Can Iran Deal Be Saved? If Donald Trump Doesn't Want War, His Own Staff May Be His Biggest Problem, Experts Say

Iran's latest suspension of certain commitments outlined in a 2015 nuclear deal and the United States' refusal to abide by the agreement at all by imposing strict sanctions against the Islamic Republic have left what was once hailed as a landmark diplomatic breakthrough strained to the point of crisis. Experts who have engaged in such high-level talks believe dialogue is still possible⁠—but only if President Donald Trump ignores some of his staff's more bellicose tendencies.

In response to Iran's announcement Sunday that the country is enriching uranium beyond the 3.67 percent limit set out in the deal it struck four years ago with the U.S., alongside China, the European Union, France, Germany, Russia and the United Kingdom, Trump warned Tehran "better be careful." The president pulled Washington out of the agreement last May, ignoring pleas from other signatories and calling on Iran to change its "malign behavior" such as its alleged support for militant groups abroad and its ballistic missile development.

Both sides have only hardened their positions since then.

While Washington and Tehran have officially said they sought to avoid conflict, hawks in both camps regularly threatened they were prepared for one.

In Trump's corner, two influential administration insiders—Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and White House national security adviser John Bolton—have led an unconditional approach that has set off a spike in tensions between the U.S. and Iran.

"Trump is on a collision course with himself," International Crisis Group president and CEO Robert Malley, who served as former President Barack Obama's lead negotiator on the Iran nuclear deal, said Monday during a press call moderated by the group's Iran Project Director Ali Vaez.

"He is on a track that he believes will lead to negotiations," Malley added. "I suspect most of his team know that it won't, at least not the negotiations that he wants and it could a trigger the military confrontation that he definitely doesn't want, but that he may not be able to avoid."

trump bolton pompeo iran
President Donald Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and national security adviser John Bolton are seen during a bilateral meeting with Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, June 20. Bolton and Pompeo reportedly supported Trump's initial decision to greenlight strikes against Iran that same day in response to the downing of a U.S. Navy drone, but the president suspended the action at the last minute. MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

Trump's decision to exit the 2015 agreement, known officially as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, came just weeks after an administration shuffle that saw the appointment of Pompeo and Bolton. Both men have since been widely seen as the architects of Trump's so-called "maximum pressure" strategy towards Iran, an approach that closely mirrors hawkish views they have expressed for years.

As a citizen, Trump may have repeatedly warned Obama not to take military action against Iran, but such a dramatic escalation nearly came under his own command last month when he ordered and subsequently canceled strikes after Revolutionary Guards shot down a U.S. drone flying within or near Iranian airspace in the Persian Gulf. Former Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, who was a U.S. lead negotiator to the JCPOA and now serves as director of Harvard Kennedy School's Center for Public Leadership, said Bolton and Pompeo are "pushing the president to take military action" during Monday's press call.

Sherman said that Trump's decision to walk back on strikes against Iran last month was probably "because he understood that it might set off a wider war and that wider war is not in his interest because it would not be supported by his base." She later added she does not "believe that president Trump wants war" but that "there are people around him who are willing to risk provoking a war."

Such volatility is in deep contrast to efforts by longtime U.S. partners in Europe and by Russia and China, all of whom have called on Trump to follow the international commitments made by his predecessor. Iran has threatened further options to diminish its adherence to the nuclear deal should Europe fail to normalize trade ties. Though a special trade vehicle to bypass U.S. sanctions was launched last week by the deal's remaining parties, it was largely limited to transactions related to humanitarian services that would have little impact on Iran's ailing economy.

Former U.K. ambassador to Iran Richard Dalton told reporters Monday that such EU-led efforts, already opposed by Pompeo and Bolton, would need to be "dramatically increased" to satisfy Iranian demands. He said European powers "don't believe the maximum pressure strategy is working and they don't think anybody would gain from war."

