What John Bolton Means to Iran

We’re about a week and a half away from John Bolton’s return to public service, this time as Donald Trump’s National Security Advisor. Most of the analysis on the latest personnel shakeup thus far has focused on what Bolton, the hawkest of hawks, means for the relationship between the United States and its adversaries, most notably North Korea and Iran. The consensus view seems to be that Bolton’s takeover from H.R. McMaster, together with the replacement of Rex Tillerson with CIA Director Mike Pompeo over at the State Department, makes another U.S. regime change adventure more likely in one or both of these countries.

Far less has been said about what Bolton’s appointment means to the rest of the world, and particularly to the countries he routinely demonizes. Since this is an Iran-focused blog, let’s take a moment to address at least part of this imbalance.

So far, the reaction from Tehran to this news has been relatively mild. The most publicized response, as far as I can tell, came from Ali Shamkhani, Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), who called the decision “shameful.” Other prominent Iranian leaders, including President Hassan Rouhani, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, have yet to weigh in directly on the hire.

One way to interpret this is as a conscious decision to avoid stirring the pot at a delicate moment, but this is not an entirely satisfactory explanation. It isn’t really in keeping with the Iranian style of foreign policy to refrain from issuing combative statements in response to direct provocations. The appointment of a man like Bolton, who has for decades been a vocal proponent of regime change in Iran through violent means, certainly counts as one.

A more likely explanation is that Bolton’s return was not really that shocking. From the Iranian perspective, Bolton is simply one part an anti-Iran system far larger than himself. It’s only natural that he would find his way back into the fold in an administration led by a man who has spent his entire political career demonizing Iran. Meet the new warmonger, same as the old warmonger.

Some of this can be explained via the conspiratorial nature of Iranian politics and society, which filters a lot of what happens in the West — and especially the United States — through the narrative of a plot to overthrow the Islamic Republic. In some cases, the results of this process are a bit far-fetched, but, like a broken clock, they aren’t always wrong.

There are three pieces to this puzzle: the domestic, the international, and the personal.

Domestically, Bolton is a familiar face among the DC foreign policy establishment. He is, by many accounts, both accepted and respected in This Town, especially among his neoconservative peers (a few “Never Trumpers” even advocated for him for Secretary of State during the transition; Eliot Cohen described him as “capable…experienced & tough“). Like them, he has not been cast out from the community of serious thinkers despite his role in pushing for the disastrous 2003 American invasion of Iraq. Even his detractors, of which there are many, have noted in response to his appointment as National Security Advisor their regard for his cunning and competence as a DC policy circuit operator.

On the international level, Iran views Bolton as another data point in a swelling mound of evidence that anti-Iran forces are preparing for war. There is already the perception in Iran that the United States is forming an alliance with Israel and Saudi Arabia in preparation for a preemptive military strike. The presence of Bolton, a longtime advocate of such measures, back in the White House only serves to further confirm that bias. It certainly did not help that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman showed up in Washington just days before the announcement of Bolton’s appointment. On March 18, the hardline Iranian newspaper Kayhan published an article (Persian) headlined “Bin Salman Seeking Formation of a Western, Hebrew, and Arab Axis Against Iran.” Following the announcement of the Bolton hire, the English-language Tehran Times, usually a more moderate outlet, published an outlandish interview with Robert David Steele in which the former CIA officer claimed, among other things, that Bolton is “in the pocket of the Zionists.”

Admittedly, the idea that the Saudis or the Israelis had a direct hand in the selection of the U.S. National Security Advisor seems a bit far-fetched, even for this administration. Far more likely is the prosaic explanation: Trump saw Bolton on TV a lot and liked what he had to say. Still, the perception remains, and that perception affects the Iranian outlook.

Finally, there is the personal element. If there is something uniquely troubling to Iranians about John Bolton, it’s his extensive history as an advocate for the Mujahideen-e Khalq (MEK). The MEK, an Islamist-Marxist organization that is frequently described as a “cult,” is the most visible Iranian opposition group operating in the West today. Well-funded and well-organized, it hosts massive annual rallies in Paris where prominent American ex-officials and policymakers come to pay tribute and deliver speeches — in exchange for large sums of money — to its members.

This glitzy exterior, however, hides a dark past. After being thrown out of Iran following the Islamic Revolution, the MEK set up shop in Iraq and received weapons and financial support from Saddam Hussein’s regime. Beginning in 1997, the State Department placed the MEK on its list of designated foreign terrorist organizations for its role in murders of multiple American military personnel, the attempted kidnapping of an American Ambassador, and other acts of violence.

In a bid to rehabilitate its image in the West, the MEK’s leaders, the husband and wife duo Massoud and Maryam Rajavi, cultivated a bipartisan set of high profile American officials and lawmakers to promote the MEK  as a viable Iranian government-in-waiting. These efforts culminated in the removal of the MEK from the State Department terrorist organization list in 2012.

It’s hard to overstate the level of revulsion for the MEK within Iran. Though they lay claim to the mantle of Iran’s democratic future, their support is almost non-existent inside the country. As journalist Jason Rezaian noted, during his time living in Iran, people expressed all sorts of wishes for Iran’s political future, but none included the MEK.

