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.