One potential way to foster the exchange of capital between London and Tehran, Dalton mentioned, would be the former making good on a $500 million dollar debt for a decades-old tank sale that was canceled in the wake of the 1979 Islamic Revolution that deposed Iran's pro-West monarchy. In May, The Guardian reported that the U.K.'s Defense Ministry rejected a request from the Foreign Office to clear the transfer, refusing to allow funds to potentially end up in the hands of Iran's Revolutionary Guards, which the U.S. has deemed a terrorist organization.

iran oil ship uk spain
A ship approaches supertanker Grace 1 off the coast of Gibraltar, July 6. Tehran has demanded that the U.K. immediately release an oil tanker, accusing London of acting on behalf of the U.S. after the Iranian ship was accused of violating EU sanctions by allegedly carrying oil to Syria and detained. JORGE GUERRERO/AFP/Getty Images

As the U.K. continues to be entangled in a complex battle over its 2016 decision to leave the EU, however, London has again proved itself an outlier in its handling of Iran. U.K. Royal Marines stormed an Iranian tanker accused of attempting to violate EU sanctions by allegedly trying to export oil to Syria as it passed through the Strait of Gibraltar on Thursday.

"The legalities of the UK seizure of a tanker heading for Syria with oil from Iran intrigues me. One refers to EU sanctions against Syria, but Iran is not a member of EU. And EU as a principle doesn't impose its sanctions on others. That's what the US does," European Council on Foreign Relations co-chair Carl Bildt said Monday in a tweet later shared by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who remarked "PRECISELY."

The top Iranian diplomat further argued on Twitter that "Iran is neither a member of the EU nor subject to any European oil embargo," calling the U.K.'s move "unlawful" and "piracy" ordered by the so-called "B-Team" of Bolton, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and UAE President Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan—all vocal critics of the Iran deal. Iranian political and military officials have also threatened to retaliate against U.K. ships in the Persian Gulf.

Netanyahu told a cabinet meeting Sunday that nuclear deal signatories "promised and committed themselves to snap back sanctions the minute Iran" began to enrich uranium beyond the restricted level and called on these countries to now do just that. Dalton said Monday, however, that "the snapback of sanctions that's called for by Israel would be useless for our objectives in Europe and indeed for American objectives as well" and called for greater coordination between the two.

The Trump administration has broken with traditional transatlantic allies in Europe on multiple occasions in favor of policies more closely aligned with Israel. Such decisions have included cutting funding to United Nations bodies accused of anti-Israel biases to recognizing the disputed holy city of Jerusalem and Syria's occupied Golan Heights as part of Israel, moves that upset even close Middle Eastern partners Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

iran nuclear deal uranium enrichment
(L to R) Iran's Atomic Energy Organisation spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi, government spokesman Ali Rabiei, and Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi give a joint press conference at the presidential headquarters in the capital Tehran, July 7. Kamalvandi said Iran was to begin enriching uranium beyond a 3.67 percent cap set by a landmark nuclear deal and the decision was confirmed the following day by the International Atomic Energy Agency. HAMED MALEKPOUR/Tasnim News/AFP/Getty Images

For their part, Iran's own conservatives have grown even more skeptical of a deal they always felt may not yield the benefits promised by President Hassan Rouhani and his administration. Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has also increasingly distanced himself from diplomacy with Europe, putting further pressure on Zarif and others trying to salvage the agreement, whose two primary parties were entering one of the most difficult periods of their 40-year, deeply troubled history.

"I've likened the dynamics between the United States and Iran to that of an irresistible force meets an unmovable object," Malley said, with "the irresistible force being the U.S. maximum pressure campaign and the unmovable object being Iran, which refuses to yield to that campaign."

"To avoid the worst, the irresistible force of U.S. maximum pressure will have to be a little bit less irresistible and the unmovable object of Iran being unyielding would have to move at least a bit," he added. "That would be the best outcome, unfortunately, it doesn't make it the most likely."