Bolton exit provokes questions about Trump shift on Iran

Iran hawks and doves alike believe that President TrumpDonald John TrumpWHCA calls on Trump to denounce video depicting him shooting media outlets Video of fake Trump shooting members of media shown at his Miami resort: report Trump hits Fox News's Chris Wallace over Ukraine coverage MORE’s policy toward the Islamic Republic will shift with the ouster of national security adviser John BoltonJohn BoltonEx-top Trump Russia aide to testify about 'shadow policy' on Ukraine: report Bolton to write memoir on time serving under Trump: report The Russian offensive in Africa and America's feeble response MORE.

That’s provoked some concern from hawks, who worry Bolton’s departure could lead to a softening toward Iran given Trump’s flirtation with meeting the country’s leader.

They are particularly worried when it comes to the 2015 nuclear agreement negotiated by the Obama administration that has been shunned by Trump.

Staunch Iran hawk Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzCruz: 'Of course' it's not appropriate to ask China to investigate Bidens Sunday Show Preview: Trump's allies and administration defend decision on Syria O'Rourke raises .5 million in third quarter MORE (R-Texas), asked this week if he’s worried about the direction of Trump’s Iran policy without Bolton, flatly said, “Yes.”

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“I hope that doesn’t happen,” Cruz added. “The president has made the right decision withdrawing from the Iran deal, and if the administration backtracks on that decision and instead embraces the failed Obama foreign policy, that would make America less safe. I know the president doesn’t want to do that.”

Trump said this week that he fired Bolton over policy disagreements as well as disputes between Bolton and other administration officials.

Bolton is a fierce Iran hawk who advocated for regime change before joining the Trump administration. His and Trump's goals for Iran initially seemed aligned as Trump withdrew from the Obama-era nuclear pact and hammered Iran with sanctions.

But in the weeks leading up to Bolton’s departure, Trump started to signal more of a willingness to talk with the Iranians.

And since Bolton left, Trump and other officials have left open the possibility of meeting Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at this month’s United Nations General Assembly in New York.

Hours after Trump tweeted the Bolton news Tuesday, Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoReporter presses Pompeo on whether he met with Giuliani in Warsaw Pompeo: 'I wish the NBA would acknowledge' China's treatment of Uyghur Muslims Dem senator urges Pompeo to fire State official accused of retaliation, harassment MORE told reporters who asked about a possible meeting in New York that “the president has made very clear he is prepared to meet with no preconditions.”

On Thursday, Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven Terner MnuchinFurious Republicans prepare to rebuke Trump on Syria White House officials stand by Syria withdrawal, sanctions delay amid bipartisan pushback Trump: Treasury 'ready to go' on sanctions against Turkey: 'Stay tuned' MORE said there were no plans to meet “at the moment” but stressed that Trump “has said he would sit down with Rouhani with no conditions.”

And Trump told reporters Thursday that “Iran wants to meet,” though Iran has not said so publicly.

The possibility of talks represents a marked departure from this summer, when the United States and Iran teetered on the brink of war. Each country shot down the other’s drones, and Trump came within minutes of a launching a military strike against Iran.

Bolton’s ouster was welcome news to those who feared the tit-for-tat would escalate into war.

Sen. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael Kaine2020 general election debates announced Senators call for Trump administration to testify on Syria Schumer: Transcript 'absolutely validates' Trump impeachment inquiry MORE (D-Va.) said the prospect of diplomacy with Iran “dramatically increases” with Bolton gone, adding he thinks Trump is “finally understanding what it was they blew up” by withdrawing from the nuclear deal.

“Bolton’s departure is a good thing for the country and our safety,” Kaine said. “Just watching some of the news out of the White House about ‘Well, maybe we’ll work with France on this line of credit’ — they could change their mind tomorrow, but you wouldn’t have heard those words come out of the White House with Bolton still there.”

Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyCongress set for showdown with Trump over Kurds Administration to give 'top secret' briefing on Syria amid pushback Senators call for Trump administration to testify on Syria MORE (D-Conn.) echoed the sentiment, saying, “The chance of talks with Iran get much better without John Bolton.”

But Democrats remain skeptical Trump can secure a new deal, arguing he is seeking a flashy summit without substance.

“The question is what kind of talks are we interested in,” Murphy said. “I think Trump wants a photo-op, which is not terribly interesting to me. Even [former] President Obama wasn’t willing to give Rouhani a photo-op. So let’s do some of the diplomatic spade work before we sit down and put the Iranian president and Trump before the cameras.”

Trump does have a history of turning when it comes to his foreign rivals.

After promising “fire and fury” toward North Korea in 2017, Trump in 2018 was meeting with that country's leader.

Though his rhetoric toward Iran has been fairly bellicose, it’s far from impossible to imagine him meeting with Rouhani.

Trump sidestepped questions this week about whether he’ll ease sanctions on Iran to help secure a meeting with Rouhani after Bloomberg reported he was considering doing so, saying Wednesday that “we’ll see what happens.”

Mnuchin denied Thursday a separate report from The Daily Beast that said Trump was considering approving France’s plan to give the Iranians a $15 billion line of credit to help cope with sanctions if it complies with the nuclear deal, saying that idea is “absolutely not” under consideration. France would need a U.S. sanctions waiver to extend the credit line.

Easing sanctions would spark opposition from Trump’s allies in the Senate.

“I don’t share that enthusiasm for relaxing sanctions,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jim RischJames (Jim) Elroy RischFurious Republicans prepare to rebuke Trump on Syria McConnell warns NBA to respect free speech on China Issa's Senate confirmation hearing delayed over concerns about background check MORE (R-Idaho) said.

Pressed if he’s worried Trump will do so after Bolton’s departure, Risch said, “I’ll discuss that with the president.”

Cruz, meanwhile, expressed concern about “voices” within the administration who opposed withdrawing from the nuclear deal.

“Voices at the State Department and Treasury Department have consistently resisted the president’s decision to withdraw from that deal,” Cruz said. “The maximum pressure campaign is working, and I believe maximum pressure should mean maximum pressure. And it would be a serious mistake to lessen sanctions on Iran, or even worse, to give in to European efforts to send an economic lifeline to the Ayatollah [Ali] Khamenei.”

But Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamFurious Republicans prepare to rebuke Trump on Syria Democrats to offer resolution demanding Trump reverse Syria decision Army officer calls Syria pullback 'a stain on the American conscience' MORE (R-S.C.), a close Trump ally, said he is not concerned that Trump’s stance toward Iran will soften.

“I don’t think it’s going to change,” Graham said. “Everybody around him, including the president himself, understands the Iran deal was a bad deal. We’re all looking for a better deal. We’ll see if there’s any reason to believe the Iranians are capable of doing a better deal.”

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