“The American role in post-war Iraq actually will be fairly minimal”: that was John Bolton, then US Under-Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Affairs, in late 2002. “Iran will not negotiate away its nuclear programme”: John Bolton a few weeks before the international nuclear deal signed in 2015. (He believed a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities was needed).
Bolton is a firm supporter of the Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK), listed officially by the USA from 1997-2012 as a terrorist organization. He apparently sees this bizarre authoritarian “Muslim” cult as the future government of Iran once the ayatollahs are overthrown. Such were the views that lead to his appointment as National Security Adviser in April 1918 following the much decorated Lieutenant-General Herbert McMaster who opposed pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal and lasted 13 months in the job.
In the Trumpian universe disdain for facts and poor judgement are qualifications for office. And since the future US Secretary of Defence, Patrick Shanahan, is at present only Acting Secretary until Senate confirmation, Bolton ‘the moustache’ has led on US policy towards Iran. An aircraft-carrier battle group and four nuclear-capable B 52s are on their way to the Gulf on Bolton’s advice, and an Iran battle-plan updated with provision for 120,000 US troops sent to the region.
John Bolton who has been pushing for a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities for over a decade, himself has avoided any experience of war – in Vietnam - by opting for a few months service in the national guard. He has no in-depth experience outside the USA let alone in the Middle East. If he had seen the acres of graves along the road from Tehran to Ayatollah Khomeini’s large mausoleum, he might have reflected that after the Iran-Iraq war the senior ranks of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps would be experienced and tenacious in battle. He might also have perceived the significance for US diplomacy of the deep divisions over the velayat-e-faqih, the rule of the Shi’a clerics. If Bolton had put aside for a moment his belligerence, and contempt for the United Nations, he might have understood that tearing up the Iran nuclear deal, JCPOA (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action signed 15 July 2015), a hard-won international treaty, thus punishing President Rouhani for his compliance, played into the hands of Iran’s own extremists. Rouhani has complied with the world’s most comprehensive International Atomic Energy Agency verification regime to date. The IAEA reported on Iran’s nuclear facilities and production of enriched uranium on ten occasions since 2015 and verified that Iran is compliant. Rouhani took a considerable risk in signing JCPOA. He was rewarded by the US ruining the Iranian economy by ever more effective sanctions. His position has been undermined.
What is the risk now of a major war breaking out between Israel/USA and Iran? Firstly, the two key military leaders, US General Kenneth McKenzie, CENTCOM (Central Command) Commander for the Middle East region and Major-General Hossein Salami, head of the Revolutionary Guards, are both new to their jobs, appointed only a few weeks ago; both need to prove themselves in their new roles. Salami says that Iran stands “on the cusp of a full-scale confrontation”. McKenzie threatens Iran with “an experienced, ready, battle hard force with the best equipment and training in the world”. Each side has branded the armed forces of the other as a terrorist organization. Rhetoric from both sides, at the moment, but dangerous rhetoric.
On the plus side, neither the US military nor Israeli Intelligence services are keen on plunging the Middle East into a further war which might close the Strait of Hormuz to vital oil supplies. US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, has made it clear the US does not want war. General David Petraeus, former head of the CIA and CENTCOM, and Meir Dagan, former MOSSAD chief, neither insignificant voices, have made it clear that they think a military strike on Iran would lead to a regional conflagration. President Trump has on a number of occasions broadcast his intention to bring home US troops from the Middle East, to avoid another Iraq-type war, and has recently asked President Rouhani to give him a call.
Trump believes that increasing sanctions pressure on the Iranian regime by finally blocking its oil exports, together with his miraculous deal-making skills, will solve the Iran problem. But the problem has become of his own making: rejection of an international treaty signed by the USA and five permanent members of the UN Security Council: Russia, China, France, UK plus Germany and the EU. The pressure this put on President Rouhani, who is beset by supporters of the Supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, has pushed him into threatening minor violations of the treaty. For the moment we are in a classic smoke-and-mirrors game.
John Bolton as Under-Secretary for Arms Control was adept during the prelude to the Iraq War at politicizing and manipulating intelligence on Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction to justify the invasion. Recent news feels like an action replay: vague reports of new Iranian threats to the US in Iraq, denied by Major-General Chris Ghika, the British deputy head of Operation Inherent Resolve (US-led against Da’esh in Syria and Iraq); a background of Revolutionary Guard activity in Syria and Iraq together with Iranian support for Hamas in Gaza and Hizbollah in Lebanon. And what should we make of those “sabotaged ships” in UAE waters, reminiscent of the Gulf of Tonkin incident in August 1964 – the supposed attacks by North Vietnam on the USS Maddox - used to justify the deployment of US conventional forces in a war against North Vietnam? Or was Iran sending a “message” about oil sanction? A surfeit of rhetoric and politicized intelligence can lead to war by accident.
A senior adviser to President Rouhani, Hesameddin Ashena, recently tweeted President Trump: “You wanted a better deal with Iran. Looks like you’re going to get a war instead. That’s what happens when you listen to the moustache”. All part of the game. But with someone as erratic and unfocussed as Donald Trump, who most commentators believe is genuinely no warmonger, it is a game in which miscalculation can happen.
Bolton has stayed true to form: he has now overreached himself. Trump is de-escalating. But the likelihood, expressed in an earlier blog, that the USA’s ever closer relationship with Israel may encourage an Israeli military strike on Iran, alongside its current bombing in Syria, remains a danger.
See also "Thanks to John Bolton Iran could be standing on the cusp of full scale confrontation" The Article.com