John Bolton. Picture AFP/SERGEI GAPON
John Bolton. Picture AFP/SERGEI GAPON

Critics of the Trump administration’s Iran policy despised John Bolton. Now they’re going to miss him.

Ever since US President Donald Trump abrogated the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and the major world powers,the world has assumed his administration has been itching for a war with the Islamic Republic. Among Iranians, many Europeans, and not a few of Trump’s domestic opponents, the administration’s actions invited facile comparisons to the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq.

Exhibit A for the case against Trump’s Iran policy was his choice of Bolton as national security adviser. After all, the mustachioed neo-conservative had led the chorus for the Iraq war and spent years arguing for a more aggressive posture with Iran, even advocating the bombing of the country’s nuclear installations.

He had called for Trump to pull the US out of the nuclear deal, known as the joint comprehensive plan of action, and sure enough, a little more than a month after Bolton moved into the White House, Trump did.

It was easy to leap to the next conclusion: that the new adviser was going to drive his boss to war. Hadn’t Bolton promised supporters of the People’s Mojahedin Organisation of Iran, a virulently anti-regime group that was, for years, on the US’s terrorism list, that they would “celebrate in Tehran” before 2019? Yes, he had.

Bolton’s presumed primacy in formulating Trump’s Iran policy made it easy for critics to dismiss the repeated assertions by the president, in public and in private, that he did not want a war with Iran, or even to change the regime in Tehran. Surely this was dissimulation, they reasoned, a cover for Bolton’s true intentions.

When I suggested to some European diplomats that Trump might be using Bolton just to frighten the Iranians, like some attack dog on a leash, they dismissed this as too subtle a strategy for a bull-in-a-china-shop administration.

It didn’t help that Trump was never able to articulate his own attitude towards Iran, feeding the perception that Bolton was calling the shots.

Losing of a bogeyman

For the Iranians, who invariably referred to Bolton as a “warmonger” — or, sometimes, “warmonger-in-chief” — his presence in the White House was an excuse to reject as insincere all Trump’s offers of negotiations. There’s no question who Abbas Araghchi, the deputy foreign minister, was referring to when he warned that “elements are trying to put America into a war with Iran for their own goals”.

Now they don’t have Bolton to kick around anymore. His inglorious exit removes the fog of warmongering from Trump’s dealings with the Islamic Republic. That will make it harder for the Iranians and other critics of the president’s “maximum pressure” campaign to keep brushing off offers of talks. This may explain why the regime has responded cautiously to Bolton’s dismissal: the loss of a bogeyman can be disorientating.

For the Europeans, likewise, the removal of the threat of war requires a recalibration. They have been too lenient on Iran’s resumption of uranium enrichment, going no further than gentle finger-wagging.

The announcement that Iran is now planning to deploy more advanced centrifuges and go for higher levels of enrichment should elicit the threat of European sanctions, rather than French President Emmanuel Macron’s ill-conceived plan to offer the Iranians a $15bn line of credit as an inducement to open negotiations — the diplomatic equivalent of paying off a blackmailer.

It appears that Trump, too, was inclined to give Iran a break before being talked out of it by Bolton. This suggests he doesn’t recognise the opportunity before him. His campaign of sanctions is working. With the distracting moustache out of the way, he has a better chance of co-opting the Europeans, and forcing the Islamic Republic to the table.

• Ghosh is a columnist and member of the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and the wider Islamic world. This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Bloomberg