In a Twitter post on September 10, 2019, US President Donald Trump announced the sacking of his National Security Adviser John Bolton. Officials in Iran immediately welcomed the decision. Some went on to say that the sacking of Bolton was another blow to Washington and its campaign of maximum pressure against Tehran. Is the dismissal of Bolton indicative of a substantial change in US policy towards Iran? Does Trump’s firing of Bolton deserve the positive reception it has received from Tehran?
Bolton and his History of Confrontation With Iran
There are several reasons behind Iran welcoming the sacking of Bolton. In the beginning, Bolton was appointed by Trump in 2018 when he changed some members of his administration who were skeptical about his foreign policy. They openly opposed his positions, including Trump’s strong approach towards Iran, especially his emphatic desire to pull out of the nuclear deal signed between the P5+1 in 2015 and to renegotiate a new deal. Trump chose two hawks supportive of his approach towards Iran: Mike Pompeo who replaced Rex Tillerson on March 31, 2018, and John Bolton who replaced H. R. McMaster on March 22, 2018.
When it comes to confrontation with the Iranian government, Bolton has a rich record. When he was the US ambassador to the UN, he said: “The behavior and objectives of the Iranian regime will not change. Therefore, the solution is to change the regime itself.” During the negotiations for the nuclear deal, he wrote a piece entitled ‘Let’s Bomb Iran Before Iran Bombs the US.’ In August 2017, he wrote a piece entitled ‘How Can We Damage the Nuclear Deal?’ Bolton also has links with Iranian opposition organizations overseas. In the summer of 2018 in Paris, he addressed Iranian opponents of the Iranian government. In his speech, he said that the avowed policy of the United States should be to oust the ayatollahs in Iran. He also re-proposed his vision, saying that the objectives and behavior of the Iranian regime will not change. Therefore, the solution is to change the regime itself. When he joined the Trump administration, he encouraged Trump to pull out of the nuclear deal. He was among those who incited the use of force against the government in Iran and was opposed to its presence in the region’s countries. He also played an important role in promoting Washington’s strategy through several shuttle tours, which included European and Asian countries, as well as Iran’s neighbors. The aim was to tightly implement the US maximum pressure strategy and to tighten the noose around Iran.
Therefore, some Iranian figures believe that one of Iran’s arch-foes within the Trump administration has gone. In addition, calls for using force against Tehran as well as calls for changing the Iranian government have gone with him. Others hope that the sacking could be a prelude to the Trump administration changing the way it handles the Iranian file, especially the stalled negotiations between Washington and Tehran.
What Was Bolton’s Effect on the Iranian File?
The post of national security adviser is one of the most important positions with close proximity to the US president in terms of influencing his foreign policy positions. However, it is important to note that the national security adviser is one among multiple institutions and individuals that play a pivotal role in shaping the nature of US foreign policy.
In fact, despite Bolton’s position, he did not affect Trump’s choices or decisions towards Iran. Bolton was appointed more than one year after Trump took power in 2017. Moreover, Trump’s choice of Bolton was in line with his efforts to reshuffle his national security team so that it was more aligned with his orientations and choices.
The formation of Trump’s strategy towards Iran was basically his way of fulfilling his electoral promises. Before Bolton came to office, President Trump showed a great deal of insistence on pulling out of the nuclear deal if it was not changed. On the ground, his orientations contributed to undermining the nuclear deal and thwarting its main objectives.
Even when Bolton took office, his role was limited as the Iranian file was taken up by the US State Department led by Mike Pompeo, who, in turn, determined the demands imposed on Tehran and outlined the US strategy towards Iran, which focused mainly on imposing maximum pressure on Iran. After the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal and Washington enforcing its first package of sanctions against Iran in May 2018, US Secretary of State Pompeo announced the formation of a working group on Iran on August 16, 2018. This group was tasked with outlining policies pertaining to the US maximum pressure strategy which was formed to “change the behavior of the Iranian regime.” The group was headed by the Director of Policy Planning at the US State Department, Brian Hook, who has become the special representative of the US State Department on Iran.
For his part, Hook outlined his working plan on Iran after Trump reasserted his confidence in the US State Department to carry out its mission within the framework of the Iranian file. It has become clear that the strategy outlined by Hook was somewhat divergent from Bolton’s choices.
When the escalation reached its climax between the United States and Iran, with Iran targeting oil tankers in the Gulf, downing a US drone which Iran said violated its airspace, threatening US troops in Iraq, striking oil facilities in some Gulf states, and threatening navigation in the Strait of Hormuz, there was a strong possibility that Bolton’s approach to Iran could be adopted by Trump. However, Trump’s decision to cancel military strikes against Iranian military targets only hours before their execution was in opposition to Bolton’s radical policies. It showed his negligible influence on the Trump administration’s policy towards Iran. This is explained by Trump’s latest tweet when he said, “I strongly disagreed with many of his suggestions.”
Results and Consequences of US Policy Towards the Iranian File
Consequences of US policy on Iran: it was clear from the beginning that Trump’s policy towards Iran was somewhat in harmony with some of Bolton’s radical orientations. His role within the anti-Iran decision-making hierarchy cannot be denied after he became the US national security adviser as well as his role in the nature of Washington’s extremist policy towards Iran. But on the ground, Bolton’s sacking will not affect US policy towards Iran. The president, through the Department of State, the Department of the Treasury, the CIA and the Department of Defense, still holds the most significant degree of influence in determining US policy towards Iran. These departments submitted the strategy of maximum pressure as a primary and strategic option in order to force the Iranian government to come to the negotiating table for a new deal without preconditions. Trump believes that this strategy is making inroads and that it will achieve its goals sooner or later. Therefore, sacking Bolton has nothing to do with the possibility of changing the US strategy of maximum pressure as Trump has asserted.