 

Bolton was among the earliest and most vocal supporters of the group (he advocated for the MEK while it was still listed as a terrorist organization). He has frequently appeared at their conferences — eight times, to be exact — to deliver bombastic speeches in support of the organization and against the Iranian regime. In his most recent appearance in July 2017, Bolton promised that regime change was coming to Iran no later than 2019. Now, he might actually be in a place to act on that promise.

None of this is news to Iran, which has been bracing for conflict with the United States since the start of the Trump administration. We won’t know until April 9 how Bolton will act once in office, but given his track record, it’s safe to assume he won’t merely try to preserve the status quo. A lot of analysts have suggested that the first step he might take is to try to get Trump to withdraw the United States from the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) when it next comes up for recertification on May 12. This would trigger the automatic reimposition of nuclear-related sanctions against Iran and could lead to a collapse of the agreement. Iran, ostensibly freed from its commitment to the deal, may see a resumption of nuclear enrichment as its only possible response.

This is a likely starting point, but no doubt not the end of Bolton’s mission. Where things go from here no one can accurately forecast, but one thing is sure: chaos won’t be far behind.

AIPAC 2018: Wag the Dog Edition

Beginning this Saturday, DC will once again play host to the annual AIPAC (American-Israel Public Affairs Committee) Policy Conference. Over the course of three days, several thousand attendees will be treated to a smorgasbord of speakers and panels on a variety of topics. The event wraps up Tuesday when the delegates, armed with talking points learned over the course of the conference, head up to Capitol Hill to press legislators to take on more Israel-friendly positions.

There are rarely any surprises at AIPAC. After all, everyone is there for the same reason: to promote the United States’ unwavering support for Israel. It is not a moment for a serious debate about the nature of this relationship or introspection into Israel’s shortcomings. It’s more like freebase for the “Israel: Right or Wrong” crowd.

Security is always an important topic with Israel, but the discussion at AIPAC will be limited in scope. Few, if any, speakers will directly address the Occupation, for example, and even the ones who do will not do so in critical terms. On the other hand, there will be plenty of talk about Iran.

A quick glance at the speaker roster reveals quite a few people who have long espoused hawkish — if not downright militaristic — views on how to address the Iranian threat. On the American side, this includes Trump administration officials, led by Vice President Mike Pence, as well as prominent lawmakers such as Senators Tom Cotton and Marco Rubio. Alarmingly, John Bolton, whose desire for preemptive military action apparently knows no bounds, is also on the agenda. From the private sector, voices like Emily Landau from INSS and Omri Ceren of The Israel Project are sure to talk up the need for increased pressure on Iran.

Meanwhile, the Israeli government delegation will be led by none other than the Prime Minister himself, who is attending the conference in person for the first time since 2015. Not coincidentally, Iran was also a significant issue during Netanyahu’s last visit to the conference. Back then, Iran was on the verge of a comprehensive agreement with the P5+1 powers (permanent five members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) over the fate of its nuclear program, which Netanyahu strongly opposed.

In his speech to the convention that year, Netanyahu railed against the Iranian regime. “Iran,” he said, “envelops the entire world with its tentacles of terror. This is what Iran is doing now without nuclear weapons. Imagine what Iran would do with nuclear weapons.” He framed the fight as a clash of civilizations, with Israel and the United States united “to defend our common civilization against common threats.” The next day, in front of a joint session of Congress, Netanyahu suggested that the Iranian desire to destroy Israel was a modern extension of a 2500-year-old Persian plot commemorated annually during the festival of Purim.

I’d expect more of the same this year.

As Israeli journalist Barak Ravid reported earlier this week, Netanyahu is scheduled to meet with Trump at the White House ahead of his speech to the convention Monday evening. On Twitter, Ravid quoted a senior Israeli military official as saying, “It is comfortable for the Americans to let us be their sub-contractor against Iran in Syria. We are very worried.” Netanyahu is expected to press Trump for increased American military action against Iran in Syria. Given the President’s propensity to agree with the last thing anyone says to him, Netanyahu will likely come out of that meeting with a promise from Trump for stronger military commitment.

 

It shouldn’t be controversial anymore to point out Trump’s word on anything means very little. Netanyahu, like the rest of the world, is no doubt aware of this, which would be a good reason for him to publicize any promises Trump makes during their private meeting as quickly as possible. The AIPAC convention provides the perfect platform for this.

Even if Netanyahu chooses not to broadcast the details of his meeting with Trump, the Iranian threat will still dominate the speech. Netanyahu, who has become increasingly more Trump-like in his political and rhetorical style over the past year and a half, will offer lots of red meat to the highly partisan crowd. The optics of several thousand American supporters enthusiastically cheering the Prime Minister will provide a much-needed boost for a man whose government appears to be teetering on the political edge.

Like Trump, Netanyahu is in desperate need of a win right now. More than that, though, both men need something to distract attention away from the growing turmoil engulfing their administrations. They could easily decide that ramping up the conflict with Iran is precisely what is needed to divert attention and boost their leadership ratings. The agenda for this trip seems tailor-made for a big launch event (no pun intended), so I will be watching the Prime Minister’s speech on Monday very closely to see just how hard he tries to wag the dog.