What John Bolton’s Sacking Means for US-Iran Tensions

Experts Say There is Reason for Optimism for a Slight Easing of Tensions and the Revival of Talks

President Trump’s National Security Advisor John Bolton is known as the man who never met a war he didn't like and for managing to be in the headlines even when he has said nothing in public. With his departure, this week over strong disagreements with the President, the top tier of the U.S. government lost its staunchest hard-liner on Iran. Bolton has advocated a tough stance on the Islamic Republic for decades, endorsing a pre-emptive strike to destroy the country's nuclear program as he filled posts from the White House to the United Nations. Following his resignation, experts say there is reason for optimism for a slight easing of tension and the revival of talks, but little sign of any dramatic shifts in the nuclear standoff that has stoked fears of a new war in the Middle East.

Since withdrawing from the Iran Nuclear Deal in 2018,  Trump has hit Iran with a raft of harsh economic sanctions as part of the administrations “maximum pressure” campaign to force Iran to renegotiate the terms of the deal, which the president has lambasted as being far too generous to Iran.

The "maximum pressure" policy is designed, according to Secretary of state Mike Pompeo, to alter Tehran's behavior by bringing the country to its knees through severe sanctions.   "We've now made Iran's economy a shambles," Pompeo told ABC's George Stephanopoulos Sunday, describing the effect of US sanctions. "We think their economy could shrink as much as 10 or 12% in the year ahead."  Two days later – a few hours after Bolton’s resignation – Pompeo said Trump could meet with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani “with no preconditions.” CNN’s Senior International Correspondent, Ben Wedeman, commented that with “Bolton out of the way, such a meeting can now go ahead without much resistance within the Trump White House.”

Sir Richard Dalton, a former British Ambassador to Iran, told CBS News on Wednesday that Bolton’s departure “improves the odds slightly on an easing of the U.S. maximum pressure campaign,” but that from his vantage point, he saw little sign of willingness from Iran or the Trump administration to take meaningful steps back from their entrenched positions.

According to Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, at the very least, Bolton’s exit reduces the chances of a military escalation. “It’s too hard to say if a meeting will happen given the question of whether it’s politically palatable for both leaders,” Kupchan told Bloomberg. “But the likelihood of a meeting has gone up because one of its main detractors is now out of a job.”

Cliff Kupchan, a former State Department official who now chairs the Eurasia Group risk consultancy, seemed to agree that animosity could ease, but saw no reason to expect a sudden, dramatic change.  "Bolton has been 'Dr. No' when it comes to talks with Iran," Kupchan wrote in an analysis quoted widely by financial news outlets. He said it was "probably still unlikely" the Ayatollah would approve a Trump-Rouhani meeting, but suggested there was now more "upward pressure on the chance of a meeting."

The Guardian’s diplomatic editor, Patrick Wintour, said that a meeting with Rouhani could only happen if Bolton’s departure is “accompanied by a US willingness to lift sanctions on Iranian oil exports.”

Iranian leaders, at least publicly, have spurned the suggestion of a Trump-Rouhani encounter. Alireza Miroyousefi, a spokesman at Iran’s Mission to the UN, said via text message, “Iran is unconcerned with the internal deliberations of the US. What we are concerned with is the economic terrorism the US wages against our people, and we reiterate that that must fully stop before any speculations.”

One thing all sides agree on is that tensions in recent months have soared, with a spate of attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf that have been blamed on Iran and the Islamic republic’s shooting down of an American drone it said was over its territorial waters. John Kilduff, partner of Again Capital told CNBC that Bolton “pressed to attack Iran militarily at almost every turn. I think in the aftermath of that drone attack he almost prevailed but President Trump pulled back at the last minute.”