Influencing the trajectory of negotiations: some may explain Bolton’s sacking as a positive message from the US side, especially when it comes to an understanding with Iran, given that there are European pressures for dialogue between the United States and Iran. But, in fact, even in the presence of Bolton, Trump was clear when it came to his desire to negotiate with Iran. Bolton was not an impediment to starting negotiations with Iran despite his opposition to any possible talks between Trump and the Iranian leadership. On the contrary, negotiations have remained suspended as the Iranians believe that a return to dialogue is political suicide while US sanctions remain imposed on Tehran. However, the United States believes the sanctions will be fruitful in the long run as Iran’s power will gradually be diminished.
Affecting the military options towards Iran: Bolton’s sacking may dampen the spirits of a number of hawks within his administration who support military intervention against Iran in case the crisis reaches an impasse between Washington and Tehran. Hence, Trump’s principle of isolating Iran is given more impetus after Bolton’s sacking.
Affecting the Iranian position: naturally, Bolton’s sacking will not affect the position of the Iranian government towards the United States. Iran seeks to see a change in US policies, not just a change in individuals. What is the benefit of Bolton and his like-minded associates being dismissed while sanctions and pressures are still in place?
In addition, Iran employs Bolton’s sacking at home within its propaganda campaign to influence public opinion given that Bolton’s dismissal reflects a failure of Washington’s maximum pressure strategy in the face of Iran’s policy of resistance.
In any event, Bolton’s presence within the Trump administration did not result in his influencing to a large degree the Iranian file despite his radical positions. In addition, his resignation will not result in a big change given the expanding influence of several entities within the Trump administration on decision-making related to Iran, especially the US Department of State, and more specifically the engineer of the US maximum pressure strategy and coordinator of Iran’s file within the Trump administration, Brian Hook.
Who Succeeds Bolton?
After the sacking of Bolton, Charlie Cooperman was named as the interim national security adviser. Senator Lindsey Graham said that Trump floated several names to fill the position. They were Keith Kellogg, the National Security Adviser to Vice President Mike Pence, Brian Hook, the Political Adviser to the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Rick Waddell, a former national security official.
Trump may not agree to let Cooperman hold the position permanently as he was a former aide to Bolton. He may adopt the same policies, which are not in harmony with those of Trump at this stage. When it comes to Iran, it does not welcome his appointment to the position as he is counted among the anti-Iran team in Washington.
As for the retired General Keith Kellogg, he was previously appointed by Trump as an acting national security adviser after Michael Flynn, who faced accusations of communicating with the Russians, resigned. But Trump did not allow him to stay in office permanently, naming McMaster as Flynn’s successor. Therefore, his chances to be the next national security adviser are negligible. As for Iran, Keith Kellogg is in harmony with Trump’s rhetoric and orientations, but is not as radical as Cooperman. He will not cause any change or effect on US policies related to the Iranian file.
On Rick Waddell, he was also a deputy to the former National Security Adviser McMaster. This lowers his chances to replace Bolton due to Trump’s past differences with McMaster. The same applies to McMaster himself, as his name is being floated by some to fill the vacant position. But according to the Iranian viewpoint, both of them are good choices given the fact that the first was an aide to McMaster who was opposed to Trump’s policies towards Iran and had reservations about Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal.
The last one is Brian Hook, the former planning officer at the US Department of State and who is now the one taking up the Iranian file and heads the working group on Iran. He is one of the prominent candidates who may be picked by Trump. Iran deems him one of the most dangerous diplomats for the Iranian government. He coordinates the Iranian file with the different concerned entities within the Trump administration. He also played a prominent role in exerting maximum pressure on Iran.
In addition to these candidates, there are other figures, such as General Douglas McGregor. He is a retired general who has published important books. He played a role in canceling Trump’s military strike against Iran in June 2019 as it could have caused a political catastrophe for Trump. It has been said that talks have been held with him to assume a senior position in the White House. But he refused to comment on this. There is no doubt that it will be a good choice for Iran as he avoids escalation and confrontation. There is also the US Ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, who is close to Trump and adopts an extremist position on Iran. He was nominated to fill the post of the US ambassador to the UN. But Trump did not pick him, giving the position to the US Ambassador to Canada Kelly Craft. This reduces his chances. As for Iran, he is counted among the radical figures towards the Iranian political system.
Some reports suggest that Trump may entrust Pompeo with the role of US national security adviser, as well as retaining his position as secretary of state, similar to Henry Kissinger under President Nixon. This seems difficult, to grant the secretary of state another position which involves responsibilities that he is already partly handling in his current position. For Iran, this would be the worst choice if it happened. Pompeo is a hawk with a very negative view of Iran and the current maximum pressure strategy is being implemented through the US Department of State.
In the end, all the names floated for the post are in harmony with Trump’s policy towards Iran. It is also certain that Trump will not pick figures with whom he has had past differences and divergent visions. The new faces are closest to attaining the post, the most important among them are Brian Hook and Richard Grenell since they are more in harmony with Trump and his foreign policies. In any case, Iran should not expect a change that is in its favor as long as it is insistent on going ahead with its policy of resistance.