What Does the Appointment of John Bolton Mean for Iran?

On March 23, 2018, the US President Donald J. Trump appointed John Bolton to serve as his new National Security Adviser.

On March 23, 2018, the US President Donald J. Trump appointed John Bolton to serve as his new National Security Adviser. Bolton, a former US ambassador to the UN, is a highly controversial figure in American foreign policy known for his radically hawkish foreign policy attitudes and undiplomatic language. He once stated that “The Secretariat building in New York has 38 stories. If it lost 10 stories, it wouldn't make a bit of difference.”

 Bolton has been one of the most ardent opponents of the nuclear deal with Iran, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Appointed by President George W. Bush as the US’ ambassador to UN, Bolton advocated the bombing of Iran’s nuclear facilities. Furthermore, Shaul Mofaz, former Israeli Minister of Defense, disclosed that Bolton tried to persuade Israel to carry out a preemptive strike against Iran’s nuclear program. As he put it, “Israel should have attacked Iran yesterday – every day that goes by, puts Israel in greater danger, every day Iran makes more progress.”

Bolton’s opposition to the JCPOA is clear. In March 2015 he authored an op-ed in the New York Times entitled “To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran.” After the deal was signed, Bolton repeatedly stated that the JCPOA is “unacceptable” and “a diplomatic Waterloo for the United States,” describing it as a “total failure” that should be rethought. Bolton believes that the best way for the United States to deal with Iran is to affect a regime change. On July 1, 2017, he told the supporters of the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), an Iranian opposition group, that the United States will overthrow the Iranian regime and celebrate it in Tehran with Bolton himself present, before 2019.

Supporters of the Trump administration welcomed the appointment of Bolton and the parallel move to nominate Michael Pompeo, another strong opponent of the JCPOA, to head the State Department. Among them, Harold Rhode, a former Pentagon official argued that these appointments sent a strong signal that the Iranian regime is America's enemy and that the Trump administration would like nothing more than to welcome the Iranian people back into the community of nations, “once the Iranian people raise up and overthrow the regime in power.”

The proponents of the JCPOA called the nominations a declaration of war on Iran. The National Iranian American Council (NIAC) or better known as the Iran lobby in Washington, issued a statement that reads in part: “With the appointment of John Bolton, and nomination of Mike Pompeo at State, Trump is clearly putting together a war cabinet.”

 While it is too soon to predict the implications of the new foreign policy team on Washington’s Iran policy, several observers have ventured that Trump would withdraw from the JCPOA in the next certification date on May 12, 2018. The next step is not clear either. However, both Bolton and Pompeo expressed strong reservations about Iran’s missile program and its skillful use of proxies such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, al-Hashad al-Sha’abi (“the popular mobilization”) in Iraq or the Houthis in Yemen to control large parts of the Middle East and the Gulf.

Coincidentally, the Bolton’s appointment came in the same week as the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS) visited Washington. According to reports, the Trump administration promised to back the new Saudi-UAE alliance to push back at Iran’s expansion.

Bolton’s appointment and Bin Salman’s visit sparked concerns in Iran. Kayhan newspaper, a mouthpiece of the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, wrote that “in this trip, Bin Salman sought to create a coalition composed of the US, Israel, and Saudi Arabia to confront Iran….but this will ultimately cost his assassination because he is basically inexperienced and does not enjoy popular support.” One Farsi outlet noted that “the United States is preparing for a full-scale war [with Iran].” Khabar online wrote that “Israel and Arab Gulf states are happy with this change in the White House.” The editorial went on by saying that “the record of the Republicans shows that while rhetorical, they are good at secret dealings…and [Iranians] also know how to deal with them.” Hamshahri noted that these appointments are an extensive housecleaning of the US national security team and a sign of change in Trump's dealing with international issues.

Kayhan argued that the considerable changes in the White House “might be challenging but for a country like Iran will have an important opportunity [as] the impudence of rapid changes also speeds up the risk of failure in taking any action.” Kayhan also reminded the Trump administration that Iran might be America’s enemy, but it is not the one who threatens the US national security. As the editorial put it, “Yes, Iran is a US problem, but everyone knows that we are not threatening the US national security and have not supported any military action against it.”

 The papers were not the only one to sound an anxious note. The Friday prayer Imams called for national consensus, and such political figures as Alaeddin Boroujerdi, the Chairman for the Committee for Foreign Policy and National Security of the Iranian Parliament, called for the return to the policy of “Pivot to the East,” especially the relationship with Russia and China. The policy was initiated by former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to compensate for western sanctions. Also, Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council called for “unity and consensus in the leadership” which, in his view, will guarantee Iran’s national security.

Most interesting, the initial reactions lacked the type of bluster and warnings which often emanate from the hardliners in Tehran, including the Revolutionary Guards. Indeed, it seems that even before the Bolton appointment, the Guards have been cautious not to provoke the United States. Despite the Revolutionary Guards’ rhetoric about the ballistic missile production, they stopped fire testing medium or long-range missiles since February 8, 2017, after being “put on notice,” by Trump’s short-lived National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. Equally important, the naval branch of the Revolutionary Guards, the Niro-ye Daryai-ye Sepah-e Iran (NEDSA) stopped the swarming of American ships patrolling the Gulf - a common practice under the Obama administration - which is part of the Guards asymmetrical warfare of anti-access, area denial (A2/AD) strategy.   

The fact that the Guards have stopped their aggressive actions after American show of force is nothing new. One such an example was during Operation Praying Mantis, in the last year of the Iran-Iraq War. To recall, on April 14, 1988, in what was the largest naval engagement since World War II, the US forces sank two Iranian warships and three armed speedboats and attacked offshore rigs, in retaliation for Iran’s mining of the Persian Gulf and the subsequent damage to an American warship.

 Only time will tell how the new Washington policy will play out in Tehran. However, if the above examples are anything to go by, the American show of force may give Iran a pause.

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