Are we watching Bolton’s last stand?
By JASON REZAIAN | The Washington Post | Published: May 7, 2019
Is John Bolton about to get the Iran war he’s always wanted, or is he on the verge of losing his job?
Over the past several days, President Donald Trump’s national security adviser has made comments and issued statements about Iran and Venezuela that are usually reserved for the run-up to military campaigns.
Yet Bolton’s boss doesn’t seem to be playing along.
On Sunday, the White House released a statement, attributed to Bolton, that the United States is deploying the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier strike group to the Persian Gulf. The aim: “to send a clear and unmistakable message to the Iranian regime that any attack on United States interests or on those of our allies will be met with unrelenting force.” The message added, “The United States is not seeking war with the Iranian regime, but we are fully prepared to respond to any attack, whether by proxy, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or regular Iranian forces.”
A U.S. official said the deployment was in response to “clear indications” of a “possible attack” by Iran or its proxies.
Although Tehran announced on Monday that it would restart some of its suspended nuclear activities to mark the year anniversary of the U.S. departure from its commitments, for its part, the Iranian regime isn’t taking Bolton’s bait yet.
Last month, the United States designated the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization; Tehran predictably responded by branding all U.S. forces in the Middle East as terrorists in turn. Aside from their rhetoric, however, the Iranians have made no other visible moves to ratchet up tensions between the two countries.
Meanwhile, in recent weeks Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, has been signaling his government’s desire to negotiate a new nuclear deal with Washington. It’s worth recalling that this is precisely what Trump said his goal was when he pulled the United States out of the nuclear agreement one year ago this week.
Bolton’s statement is the sort of tough warning that has two possible aims. One is to push an adversary into moderating its behavior. The other — more likely in this case, given Bolton’s long history of seeking regime change in Tehran — is to provoke Iran into a hot-headed response.
I see little reason why Tehran would choose the latter path. According to the U.S. intelligence community, Tehran is still adhering to the nuclear deal it struck with world powers in 2015 and is reeling from the new sanctions levied on its economy.
So what gives, Bolton?
It looks as though the administration’s national security chief is concerned that he’s losing the attention of his boss, who has the pesky habit of validating the sorts of authoritarian leaders Bolton has made a career of bashing.
Although Trump has always had tough words for the Iranian regime, the president did tweet last September that he was sure that Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, was an “absolutely lovely man.” For his part, Rouhani claims that Trump sought meetings with him on eight occasions.
Doesn’t mean much? Don’t forget Trump’s belittling comments about North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that preceded their meetings in Singapore and Vietnam.
On Saturday, Trump put out two more tweets that must have unnerved Bolton.
In the first, regarding Kim, Trump tweeted that he “knows that I am with him & does not want to break his promise to me. Deal will happen!”
That was followed by Trump gushing about his “very good call” with Russian President Vladimir Putin about what the president called the “Tremendous potential for a good/great relationship with Russia, despite what you read and see in the Fake News Media.”
For a Cold War relic like Bolton, such proclamations must be maddening, which is probably why he is clinging to his long-desired war with Iran. The State Department’s “maximum pressure” Iran policy is increasing already high tensions with Tehran. Add U.S. warships to the Persian Gulf and the likelihood of a miscalculation only increases.
But given Trump’s aversion to new conflicts and his propensity for making nice with dictators, Bolton knows the moment could be fleeting.
Just as Trump has signaled his willingness to continue negotiations with Kim — the depraved leader of the vilest regime on earth — Bolton must fear a similar opening with Iran.
Does Trump want regime change in Iran? Or is he trying to strike a new deal with the mullahs? Or is he open to the idea of a completely avoidable war in the Persian Gulf?
We need answers. And it’s not only John Bolton’s future that depends on them.
Jason Rezaian is a writer for The Washington Post’s Global Opinions. He served as The Post’s correspondent in Tehran from 2012 to 2016. He spent 544 days unjustly imprisoned by Iranian authorities until his release in January 2016.