Paul Pillar puts John Bolton’s latest fear-mongering on Iran in context:
National Security Advisor John Bolton, aided by his comrade-in-arms Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, is doing everything possible to instigate a war with Iran. Naked aggression as a means of starting such a war may be too much for even Bolton to pull off, so the strategy has been to try to pressure and goad Iran into doing something—anything—that could be construed as a casus belli. So far, no doubt to Bolton’s frustration, Iran has exercised remarkable restraint in the face of unrelenting and escalating hostility from the Trump administration. Iran even continues to comply with its obligations under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the agreement that restricted Iran’s nuclear program, despite the U.S. reneging on the agreement and the resulting absence of economic improvement for Iran that was part of the deal. But Bolton keeps searching for still more ways to goad and to pressure.
Bolton has had a longstanding interest in starting war with Iran, and before he joined the government he left no doubt that the related goal he had foremost in mind was toppling the Iranian government. He also has a reputation for manipulating and distorting intelligence to suit his purpose, so when Bolton is the one pushing the interpretation of the evidence we should be even warier than usual. Coming on the heels of the administration’s embarrassing failure in Venezuela last week, it would not be surprising if Bolton hoped to change the subject. As we mark one year since Trump’s irrational and destructive decision to renege on the JCPOA, we should also expect the administration to be trying to provoke an incident that it can try to use as vindication for its policy of relentless hostility and collective punishment. The administration probably shouldn’t be calling too much attention to their Iran policy at the moment, since that would remind the public that it is the U.S. that has been behaving like the rogue state for the last year.
It is always possible that hard-line elements inside the Iranian government are prepared to become more aggressive and dangerous in response to a series of U.S. provocations from reimposed sanctions to designating the IRGC as terrorists to trying to shut off all of their oil exports, but we need to remember that the administration desperately wants Iran to take aggressive action so that they can use that to justify further escalation. The “warnings and indications” that Bolton cited in his statement over the weekend are admittedly vague ones, and in keeping with his record of threat inflation Bolton is seeking to make routine warnings seem more alarming and dangerous than they are. The Iranian government would be foolish to take Bolton’s latest bait, but that doesn’t mean that the U.S. can keep poking them in the eye without expecting an undesirable and adverse reaction. Bolton is not only hoping to provoke an Iranian reaction, but he also wants to create an incident that he can use to ensure that the president goes along with his aggressive plans.
Bolton’s desire for war and regime change in Iran has never been a secret, and since he joined the administration he has worked assiduously to pursue both goals. If Trump didn’t want his administration doing this, he could easily remove Bolton and replace him with someone less fanatical, and it is worrisome and telling that he hasn’t done that for more than a year. The president has essentially outsourced his administration’s foreign policy to a hard-line ideologue, and the ideologue is exploiting the situation to advance his agenda as much as he can.