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 undersecretary 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.
Iran has historically attacked U.S. targets with its proxies when it assesses it will not face direct military reprisals. Iran used proxy forces to lay roadside bombs during the U.S. war in Iraq, for example, because its judgment at the time was that Bush lacked the support, in Congress or with the public, to respond with a strike inside Iranian territory. (In retrospect, this assessment was correct.) When Iran believes the U.S. will use force, however, it backs off. Iran has not mined the Persian Gulf, despite occasional threats to do so, because the U.S demonstrated three decades ago that it will destroy the Iranian navy if it tries.
This is where Bolton comes in: He’s kind of a one-man psychological warfare operation. If Iran’s leaders believe Trump’s advisers are trying to constrain him, they may assess they can get away with a proxy attack on U.S. positions. If they think Trump is trying to constrain his national security adviser, they may decide not to.
Bolton himself seems to understand this. I am told he deliberately brought a yellow pad to the White House podium earlier this year during a briefing on Venezuela that said “5,000 troops to Colombia.” The idea was to persuade Venezuelan strongman Nicolas Maduro not to imprison or attack the opposition. So far, that bet has worked. Bolton may be following a similar strategy with Iran, with recent reports that he had ordered the Pentagon to provide war plans if Iran restarted its drive for a nuclear bomb.
Of course, this strategy is fraught. As tensions rise, so does the risk of miscalculation. And while the older generation of Iranian officers remembers when the U.S. sunk its navy, says Michael Rubin, an Iran expert at the American Enterprise Institute, the younger generation “knows only American weakness.”
It’s fair to point out the risks. It’s irresponsible to allege some kind of conspiracy to trick the U.S. into a war. It’s understandable why Zarif would push this nonsense; less so is why any Democrat would.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.