Whether national security adviser John Bolton was fired by President Trump or he quit is irrelevant. The change in foreign policy leadership will have a profound impact on how this administration’s Iran policy is shaped and implemented.
Bolton favored the ever-present threat of military action against the Islamic republic and has often openly advocated for it, including the episode in June when Trump approved military strikes in response to the downing of a U.S. drone, which he abruptly aborted when he learned the projected casualties.
Bolton, though, thought the attacks should proceed as planned. For decades he has been consistent in his contempt for the leaders in Iran — and other longtime adversaries — and not shy about the need to spill innocent blood sometimes to reach what he perceived to be U.S. strategic goals.
His absence also means that the Mujahideen-e Khalq (MEK), a reviled Iranian opposition group that long lived on the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist groups, no longer has a powerful ally in the White House.
The now former national security adviser and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations was one of dozens of U.S. politicians, including Rudolph W. Giuliani, to accept large speaking fees in exchange for publicly advocating the organization as a viable replacement for the Islamic republic.
The MEK can claim no popular support, and among Iranians of nearly all political orientations, inside the country and in the diaspora, it was Bolton’s paid alliance with the cultlike group that made him such an odious character.
With the MEK suddenly nowhere in the conversation, ordinary Iranians who would prefer to see their government negotiate its way out of the sanctions that currently have a stranglehold on the country’s economy will be more inclined than ever to support such a process with U.S. leaders.
And those millions of Iranians who prefer a regime change can be more confident now that the United States has no serious plans to install the hated group if the Islamic republic were ever toppled.
Either way, when it comes to Iran, the Trump administration’s hands are no longer tied by Bolton, an ideologue who views diplomacy as a weakness rather than a tool.
The shake-up creates the first real opportunity for Trump to pursue a policy of engaging Iran, which both he and Pompeo have publicly advocated for since this administration’s decision to exit the 2015 nuclear accord with the Islamic republic.
Bolton assumed duties as the national security adviser in April 2018, a month before Trump pulled out of the deal. Although Trump threatened to do so long before he took office, the timing probably pleased Bolton, as he loved to be seen as tough on Iran.
It was yet another reason Bolton’s mere presence in the administration — and at such a high level — made talks between the Trump administration and Tehran all but impossible.
Trump and Pompeo must now make a clear choice and stick with it: actively pursue a new deal with Iran’s leadership as Trump has promised to do since he was a candidate, or continue with the disingenuous charade that is their “maximum pressure” campaign, a policy that has only had the discernible effect of making the lives of average Iranians more miserable.
Trump and Pompeo have time and again put the possibility of new talks, without preconditions, on the table. Now they can prove it. Bolton’s departure, two weeks before the annual United Nations General Assembly session, puts the ball squarely in Tehran’s court.
If President Hassan Rouhani and his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, refuse the offer to meet with their U.S. counterparts while in New York, it is they who will suddenly appear to be the unreasonable party.
The only thing that can be said for Bolton’s position on Iran was that it was clear, but he was a liability from the moment he joined this administration. The ways in which his ouster might change the direction of Trump’s Iran policy will prove it.