Does John Bolton’s Appointment as National Security Adviser Mean War on Iran?

Published March 26th, 2018 - 02:18 GMT
John Bolton in earlier times / AFP
John Bolton in earlier times / AFP

By Eleanor Beevor

  • Trump’s new National Security Adviser John Bolton has pushed for war with Iran throughout his career
  • The arch-conservative hawk has no faith in international treaties, and his appointment almost certainly means the end of American support for the nuclear deal
  • Bolton has supported the People’s Mujahedeen of Iran, a formerly proscribed terrorist organisation, as a potential alternative to the Islamic Republic, showing he has no strategy beyond regime change
  • How he manages Trump’s personal favour may have huge ramifications for Iran


Donald Trump’s administration is no stranger to controversial appointments, but none of his appointees have inspired the fear of war like his latest pick for National Security Adviser. John Bolton is ideologically described as a conservative hawk, and they certainly don’t come much more conservative or hawkish. And throughout his career in American government, he has viewed Iran as the ultimate enemy. Trump’s own rhetoric on Iran has hardly been soft, but under the tenure of Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, he appeared to be grudgingly going along with the Obama era nuclear deal and refraining from sanctioning Iran again.

Yet according to Trump, McMaster and Tillerson’s more moderate stance on Iran was part of their undoing. Those in favour of preserving the Iran deal held their breath after Tillerson’s departure, suspecting that it was the death knell for the already-shaky faith in the agreement. With Bolton’s arrival, American participation in the deal looks to be all but over.

Hard-line realist

Depending on where one stands among the hawks and doves in foreign policy, Bolton is either a hard-line realist who sees the international arena as a battle for survival, or he embodies the worst traits of American international aggression. Either way, Bolton has no faith in international treaties and institutions. Whilst Undersecretary of State for Arms Control in 2001, Bolton effectively sabotaged an international effort aiming to enforce the Biological Weapons Convention of 1972. Bolton’s argument was that the site inspections such a treaty would involve would threaten American national security. He also argued against American involvement in the International Criminal Court on the grounds that it would undermine national security by presenting legal risks to American forces. At the same time, he has no qualms about the use of force to ensure other nations behave themselves. He is an unapologetic believer in international intervention. He dogmatically supported the invasion of Iraq. And in 2015, just as the nuclear deal was taking off, he published an opinion piece in the New York Times titled “To Stop the Iran Bomb, Bomb Iran”.

Bahar Karimi, a specialist in American-Iranian relations at King’s College London, told Al Bawaba: “The National Security Advisor’s role is to present the President with the different perspectives and options available to him when determining policy. It is very unlikely that Bolton will do this. He is very set in his beliefs and is well known for clashing with those who do not share his views. In terms of the Iran deal, Bolton’s appointment means it is highly likely the U.S will back out. U.S.-Iran diplomacy will become non-existent. Whether the Europeans will be able to appease Bolton from killing the deal only time will tell. However, it is unlikely that they will be able to come to a solution which suits both the Americans and Iranians.”

Alliance with the Mujahedeen

And when it comes to Iran, Bolton believes that all ends justify the means, and that includes his own dalliance with what was a U.S. proscribed terrorist organisation until 2012. Bolton has spoken for eight years in a row at the annual conference of the People’s Mujahedeen of Iran, a dissident group that is regularly described as a cult and that has a grim human rights record of its own. Bolton’s support for the group runs completely counter to his own political leanings; the MEK’s founding ideology was a blend of Marxism and Islamism. Formed by left-wing students opposed to the Shah, they supported the Revolution, but soon fell afoul of the Ayatollah and left Iran for Iraq, where they were sheltered by Saddam Hussein. This alliance with Saddam has earned them an unsavoury reputation in Iran, as hypocrites and even traitors.

The MEK leaders in Iraq, husband and wife Masoud and Maryam Rajavi, ran the group through obsessive control over its member’s behaviour, enforcing total sexual abstinence, making use of torture, and encouraging lethal violence against any perceived enemy, including members’ families. Yet like any good cult leader, Maryam Rajavi has proven adept at winning over supporters by letting them see in her what they wish to find. In Bolton’s case, he sees the MEK as a democratic alternative to the current Iranian regime. No one would doubt that Iranians have myriad discontents with the Islamic Republic as it is. But foreign policy analysts, including many on the conservative right, have roundly rebuked the notion that the MEK is a legitimate opposition in waiting.

Bahar Karimi added: “It must be noted, the likes of John Bolton and Rudi Guiliani receive significant amount of money from the MEK. Yet Bolton’s association with the terroristic cult highlights his lack of knowledge of the sentiments within Iran, or even worse, his lack of interest on what the Iranian people really want. The MEK are viewed as traitors within the Iranian community, and their terrorist activities and cult-like political ideology abhorred. It is completely tone deaf for American politicians to be associated with such a group.”

Whether Bolton can actually see a democratic alternative within the MEK, or whether he simply doesn’t care to look properly are both equally disturbing premises, since they go to show that Bolton has no strategy other than regime change at any cost. As Colin Kahl and Jon Wolfsthal put it recently in Foreign Policy, “For Bolton, there are few international problems where war is not the answer.” The question now is not so much whether or not the Americans will pull out of the Iran nuclear deal – Bolton’s appointment has likely settled that. Rather, it is what Bolton has in mind after leaving the deal, and whether he will survive Trump’s fickle favour, or eventually go the same way as other high-profile cabinet picks.

Pushing for sanctions on Iran

Bolton might start by pushing for fresh sanctions on Iran after the withdrawal from the nuclear deal. However, whilst he will have some support pushing for those in the White House, unilateral American sanctions alone will not have the same effect on the Iranian economy as multilateral sanctions did prior to the nuclear deal. Iran’s economy is still weak, but it is comparatively stronger than it was, it has survived worse, and it has new benefactors such as China. Sanctions have not yet defeated the regime for nearly forty years, and so in all likelihood will not do so now. Bolton will certainly know this, and if he remains true to his record, he will no doubt be encouraging strikes against Iran at the first opportunity that presents itself.

It may be that Bolton’s hawkishness sounds better to Trump on Fox News than it does in practice in the White House. Whilst both men would happily embrace the words “America First”, it really means two different things to them. For Bolton, America is the first and foremost global power, and must maintain this position by annihilating anything that threatens that. Trump might not disagree, but his own “America First” slogan also meant an end to the era of spilling American blood and treasure on unwinnable foreign conflicts.

That vision was one that many of his supporters emphatically agreed with. Moreover, Trump is still reluctant to overtly criticise Russia, while Bolton, forever on the watch for enemies, has consistently railed against any rapprochement with Moscow. Either way, advocates of diplomacy must now disconcertingly realise that Trump himself is the best hope for avoiding war with Iran now. 


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