President Trump, John Bolton, and Regime Change in Iran

playing chessIn an article I wrote last year, I did not foretell that John Bolton would become President Trump’s National Security Advisor. I argued that President Trump’s posture on Iran was nearly identical to President Bush’s hawkish attitude toward Iraq in 2002-2003, which led to the war about Iraq, and I documented Bolton’s overt militant stance on Iran, which could provide a rationale for Trump’s goal of withdrawing the United States from Iran nuclear deal (aka: the JCPOA).

Bolton, a hardline foreign policy hawk with strong neoconservative leanings, has had a long career as a high-level policy advisor in various capacities since the Reagan years. It was probably inevitable that Trump would eventually choose Bolton to be his National Security Advisor (in April, 2018). But I will let you be the judge of that. Here is part of what I wrote in September, 2017:

From 2017
In a telling article in National Review (August, 2017) titled “How to Get Out of the Iran Deal,” John Bolton, a former U. S. Ambassador to the UN, laid out a detailed, five-page game plan for the kind of spin we can expect to hear about Iran from the White House and the media in the following months. Bolton, who calls the Iran nuclear deal “execrable,” was asked in July by Steve Bannon, then Trump’s chief White House strategist, “to draw up just such a game plan…, which I did,” Bolton wrote in the article. It’s a strategy, he states, “that can be readily expanded to a comprehensive, hundred-page playbook if the administration were to decide to leave the Iran agreement.”

Note the meaning of that carefully crafted sentence. Bolton, who has served at high levels in various presidential administrations, is no stranger to spin. He is not saying: here is a just case for pulling out of the agreement. He’s saying: if you [Trump] pull out when Iran is not in material breach, here’s how to spin your decision. [In previous administrations, Bolton has been tasked with helping to sell presidential policies to the public.]

Under four subheadings – Background; Campaign Plan Components; Execution Concepts and Tactics; Conclusion – Bolton’s argument may be summed up as: here’s how to pull out all the stops in a domestic and global campaign to get as many influential agencies, allies, and media as possible on board to support “a decision not to certify and to abrogate the JCPOA.” His ways and means include, but are not limited to:

■ developing momentum in Congress for pulling out,
■ diplomatic and public education initiatives,
■ early and quiet consultation with key players,
■ explaining why the deal is harmful to U.S. national security interests,
■ a full court press by U.S. embassies worldwide,
■ coordinating with all relevant Federal agencies,
■ the timing of announcements,
■ having unilateral U.S. sanctions against Iran ready to be implemented,
■ encourage public debate that goes further than abrogating the deal,
■ announcing U.S. support for the democratic Iranian opposition,
■ expedite delivery of bunker-buster bombs,
■ and actively organize opposition to Iranian political objectives in the UN.

Bolton expands on the “how” of those and other strategies throughout his article. “This effort,” he concludes, “should be the Administration’s highest diplomatic priority, commanding all necessary time, attention, and resources.”

If Iran continues to implement the deal but Trump remains firm about tearing it up, we should be prepared to face a deluge of what the distinguished foreign policy thinker John Mearsheimer calls, in his insightful little book Why Leaders Lie, “a deception campaign” based on fearmongering, which “occurs when a state’s leaders see a threat emerging but think that they cannot make the public see the wolf at the door without resorting to a deception campaign.”

“History may not repeat itself,” Mark Twain has been noted to have said, “but it sure does rhyme.” If we draw lessons from the deception campaign of Bush White House in 2002, it’s not hard to divine what kind of rhyming statements, i.e., sound bites, are going to be hawked by the Trump White House and influential others in the coming months. Here are some likely ones:

■ Of all of Obama’s wrongheaded policies, none is more dangerous to the US that the Iran deal…
■ Obama, Kerry, and others in that administration were naive to think that Iran doesn’t want nuclear weapons…
■ The time has come to pull out of the deal…
■ We have clear evidence that Iran is not abiding by the nuclear deal…
■ Congressional leaders are united in their view that Iran will…
■ The only way to stop Iran from having nuclear weapons is to pull out of the deal and place very tough US sanctions on Iran…
■ The Iran deal has not deterred it from pursuing paths to have nuclear weapons….
■ We support the President to pull out of the deal…
■ We are confident that Iran is seeking means to build a nuclear weapon…
■ If we do not pull out of the Iran deal and enact very strict sanction immediately…
■ Iran had no intention of honoring the agreement….

