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How will Iran respond to Trump, Bolton and Co.?

We’re in for a rough patch with Iran. Tensions are about to get worse, and war is possible if far from inevitable. 

While the Obama administration was negotiating the nuclear agreement in 2015, John Bolton called for bombing Iran.
REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

When John Bolton takes over on Monday as President Trump’s next national security adviser, one of his first priorities is likely to be making sure that Trump really does kill the Iran nuclear deal.

If you’re in Tehran, you might be tempted to walk away, too, and perhaps even restart your nuclear program. The smarter — and more likely — option is to blow off steam with some sharp rhetoric, and then move cautiously. Despite your own bad behavior, it’s possible to argue that you — not Trump, Bolton and Co. — are actually the reasonable party here. Plus, you have a number of problems that would only get worse if you resorted to extremes.

Trump must decide by May 12 whether to continue waiving sanctions against Iran, or leave the deal.  He clearly wants out. In theory, however, it’s still possible that the U.S. and its European allies will agree on proposed amendments, and that Iran will have little choice but to renegotiate if presented with a united front.

That’s less likely with Bolton prowling the White House. Trump can’t argue that Iran has violated the letter of the agreement. But he has called it the “worst deal ever.” Bolton has been even more outspoken. While the Obama administration was negotiating the agreement in 2015 Bolton called for bombing Iran. Last summer, he called the deal “execrable,” and said that finding a way out should be the Trump administration’s “highest diplomatic priority.” If he needs any backup, Trump’s secretary of state-designate, Mike Pompeo, isn’t far behind.

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While the wheels aren’t about to come off of the Islamic Republic, reimposing sanctions would hurt. President Hassan Rouhani sold the nuclear deal by arguing that easing sanctions would spark the economy. It did, but not nearly as much as Iranians hoped.

Protests that broke out in winter originally were aimed at Rouhani, but quickly turned into a more general indictment of the entire system, including the vast sums of money spent propping up religious institutions, funding proxies in Syria and Lebanon, and disappearing via corruption.

In addition, Iran is in the midst of a decade-long drought, and expectations are that climate change will make matters worse. Rural areas generally have supported the system, but in some places farmers joined the recent protests.

Former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (remember him?) is stirring the pot with populist appeals. Officials are nervous enough about the public mood that some have proposed banning Telegram, a social media app used by half the population. And there is ongoing maneuvering over who eventually will replace 78-year-old Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

It’s possible Iran will conclude that Bolton was completely serious about bombing. With Israel and Saudi Arabia both pushing Trump for a confrontation, Iran may decide it has nothing to lose. At minimum, hardliners will demand some kind of response.

Harvard political scientist Stephen M. Walt, a hardheaded realist, argues that war is unlikely with either Iran or North Korea because the U.S. has too little to gain and too much to lose. But if war breaks out, he thinks it’s more likely to be with Iran. He offers this handy list of indications that would indicate Trump is preparing for war.

An Iranian show of defiance could include moves on the nuclear program, more missile tests, challenging Israel or deepening Iranian involvement in Syria, Lebanon, or other Middle East venues. Any of those would feel good and initially gain some public support. But they would be counterproductive in the long run.

If Trump walks away from the agreement, Iran would try to drive a wedge between Washington and its European allies. The allies have concerns, but they still support the accord. They are working with the U.S. on amendments that would force Iran to accept limits on missile development and extend the number of years Iran needs to keep its nuclear program on ice.

European companies are eager to do business in Iran, which could provide a substantial economic boost. But they are cautious because of uncertainty over Americans intentions, and they don’t want to run afoul of U.S. sanctions. Even with Bolton on board, it will be difficult to peel the Europeans away from the Americans. Iran can pretty much forget about that if it doubles down on its missile or nuclear programs.

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Deepening Iranian involvement in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen or elsewhere in the Middle East will not play well in Europe, either. Perhaps more to the point, Iranians already have made their views quite clear.  Challenging Israel would certainly create tension with Washington and – more surprisingly – with Russia.

Russian-Iranian relations are good and getting better. It’s about more than helping Syrian President Bashar Assad lay waste to the parts of his country he doesn’t control. Russia can’t rescue the Iranian economy, but it can help Tehran withstand diplomatic pressure. Moscow wants to woo Israel, as well, as it builds its role in the Middle East, and is urging Iran to cool the anti-Israeli rhetoric.

We’re in for a rough patch. Tensions are about to get worse, and war is possible. But it’s far from inevitable — if the politicians can keep their heads.