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John Bolton Is Exactly What Trump’s Iran Policy Needs

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The Iranian regime should understand that the U.S. is serious about deterrence, not war.

By Eli Lake
Source: Bloomberg
Pay attention to that man in the background. Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images North America

If there’s one thing Democrats and ayatollahs agree on these days, it’s that John Bolton is trying to start a war with Iran. President Donald Trump has said that he is open to negotiations and does not want a war, but his mustachioed national security adviser will not abide.

Popular as it may be in Washington, this theory has it backwards. Bolton’s antipathy toward Iran is well-known and longstanding, but the current administration strategy is not aimed at starting a war with Iran. It’s designed to avoid one.

Nevertheless, the anti-Bolton theme has been the centerpiece of a public diplomacy campaign for Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. He consistently derides what he calls the “B-team,” referring to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan and, of course, John Bolton. Zarif’s strategy is transparent: Blame Bolton to take the focus off Iran’s own escalations.

Many leading Democrats are on the same page. Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, last week urged Trump to disregard Bolton’s counsel unless he wants “to stumble into a new and devastating military conflict.” Senator Bernie Sanders was even more alarmist, saying this week that Bolton wants to lie America into a war with Iran, just like he did with Iraq.

None of this is new. The Iranian regime, like the North Koreans and Venezuelans, has hated Bolton for years. As recently as 2015, Bolton openly advocated bombing Iran’s nuclear program, and before he joined the Trump administration he accepted paid speaking gigs for an Iranian opposition group that has attacked regime targets. Democrats’ enmity toward Bolton also has deep roots, dating to 2005, when they derailed his nomination to be U.S. ambassador to the United Nations over accusations of hyping intelligence and being mean to subordinates.

For his part, Bolton seems to enjoy all the loathing. When he was under-secretary of state for arms control in the George W. Bush administration, Bolton displayed in his office the framed front page of Iranian newspaper denouncing him.

But now he works for the Trump administration, whose current Iran strategy is to bring a combination of crippling sanctions and diplomatic pressure to force the regime to dismantle its nuclear program and end its regional predations. Two senior State Department officials on Thursday told a small group of columnists there were no plans for an Iraq-style invasion. And they’re right. If there were, the White House would be working with Congress on a war resolution and establishing a casus belli.

So what explains the recent flurry of public statements and military deployment? They are best seen as tools of deterrence, not aggression. This is the message Secretary of State Mike Pompeo communicated to America’s European allies this week, when he asked them to use their channels to Tehran to urge the regime de-escalate.





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