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Iran-US relations: John Bolton's departure is a 'good sign', but...

Trump must ease US sanctions on Iran before talks between Washington and Tehran can take place, analysts say
'The Iranians will be happy that Bolton is fired, but I don't think it's sufficient,' Iran expert Barbara Slavin says (Reuters/File photo)
By Ali Harb in Washington

Less than 24 hours after Donald Trump sacked his hawkish top aide John Bolton, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif did little to contain his enthusiasm.

For months, Zarif has been blaming the so-called "B Team" - Israel's President Benjamin Netanyahu, Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Trump's now-former US national security adviser Bolton - for the deterioration of US-Iranian relations.

Now the Washington-based member of the team is out of the picture - and Zarif said on Wednesday that "the world ... was breathing a sigh of relief over [the] ouster of #B_Team's henchman in the White House".

Bolton's departure, analysts say, increases the potential for a diplomatic breakthrough between Iran and the Trump administration, but sanctions relief remains a requirement for Iranian officials to enter into negotiations with Washington.

Barbara Slavin, director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think-tank, described Bolton as an "impediment to diplomacy", but said his sacking would not be enough to ease tensions between Iran and the United States.

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"The Iranians will be happy that Bolton is fired, but I don't think it's sufficient," Slavin told MEE.

On Wednesday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani reiterated Tehran's stance that US sanctions must be lifted before Iran would agree to any talks with Washington.

"From the perspective of Iran's government, parliament and people, with the sanctions still in place, negotiations with America have no meaning," Rouhani said in a phone call with his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron, Reuters reported.

Shortly after Bolton joined the Trump administration in April 2018, Washington pulled out of a multinational deal with Iran that saw Tehran scale back its nuclear programme in exchange for the lifting of international sanctions against its economy.

Since then, the US administration has imposed biting sanctions on Iranian industries and individuals - including Zarif and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei - as a part of Washington's "maximum pressure campaign" against the country.

Earlier this year, Trump also blacklisted the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a branch of the Iranian military, as a terrorist group.

Tehran initially remained committed to the deal in an effort to salvage economic partnerships with European countries. But with the increasing pressure of sanctions, which would also penalise Iran's trade partners if they did not abide by the US measures, Iran began to breach parts of its commitment to limit its nuclear activities.

'They sought the Iranian government's either capitulation or collapse, and that has not happened'

- Sina Toossi, National Iranian American Council

Earlier this month, France said it planned to offer Iran a $15bn line of credit if it starts fully complying with the nuclear accord again.

Still, the measure requires US approval, which so far has not been granted.

Slavin said that with Bolton gone, the French proposal or any other initiative to ease the effects of American sanctions may bring the Iranians to the negotiating table.

"I think we have to see some sort of sanctions relief," Slavin said. "The US would have to agree to the Marcon plan for the $15bn in credit or some other sanctions gesture."

Others say the departure of Bolton, an advocate of "regime change" in Iran who has repeatedly called for bombing the country's nuclear facilities, increases the likelihood of a compromise from the Trump administration.

On Wednesday, Bloomberg reported that during a White House meeting on Monday, Trump discussed the idea of easing sanctions on Iran to secure a meeting with Rouhani on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly later this month.

Bolton fiercely opposed the idea, Bloomberg said, citing three anonymous sources. He was fired the next day. 

'We'll see what happens'

Earlier on Wednesday, Trump did not rule out sanctions relief for Iran, telling reporters: "We'll see what happens."

He went on to berate Bolton, sarcastically labelling him "Mr tough guy".

"You look at Iran. You look at so many of the things that are happening. Iran wants to talk. They all want to talk," Trump said.

But merely announcing that Washington will ease its "maximum pressure" campaign may not be enough for Iranians, said Sina Toossi, a senior research analyst at the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), a Washington-based advocacy group.

"Even if Trump is willing to do some kind of sanctions-relief or reduce sanctions, the key thing is that it has to materialise before any kind of meeting sit-down or negotiations," Toossi told Middle East Eye. "That can't just be a promise." 

Toossi said Washington "greatly undermined its credibility" when Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal unilaterally, making it difficult for Iranian leaders to trust the US.

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The French loan proposal may be a good way to start negotiations if Trump agrees to it, Toossi said, but it is "highly unlikely" that it would go through before the UNGA convenes late next week.

"It's too late for the UNGA," he said.

Toossi added that Bolton's firing was a "good sign", but a change in personnel would be meaningless without a change in policy to go along with it.

Despite Trump's previous calls for dialogue with Iran, Toossi said Washington has not been genuine in its push for diplomacy as it continued to impose "unprecedented" sanctions on Tehran.

"None of their policies has reflected sincerity in seeking negotiations. What they have reflected is that they sought regime change," he said. 

"They sought the Iranian government's either capitulation or collapse, and that has not happened. So, maximum pressure is a failure in that regard. We may be seeing a shift now."

'Strong signal'

So far, the Trump administration has promoted its policies on Iran as a success, citing growing economic hardships faced by the Iranian government. 

Critics say the pressure campaign dangerously brought the two countries to the verge of a military confrontation this summer.

'US-Iranian tensions are not all about Bolton; there are issues that need to be discussed and compromises [that need] to be made'

- Joe Macaron, Arab Center Washington DC

On 20 June, Trump authorised - then called off - US strikes against Iran after Iranian forces shot down a US drone that Tehran said was flying over Iranian territory. The New York Times reported at the time that Bolton favoured the attacks.

Joe Macaron, a fellow at the Arab Center Washington DC, said both sides should seize the opportunity created by Bolton's firing.

"The departure of Bolton definitely sends a strong signal to the Iranian regime that Trump is serious about engagement," Macaron told MEE in an email.

He added that Iran's own hawks, including Khamenei, should ease pressure on Rouhani to "meet Trump halfway".

"The momentum of Bolton's departure might make a strong argument for a meeting to happen in New York this month, but US-Iranian tensions are not all about Bolton; there are issues that need to be discussed and compromises to be made," Macaron said.

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