US National Security Adviser John Bolton speaks in Washington on Sept 10. The US threatened to sanction ICC judges and officials if there are moves to charge Americans who served in Afghanistan with war crimes. Photo: AFP / Andrew Caballero-Reynolds
US National Security Adviser John Bolton. Photo: AFP / Andrew Caballero-Reynolds

US National Security Adviser John Bolton, a key proponent of the 2003 Iraq invasion, is now working to repackage war with Iran as one of self-defense for President Donald Trump, analysts say.

Trump, who campaigned on the promise of getting US forces out of the Middle East, has increasingly given his hawkish senior adviser space to threaten Tehran from the White House. The US president broke with Republican party orthodoxy to lambast the Iraq war and former president George W Bush, during whose administration Bolton served as ambassador to the United Nations.

In a statement on Sunday, Bolton personally announced the deployment of the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group and a bomber task force to the Middle East.

A day later the US Navy chief emphasized that the strike group deployment had been planned “for some time now.” That did not stop Bolton from portraying it as a response to imminent threats from Iran, citing “troubling and escalatory indications and warnings,” reportedly received from Israel.

Bolton has cast a wide net on elements Washington says are acting under the direction of Tehran, not only Iranian troops but also Iran-backed or allied armed factions present across the region, from Syria to Yemen.

The purported Iranian threat passed on by the Israelis was not explicitly against the United States, according to journalist Barak Ravid, but could involve an attack on oil-exporting allies Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates.

Given that Saudi Arabia has already experienced attacks on its oil tankers in Red Sea shipping lanes by the Houthi rebels off the coast of Yemen, potential pretexts for US military action have effectively already taken place.

Members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard listen to a speech in parliament in Tehran on October 7, 2018, over the a bill to counter terrorist financing. Photo: AFP/Atta Kenare
Members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard listen to a speech in parliament in Tehran on October 7, 2018, about a bill to counter terrorist financing. Photo: AFP/Atta Kenare

Provoking Iran

In recent days, Trump’s Twitter has offered no insights as to his thinking on Iran, his attention being focused on trade talks with China, domestic issues and subpoenas issued to his attorney general and son, Donald Jr.

But the feelings of the president toward America’s wars in the Middle East are well documented. In a speech to Republican donors last year, he referred to George W Bush’s decision to invade Iraq as “the single worst decision ever made.”

Trump would rather be selling weapons to Gulf monarchies and claim responsibility for massive profits to US companies than deploy American troops, he has said.

And yet, as president, Trump has repeatedly been persuaded to keep troops in Afghanistan and Syria, famously carrying out a strike on Bashar al-Assad’s military after his daughter Ivanka showed him pictures of children who had been killed in a chemical attack.

It is unclear if Bolton has the sway of Trump’s eldest daughter, but analysts believe that the national security adviser – who has long called for bombing Iran and regime change – is now recalibrating to present war with the Islamic republic as a necessary one.

“The United States is not seeking war with the Iranian regime,” Bolton said Sunday in a nod to the isolationist president, “but we are fully prepared to respond to any attack, whether by proxy, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps [IRGC], or regular Iranian forces.”

Negar Mortazavi, a journalist and commentator covering Iran, says Bolton is aware that times have changed in Washington since the lead-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. 

“It is very hard to sell a war to the American people after Iraq, after Afghanistan, and after the president ran on a campaign of not starting one,” she told Asia Times. 

Trump early in his presidency was even hostile to the idea of taking on Bolton, choosing instead the maverick Michael Flynn (later convicted of lying to the FBI), then the circumspect General HR McMaster, before appointing Bolton last April.

“I don’t think Bolton’s goal has changed since working for Trump, but I feel like the strategy or packaging has changed,” said Mortazavi. “What Bolton is doing is packaging this as defense, as opposed to an invasion, and trying to provoke the Iranians to take the first step.

“If the Iranians stumble or take the bait from Bolton I think it will be met with direct action on the US side,” she said, adding that Trump does not like war, “but he also likes to be a strong man.”

Dina Esfandiary, a fellow at The Century Foundation, views the aircraft carrier announcement by Bolton in the context of the administration’s declared “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran.

“The maximum pressure campaign is intended ultimately to walk the country [the United States] into some kind of accidental military confrontation,” she said. 

Bolton’s anti-Iran crusade, backed by the former CIA chief and roving evangelical envoy Mike Pompeo, comes as top government posts remain unfilled or unconfirmed, most notably secretary of defense and ambassador positions from Jordan to the UAE to Qatar.

“Not having these positions filled makes it easier for Bolton to push through things he believes in without anyone being there to stop it,” said Esfandiary. 

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (R) hugs the Emirati ambassador to the US, Yousef Al Otaiba, at the NYU Abu Dhabi campus on January 13. Photo: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / AFP

Hardliners all around

The USS Abraham Lincoln, according to Bolton, will head to the Central Command region – likely through the narrow Strait of Hormuz, through which two-thirds of the world’s oil transported by sea passes.

“Carriers are designed for operations on the open ocean, mostly against other navies. They provide a platform for offensive striking power. They are not good at defending themselves. It’s protected by other vessels in its strike group … and they do that by spreading out,” said Caitlin Talmadge, associate professor of security studies at Georgetown University. 

It follows that putting a carrier strike group in the littoral waters of the Persian Gulf carries risks, namely that it will be within range of Iranian vessels, onshore weapons, and drones.

“Americans have gotten used to the idea that carriers are in the Gulf, because for the past 20 years they were operating close to a country [Iraq] that didn’t contest their presence, but if the US did get into a war with Iran, I’m not sure putting a carrier there would be the first thing I’d want to do,” she said, noting that the Indian Ocean would be a more logical location. 

To make such a show of force is not unusual on its own, says Talmadge. But the announcement coming from the desk of the national security adviser, as opposed to a sitting secretary of defense, is out of the ordinary.

“This is a guy who spent his life as an engineer at Boeing. He’s not speaking with a strong voice or from a strong position,” Talmadge said of Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan. 

Under Trump, she says, “individual actors might be able to influence policy a lot. 

“To coordinate what the military is doing, with what senior military leaders are saying, with what the president is trying to achieve strategically – these are the links you’d expect to see. And this episode demonstrates that these aren’t so clear.” 

The potential for escalation and conflict is not only coming from Washington, but also risks coming from hardliners in Tehran. 

“I think the Iranians have played it safe, held back hardline elements, and tried to stick to the nuclear deal. But at the same time, I don’t think this situation is sustainable for a very long time because just like we have hardline hawks in Washington, you have a whole lot in Iran,” said Mortazavi. 

“[The US] pulling out of the nuclear deal, reimposing sanctions, announcing they will cut waivers, and designating the IRGC as a terrorist group … are all steps to push Iran to provoke,”  she said. 

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani on Wednesday announced his country would begin lifting limits on enriching uranium, warning his fellow JCPOA signatories that Iran would be compelled to step further away from the nuclear pact if they could not deliver on sanctions relief within 60 days.

The most critical area to watch will be whether Iran can export its oil. Should Tehran’s demands be met, it has pledged to return to its full commitments under the deal.

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