With Bolton's departure, an Iran hawk leaves the chessboard
John Bolton's departure from the White House removes an obstacle to the possibility of U.S.-Iranian nuclear talks, but the odds of such a dialogue leading anywhere remain low, current and former U.S. officials said on Tuesday.
President Donald Trump fired his national security adviser, a hawk on Iran who as a private citizen had advocated military action to destroy its nuclear programme and who disagreed with his boss on policies from Afghanistan to Russia while in office.
Trump's third national security adviser, Bolton had argued for driving Iranian oil exports to zero and against Trump's desire to meet Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
"Bolton has been 'Dr. No' when it comes to talks with Iran," Cliff Kupchan, a former State Department official now at the Eurasia Group political risk consultancy, wrote in an analysis.
While Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei probably would not allow a meeting at this month's U.N. General Assembly, Kupchan said: "There's upward pressure on the chance of a meeting. If it does happen, we'd see more downward umph on the oil price."
U.S. oil prices fell more than 1 percent on the news of Bolton's departure, with investors betting that it increased the odds of the United States easing sanctions on Iran and reduced the odds of any possible U.S. military strike.
Iran: Coping with Sanctions
The recent deal reached by Iran and the West has raised hopes of a better future for Iranians. Until then, Iranians will have to continue coping with the impact of Western sanctions on their economy
A street vendor at the bazaar of Mashhad presents his goods to passers-by. Many of those peddling their wares struggle to make ends meet.
Bozorg bazaar, the main bazaar in south Tehran. Banking operations with foreign countries are impossible due to the sanctions. Iranians have to use Dubai-run banks or Turkish banks for their money transactions.
Women queuing to buy bread at a bakery in Mashhad. Many Iranians have changed their shopping habits, preferring to buy at the cheaper supermarkets rather than going to more expensive shops.
Because many commodities are not available on the official market due to sanctions, the black market is thriving, providing Iranians with items that are in demand.
An exchange shop for gemstones in Tehran. Many Iranians are investing in gemstones because the devalutation of the Rial, the Iranian currency, has left it practically worthless.
Because of the sanctions, many people resort to exchanging dollars and euros illegally on the streets of the capital, Tehran.
One of the most urgent problems facing the Iranian economy is the devaluation of the Rial. Over the past two years, it has lost nearly two-thirds of its value. Conservative estimates put inflation at 40 per cent.
Bozorg bazaar, the main bazaar in south Tehran. The carpet industry is a very important pillar of the Iranian economy. However, export restrictions relating to sanctions are hitting profits hard.
With Bolton's support, Trump last year abandoned the 2015 multilateral agreement reached by his Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama, under which Iran agreed to limit its nuclear programme in return for the easing of economic sanctions.
Trump has since restored U.S. sanctions and moved in May to try to cut Iran's oil exports, historically its main source of foreign exchange and government revenues, to zero.
The Republican president argued the 2015 agreement did not do enough to keep Iran from eventually obtaining a nuclear weapon and he criticised it for failing to address Iran's ballistic missile programme and support for regional proxies.
At a briefing, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said he, Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo were "completely aligned on our maximum pressure campaign."
Administration officials believe pressure will eventually force Iran to yield to their demands for, among other things, much more intrusive inspections of nuclear sites.
Asked at the same briefing if he could foresee a Trump-Rouhani meeting this month, Pompeo replied: "Sure."
"The president has made very clear he is prepared to meet with no preconditions," Pompeo added.
A former senior Trump administration official described Pompeo and Mnuchin as "softer" on Iran than Bolton and said that meant there was a chance for a Rouhani meeting if the Iranians dropped their demand for a full lifting of sanctions first.
Other current and former U.S. officials said there had never been much doubt that a meeting, at least from Trump's point of view, was conceivable, but that the odds of either side being willing to compromise were low.
"The problem has never been imagining talks between the two sides," said Phil Gordon, a former Obama State Department and White House official, saying Trump had shown through his talks with North Korea that he "loves to be at the centre of things."
"The problem, instead, is envisaging a deal that both sides could actually agree to. It is hard to see the Iranians accepting current U.S. conditions, which include ending uranium enrichment forever, even more intrusive inspections, constraints on ballistic missiles and a complete change in Iran's regional policy," he added.
"So to get a deal, Trump would have to significantly lower the bar, which would be hard to sell domestically and in the region," Gordon said. "Bolton's departure may remove one obstacle to that, but there are plenty still in the way." (Reuters)