2, June 2019
As the US announced plans on Friday to send 1,500 more troops to the Middle East amid hostilities with Iran, analysts say the ultra-hawkish National Security Adviser John Bolton has driven much of the escalation in tensions between the two countries.
More than two weeks after the US announced a strengthening of its military presence in the Middle East in response to Iranian “threats”, relations are still fraught between Washington and Tehran.
Since taking office, Donald Trump has expressed an array of conflicting positions, from saying he wants dialogue with the Islamic Republic to making luridly vengeful threats, such as his May 19 tweet: “If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran. Never threaten the United States again!”
The central figure behind America’s increasingly belligerent stance towards Iran is, however, not the US President but John Bolton, a consistent advocate of regime change in Iran.
‘To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran’
Bolton had been pouring forth warlike rhetoric against Iran for several years before his appointment as national security adviser in April 2018, in paid speeches, opinion columns and as a talking head on Trump’s favourite TV channel, Fox News. “To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran”, implored the headline of his opinion piece in The New York Times in 2015, when the Obama administration was negotiating the nuclear deal from which Trump would go on to withdraw in May 2018.
In 2017, Bolton gave a speech at a conference in Paris organised by the People’s Mujahedin of Iran – a militant opposition movement detested by the Iranian regime and classed as a terrorist group by the US and EU. He declared at this event that the Islamic Republic of Iran would “not last until its 40th birthday” (April 1, 2019).
In his role as national security adviser, Bolton asked the Pentagon to draw up military options for an attack on Iran – provoking considerable disquiet amongst senior officials. On February 11 2019, the 40th anniversary of Iran’s Islamic Revolution, Bolton used the White House’s official Twitter account to tell the Ayatollah Khamenei: “I don’t think you’ll have many more anniversaries to enjoy.”
Such “extremely belligerent rhetoric” has caused heightened concern because there is a “shared interest amongst several leaders – those of Israel, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and indeed the US – in ramping up the antagonism towards Iran,” Karim Sader, a Middle East specialist and former researcher at the French ministry of defence, told FRANCE 24.
“The US has returned to the anti-Iranian reflex of the George W. Bush era, and the Trump administration – especially its national security adviser – is obsessed with the Iranian threat,” he continued.
It remains to be seen how far Bolton will get with his ferociously hawkish views on Iran. Despite his aforementioned moments of vitriolic fervour against the Islamic Republic, Trump ran for the White House as a non-interventionist candidate, and analysts say that his instincts are broadly isolationist.
Is Bolton ‘manufacturing a crisis’?
However, the recent developments in US-Iran relations seem to suggest Bolton’s influence is growing. Indeed, the national security adviser is reportedly taking advantage of the void left by James Mattis, the internationalist defence secretary who resigned in December. Mattis’ successor, the low-key and little-known Patrick Shanahan, is still waiting for the Senate to confirm his appointment.
Bolton was the first US official to announce the dispatch of the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier and B-52 bombers to the Persian Gulf to “send a clear and unmistakable message to the Iranian regime”, in a statement posted on the White House website.
He also lobbied successfully for the Pentagon to produce a plan to send 120,000 troops to the Middle East should Iran attack American soldiers or accelerate its nuclear weapons programme, The New York Timesreported on May 13. Trump denied it, speaking to journalists the next day: “I think it’s fake news, ok? Now, would I do that? Absolutely. But we have not planned for that.”
“I think this is manufactured by Bolton to try to justify the administration’s very harsh policy toward Iran despite the fact that Iran has been complying with the nuclear deal,” Barbara Slavin, an Iran specialist at the Atlantic Council think-tank in Washington DC, told AFP.
“Given Bolton’s record,” she continued, “I wouldn’t put it past him to try to manufacture a crisis here.”
American officials and diplomats have been at pains to argue that the US is not trying to provoke a conflict with Iran. Trump’s strategy – as seen with North Korea – may well be to impose harsh sanctions on Iran and then try and negotiate from a position of strength. “If they call, we would be certain to negotiate,” the US president told journalists on May 20.
“Going back to sanctions and threats against Iran is counter-productive,” Sader warned. “It is the best way to strengthen the most extreme factions within the Iranian state.”
Trump ‘tempers’ Bolton
Described as “tenacious” by Condoleezza Rice (secretary of state during Bolton’s brief, controversial tenure as US ambassador to the UN under Bush from 2005 to 2006), Bolton seems to regard the notion of diplomacy with distaste.
The US president himself said last week that he is a moderating influence on Bolton. “I actually temper John,” Trump said.
The influence of a national security adviser who makes Trump look moderate has even prompted anxiety amongst Republican legislators. Senator Rand Paul – a maverick non-interventionist on foreign policy, but broadly supine in the face of Trump’s decisions – called Bolton “a malign influence on the administration”.
“I think the most important thing is to put the administration on notice that they do not have congressional permission to go to war with Iran and we need to make sure we’re not involved in anything that is provocative enough to encourage a skirmish that leads to a bigger war,” Paul continued.
It could be that Trump agrees with Paul. The president lambasted his advisor for pushing forward the US’s hardline stance on Nicolas Maduro, which hasn’t lived up to its promise of forcing the Venezuelan president out of power. Trump said Bolton wants to get him “into a war”, The Washington Post reported on May 8.
Bolton certainly likes to play hardball on the world stage. But it’s a game that could have calamitous consequences for the Middle East.