While he warned of a “very strong response” from the United States against Iran and its proxies, Bolton did not specify what would trigger that reaction. He is in the Middle East to consult “more closely with our allies in the region to discuss what to do next,” Bolton said.
The administration has beefed up security in the region with the dispatch of 900 additional troops and the extended deployment of 600 already there, as well as sending new air and sea assets.
In Washington, the White House announced that Bolton would also attend a trilateral meeting in Jerusalem “to discuss regional security issues” with his counterparts from Israel and Russia.
Bolton’s tough talk on high-profile foreign policy issues such as Iran, North Korea and Venezuela has sparked a new round of speculation about his longevity as Trump’s third national security adviser. Earlier this week, Trump said he disagreed with Bolton’s charge that North Korean missile launches were a violation of United Nations resolutions and praised North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Bolton, who frequently called for regime change in Tehran before joining the White House last year, has spoken about the need to stop Iran’s ballistic missile program and its spread of terrorism in the Middle East and beyond.
But in recent days, Trump has limited his concern to “no nuclear weapons” in Iran. On Monday, the president said that “we’re not looking for regime change” and renewed his offer for talks with Iranian leaders. “If they’d like to talk, we’ll talk,” he said.
Trump has begun polling other advisers on how they think Bolton is doing, according to senior administration officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity about internal White House matters.
Bolton has annoyed Trump, his communications office and the State Department, who resent what is seen as his sharp-elbowed maneuvering to elevate his preferred options to the president while reducing the input of others, the officials said.
“He acts like he’s president of the United States,” one White House official said.
Other top officials, including acting defense secretary Patrick Shanahan and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have spoken about the breadth of the Iranian threat, but none as pointedly and publicly as Bolton.
Asked about possible dissension in the upper levels of the national security team, however, both Pompeo and Shanahan have insisted that they are all on the same page.
“I don’t think you’ll find people in the National Security [Council] at present who want a war with Iran. Nobody wants a war. The president is very clear. . . . So, I don’t think there’s any inconsistency,” Shanahan told reporters traveling with him on a visit to Asia.
Just as Bolton’s barbs toward Iran have been sharp, some Iranian officials have been unstinting in their criticism of him. Various senior officials on Wednesday called Bolton a “warmonger” and his statements “ridiculous” and “ludicrous,” according to Iranian media.
“We are aware that evident elements are trying to put America into a war with Iran for their own goals,” Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi said.
Rattling his country’s own sabers this week, Gen. Hossein Salami, commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, said his forces had “experienced and defeated all of the enemy’s scenarios.”
“We have been able to shatter enemy psyops and dry up the enemy’s capacity for war,” he said, according to Iranian media.
But in an indication that Iran also has differing opinions on how to deal with the United States, President Hassan Rouhani signaled that talks with Washington might be possible.
“The door of negotiations is not closed, provided the U.S. lifts the sanctions and fulfills its commitments,” Rouhani said at a cabinet meeting Wednesday.
Later in the day, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said that his country would not negotiate on issues related to its military capabilities” and that talks with the United States would bring nothing but harm, according to the Associated Press.
Missy Ryan contributed to this report.