Assembly the week of Sept. 23, according to the people. It’s far from clear if the Iranians would agree to talks while tough American sanctions remain in place…

Easing any sanctions without major concessions from Iran would undercut the pressure campaign that not only Bolton, but also Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and Trump have said is the only effective way to make Iran change its behavior.

Macron has discussed brokering a meeting between Trump and a top Iranian diplomat. He might end up as the conduit at the UN.

Needless to say, backing off sanctions on Iran would mean abandoning the “maximum pressure” approach Trump has taken towards the country since exiting Obama’s nuclear deal. The two sides are playing a game of chicken right now: Trump has ramped up sanctions in hopes of bringing the Iranian economy to its knees (with some success, by the way), believing that they’ll cave and agree to nuclear terms more favorable to American in exchange for sanctions relief. Iran is ramping up its enrichment program again in hopes of making Trump panic about a new crisis in the Middle East, believing that he’ll cave and start lifting sanctions as a precondition to getting them back to the bargaining table. Iran’s president has explicitly said, in fact, that they won’t talk to the United States in a meaningful way unless Trump blinks first. Who’s the chicken?

If you believe this Bloomberg story, it sounds like Trump’s the chicken. Or will be soon.

A basic problem for him in trying to stare down Iran is that he keeps signaling how reluctant he is to let this cold war turn hot. Skepticism of war is his most laudable quality as president but he’s made such a show of it that it’s ended up undercutting the effectiveness of his “madman” image. Ideally Iran would be eager to talk with Trump without preconditions because they’ve concluded that he’s so wacky and bellicose that he just might order a bombing run on Tehran after all. And he is wacky in many things. But in matters of war he’s arguably more sober than his advisors, to the point of boasting that he canceled an attack on Iran because he cares about Iranian lives just that much. Iran is sizing him up; they knows there’s a presidential election coming; they know how eager Trump is to keep his campaign promise of avoiding new military entanglements; they know from his experience with North Korea (and more recently the Taliban) how enchanted he is by big peacemaker photo ops, even if they don’t produce anything meaningful for the United States. And so they’ve concluded that it’s safe to drive a hard bargain with the “madman” after all. His carrot-and-stick approach is really all carrot.

I mean, he sent Rand Paul to feel them out on talks, for fark’s sake. How much plainer can he be that he’s desperate for diplomacy?

They probably figure they can get him to recommit to the basic framework of the Obama nuclear deal so long as they add a few token bells and whistles and be sure to credit him lavishly with an unprecedented master stroke of diplomacy. But they’re going to test him first by refusing to agree to talks unless and until he blinks on sanctions. And now we find out that he’s thinking about blinking.

This Times piece from a few weeks ago about Iran coming around to the idea of talks with Trump caught my eye because it’s not what you’d expect in the current political climate. Trump’s polling has slipped lately. The trade war is deepening. He’s no better than a 50/50 shot at reelection. You might think that Iran would try to wait him out for 14 more months and see if they end up with a Democrat in 2021 who’s willing to reinstate the Obama nuclear deal. But no:

The new strategy, those who spoke about it said, was also predicated on dangling a foreign-policy victory to Mr. Trump that he could use to bolster his re-election prospects

If Mr. Trump wanted a “more comprehensive” deal than the existing accord, then Iran would consider his demand — and even discuss parts of its ballistic missile program and Iran’s role in the region — but in return Iran, too, would seek a more comprehensive guarantee from the United States for long-lasting economic relief, the people at the meeting said.

“This golden window of opportunity will likely not repeat in the next decade,” Sadegh Alhusseini, a senior foreign-policy and economic adviser to Mr. Jahangiri, said in a Twitter message. “This is the start of the game for Iran. Approaching U.S. elections give Iran a rare card to play with Trump.”

Iran might actually prefer a dovish Republican in office to a Democrat. Most of the hawkish impulse towards the country within the U.S. comes from the right, after all. With a Democrat in charge, those right-wing hawks are free to agitate for war, or at least “maximum pressure” in the form of sanctions. With Trump in office, they can’t. It’d be “disloyal” to the president to do so. It’s Trump’s party now, not John Bolton’s. So for Iran, friendly relations with Trump is basically a risk-free gamble. If they hand him a diplomatic win and he’s reelected, he’ll owe them in his second term and will be eager to build on the fledgling detente. If they hand him a diplomatic win and he loses, his Democratic successor will be reluctant to toss Iran’s olive branch to Trump aside and resume a hostile posture. It’s Democrats even more so than Republicans who want better relations with Iran, after all.

So what do they lose by talking to him and just maybe nailing down a grand bargain in which America formally recognizes the regime and renounces future efforts at regime change? For cripes sake, he was willing to legitimize the Taliban with a U.S. visit without even demanding they commit to a ceasefire. He’ll have Rouhani over for a state dinner before 2020 is out. No doubt they think they can roll him, especially with Bolton now out of the picture. But just to be sure, they’re going to test him to see if he’s willing to blink on sanctions first. He probably will.

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