Back to today and looking ahead
You only have to read President Trump’s public statements about the Iran deal to see that many of them resemble the above sound bites. It is foolish to try to predict what the next five to ten years will look like now that the United States is no longer committed to the JCPOA, now that “the highest level of economic sanction” is being instituted (Trump), and now that all sorts of changes toward engaging with America are being discussed and implemented by many U.S. allies and partners, including in the EU.

Common GroundI, for one, however, hope that Trita Parsi is mistaken, though I fear he is not. Parsi, a respected foreign policy analyst, Iranian expert, and author, wrote in July, 2017, that Trump’s rationale for pulling out of the JCPOA was a “a rerun of the machinations that resulted in the Iraq war. It doesn’t matter what Iran does or doesn’t do….”

A far-fetched goal of the Trump White House? Don’t count on it now that John Bolton is the president’s National Security Advisor. In 1998, nineteen high-level Middle East policy advocates sent a formal letter to President Bill Clinton. Written on Project for a New American Century (PNAC) stationery and dated January 26, the letter argued that “the aim of American foreign policy” should be “removing Saddam Hussein and his regime from power.”

PNAC was a well-funded, well-connected neoconservative think tank (1997-2006). “We urge you to articulate this aim,” the letter to President Clinton concluded. “We stand ready to offer our full support in this difficult but necessary endeavor.” Signatories includes: Robert Kagan and William Kristol (PNAC founders), Elliot Abrams, Francis Fukuyama, Richard Perle, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, and John Bolton (a Director at PNAC).

It is tempting to conclude that this was “just a letter.” And many analysts have concluded that Clinton ignored it. Maybe. Maybe not. Certainly he never made any attempt to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq. But regime change takes time to plan and to implement. Consider what did take place quietly in the halls of power nine months after Clinton received the PNAC letter.

In September 1998, a bill was introduced to both the House and the Senate under the cumbersome title: “To establish a program to support a transition to democracy in Iraq.” It sailed through Congress and was signed into law by President Clinton on October 31 as “The Iraq Liberation Act.” With that use of his pen, Clinton made regime change the policy of the United States toward Iraq. Five-and-half years later, in March 2003, President Bush sent the troops.

the White HouseConventional wisdom lays the decision to oust Saddam Hussein from power at the feet of President George W. Bush, but the policy had in fact become official U.S. policy under Clinton. We will never know all the facts and machinations that led to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. As Al Gore once told Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward, the public only knows one percent of what goes on at the White House.

What we do know is that Trump withdrew the U.S. from the nuclear agreement despite the IAEA’s widely respected conclusion that Iran was not in material breach of the agreement. We also know that part of Bolton’s Middle East policy was regime change in Iraq. We also know that another of his Middle East policies is “regime change in Iran.” This he made clear during a Fox News interview four months before he was installed as Trump’s National Security Advisor.

As Peter Beinart has written, it would be comforting to believe that withdrawing from the agreement has not “put the United States or Israel, or both, on the path to war with Iran. [But] another Middle Eastern war is entirely possible. Where it might lead is anyone’s guess. The greatest current threat to American national security is not Iran, North Korea, or ISIS. It’s amnesia. And Americans need a strategy to fight it.”

©2018 by Charles Strohmer

Images via Creative Commons.

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3 thoughts on “President Trump, John Bolton, and Regime Change in Iran

  1. I do not know much about the complexities of International negotiations. That being stated, was this agreement approved by a majority of the Senate in 2015?

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    • Thx for asking, Mark, The JCPOA was an authoritative and legal Executive Agreement that did not need Congressional ratification to go into effect or to bind the U.S. to it. The Supreme Court, decades ago, ruled that EA’s carry the same weight as treaties. But EA’s are not binding on subsequent presidents unless they are authorized by Congress. Hope that helps. Glad to share more if I can.

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