Shortly before the US presidential election in 2016, Mike Pompeo, a member of Congress known for his hard line on foreign policy, was asked on Fox News what he thought of the Iran nuclear deal under the Obama administration.
Pompeo said then-Republican candidate Donald Trump was right in calling it a “disaster”.
“What America ought to do, and with a new president, ought to talk to the Iranians and explain to them, those agreements are off,” Pompeo said.
Weeks before that, John Bolton, another foreign policy hawk, sounded the same ominous message when he spoke to a right-wing group in California, about the spread of “radical Islam” and its threat to the West.
Bolton, a former US ambassador to the United Nations, reserved his most disdain on Iran’s religious leaders, and then tore into the 2015 nuclear deal calling it “the worst act of appeasement in American history”.
“The government in Tehran is left with an essentially unimpeded path towards nuclear weapons,” he said, ignoring multiple findings by UN nuclear inspectors that contradict his claim.
Without offering evidence, Bolton told the crowd that Iranian nuclear weapons could be delivered through ballistic missiles, or smuggled by “terrorists” into the US, and detonated “at a time most suitable to them”.
More than a year after making those pronouncements, Pompeo and Bolton are now at the forefront of US foreign policy and national security, as Trump’s secretary of state and national security adviser following the abrupt removal of their predecessors.
The two appointments, made at a time when the US president is threatening to withdraw from the deal, send a clear signal to Tehran that the nuclear agreement may be doomed, Iran experts said.
On Sunday, Hossein Naghavi Hosseini, an Iran parliament spokesman, said that by picking Pompeo and Bolton, Trump “proves that the final US purpose is overthrowing the Islamic Republic [of Iran]”.
‘Deal on life support’
Describing the mood in Iran, Amir Havasi, a Tehran-based journalist and analyst, said, “There’s consensus that the deal will go under, come May.”
Iran’s most senior officials have yet to weigh in on the news, Havasi noted. But the possibility that Tehran would be open to a dialogue with the US now seems even more unlikely, he added.
“If anything, the political establishment would be in a potential damage control situation,” Havasi told Al Jazeera, referring to Iran’s response if the deal collapses.
“The signs are everywhere,” he said, pointing to efforts to look for alternatives to the US dollar for trade and the banning of imports using the greenbacks.
He also said that senior Iranian economists have expressed skepticism about what Europe can do if Trump refuses to waive sanctions next time.
Aniseh Bassiri Tabrizi, a Middle East security expert at London’s Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), said the deal, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), is “on life support”.
“The likelihood that a waiver on the US sanctions will not be renewed on May 12 has increased quite a lot,” Tabrizi told Al Jazeera.
She said that right after Tillerson was removed in favour of Pompeo, European diplomats turned from being “optimistic” in finding a solution to Trump’s demands, to “preparing for contingency plans to defend their interests” in the deal.
“So imagine now,” she said referring to Bolton’s impending arrival at the White House.
Under the deal signed in Vienna, Iran scaled back its uranium enrichment programme and promised not to pursue nuclear weapons. In exchange, international sanctions were lifted, allowing it to sell its oil and gas worldwide. However, secondary US sanctions remain.
The sanctions waiver and certification on Iran’s compliance, issued by the US every few months, were meant to allay American apprehension over the deal, while easing concerns among foreign businesses who want to invest in Iran.
But since Trump came to office, he has taken several steps to block the deal. In October, he refused to certify that Iran is living up to the accord. He also targeted several Iranian businesses and individuals with new sanctions.
Then on January 12, Trump announced he is waiving the US sanctions for the “last time”. He said, if his demands are not met within 120 days, the US will withdraw from the deal. The deadline is on May 12, although he hinted that the US could cut loose before that date.
Iran said it should not be punished for abiding by the deal, and should first see its economic benefits before it would be willing to talk about other issues.
Contrary to Trump’s claim, it insisted that Tehran will never pursue nuclear weapons despite the expiration of some provisions under the pact.
Iranian officials also rejected Trump’s additional demands for more inspections of its military sites and an end to its ballistic missile programme.
Mohammad Hashemi, a political expert and journalist in Tehran, said Iran has the right to reject more US demands because it “has legitimate concerns over its defence”.
He said Iran has not benefited from the existing deal, because of “fear” of US sanctions by foreign investors, and the “foot-dragging” of banks on Iran’s re-entry into the global financial network.
“So, why should Tehran agree to come to the table and discuss new issues?”
In recent months, the country was faced with protests partly blamed on the economy. Its currency has also lost more value against the US dollar and unemployment remains in double digits.
Within the Trump cabinet, Pompeo has served as the president’s cheerleader against the Iran deal.
Days before his appointment as Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director was announced, Pompeo already made his objective clear on social media, “I look forward to rolling back this disastrous deal with the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism.”
At the CIA, he backed the president’s decision to decertify the deal, defying then US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s recommendation, according to Foreign Policy. He also repeatedly cast doubt on the deal, while trying to link Iran to al-Qaeda.
He compared Iran to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS), failing to mention that Iran-backed forces fought against ISIL in Iraq and Syria.
As an outside adviser during Trump’s first year in office, Bolton sounded no different from Pompeo. In October, he praised Trump’s decision not to certify the Iran deal, telling Fox News the president “signalled pretty clearly, that he expects to get out of it in due course”.
“My preference is, and I have said it all along, that we are just going to abrogate and get out of it.”
In 2017, Bolton renewed his call for “regime change” in the country of 80 million people by 2019. On Sunday, Israel’s Haaretz newspaper reported that he had also tried to convince Israel to bomb Iran when he was US ambassador to the UN during George W Bush’s administration.
As a former state department official under Bush, Bolton had been blamed for pushing defective intelligence that led to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
‘Iran is not looking for war’
Elizabeth Warren, a Democratic senator, said Bolton “never met a war he didn’t like”. The National Iranian American Council said Trump “may have just effectively declared war on Iran”.
The New York Times reported that even Trump’s defence secretary, James Mattis, and chief of staff, John Kelly are no fans of Bolton.
In Washington, DC, critics raised alarms on Friday over Bolton’s appointment coming just days after Pompeo’s transfer from the CIA to the US Department of State.
Meanwhile, in Tehran, officials are trying to mask their frustrations with the hope that Europe can still help save the Iran deal, observers said.
“I still believe that both Europe and Iran will still try to find a solution to guarantee the survival of the agreement, even in case the US decides to withdraw,” Tabrizi, RUSI’s expert on Iran, said.
“I don’t think that they will just let it collapse by itself,” she said.
Whatever the outcome, Iranian officials have said “they are ready for any scenarios,” according to Hashemi, the Iranian political analyst.
He pointed to the remarks of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who, during Iran’s new year, called on the country to support Iranian products over imported goods, and cut its dependence on oil revenues.
Hashemi said Khamenei’s remarks echoed his call for a “resistance economy” when the country was buckling down under previous international sanctions.
Fateme Karimkham, a correspondent of Tehran-based Iranian Students’ News Agency, said despite the latest developments in Washington, DC, Iran wants to prove that “they are the adults in the room” by sticking to the deal.
“There is no other choice. No one in the Middle East is looking for another war,” she said.
“I do not believe Iran would be the first one who steps forward to another battle.”