How John Bolton won the war on Iran policy

Sean D. Naylor
National Security Correspondent

During the 17-month tenure of John Bolton as President Trump’s national security adviser, representatives from government agencies with a stake in Iran policy would meet regularly in a secure room in the Old Executive Office Building or in the situation room in the West Wing of the White House.

The gatherings, hosted by the National Security Council, were designed to hash out a unified U.S. government position on Iran policy. But the Defense Department repeatedly complained that the memos the NSC produced from these meetings were “largely incorrect and inaccurate,” a former senior administration official said. Defense officials accused Bolton’s staff of misrepresenting the department’s views in the official memos on issues ranging from the designation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organization to the provision of military aid to the Lebanese armed forces.

The summaries “were essentially fiction,” the former official said.

John Bolton, then national security adviser, at the United Against Nuclear Iran summit during the U.N. General Assembly in September 2018. (Darren Ornitz/Reuters)

The tension between the Pentagon and the NSC was a microcosm of the evolution of the administration’s Iran policy. It is a story, according to several officials involved, of hard-line political appointees taking on more moderate career civil servants and military professionals, and the most hard-line political appointees outmaneuvering moderate hawks on Iran policy.

Even after Bolton’s forced departure from the White House last September, his handpicked team has managed to steamroll opposition to most of his hard-line views from the Defense, State and Treasury departments, and even within the NSC itself.

“The Bolton era was one of incredible impact on Iran policy,” said another former administration official, crediting the former national security adviser with bureaucratically outflanking Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin by nudging Trump in the direction in which the president already wanted to go. 

Bolton’s arrival at the NSC in April 2018 marked a sharp change in the way the council approached Iran. Under his predecessor, Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, the NSC functioned as “an organizing body,” a policy-neutral organization teeing up issues for decisions by policymakers at Cabinet or sub-Cabinet level, according to the former senior administration official. But under Bolton, “it became like a policy-making branch,” he said. “It went from coordination to speaking for the president constantly.”

Then-national security adviser John Bolton answers questions from reporters as he announces the U.S. will withdraw from the nuclear treaty with Iran, Oct. 3, 2018. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Bolton, a longtime advocate for regime change in Tehran, had, like Trump, argued for overturning the nuclear deal with Iran negotiated by the administration of President Barack Obama. Two weeks after Bolton took office, the collective position against Iran of Trump’s foreign policy team became harder still when Pompeo succeeded Rex Tillerson as secretary of state. A hawk on Iran since his days as a Republican congressman from Kansas, Pompeo also brought “an incredible amount of Trump loyalty,” as well as credibility on national security issues based on his time as an Army officer and as CIA director, said a former administration official.

But even after Pompeo’s arrival at Foggy Bottom, Bolton remained the hardest of the hard-liners on Trump’s national security team when it came to Iran. “Pompeo is definitely an Iran hawk, but when Bolton came in he made him look like a dove, almost,” said the former senior administration official. “Bolton came in wanting a war.”

Bolton did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

In July 2018, Bolton strengthened his hand on the NSC staff when he brought in Tim Morrison, a like-minded opponent of the Iran deal, to be the NSC’s senior director for countering weapons of mass destruction. At the beginning of 2019, Morrison in turn recruited Richard Goldberg as his director for Iran. A former staffer for Illinois Republican Sen. Mark Kirk, Goldberg was best known on Capitol Hill for drafting much of the sanctions legislation against Iran. He and Morrison made it their job to try to destroy what was left of the Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), from which the United States had withdrawn in May 2018 but which several other major powers were still party to, while tightening economic sanctions as part of a “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran.

Morrison and Goldberg found themselves sometimes aligned with, and other times at odds with, two other members of the NSC staff: Victoria Coates, the senior director for the Middle East, and Rob Greenway, a retired Special Forces officer who was the director for Iran. Coates, a former adviser to Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, was an art historian by training, but Greenway had worked on the Iran issue for years, including a stint on the staff of U.S. Central Command.

Tim Morrison, a former official at the National Security Council, testifies before the House Intelligence Committee on Nov. 19, 2019. (Susan Walsh/AP)

Behind the scenes, Greenway has wielded significant influence on the administration’s policy toward Tehran and wrote much of the administration’s original Iran strategy, which the White House rolled out in the fall of 2017, according to two sources. While Coates can sketch the outlines of the Iran strategy, “when it comes down to the actual substance it’s Rob,” a Pentagon official said.

But Greenway based his strategy on the assumption that the United States would remain in the nuclear deal, according to a former administration official. Therefore, those on the NSC staff who wanted out of the deal looked down on it. “It’s the kinetic hard-power stuff that he knows well, and so the idea of a counter-IRGC strategy, the idea of rolling back the IRGC, stuff you’re seeing now of going after the militias in Iraq and Syria and taking out [IRGC Maj. Gen. Qassem] Soleimani and all that, that would be very much in line with a Rob Greenway way of thinking,” said a former administration official. “His thesis basically is [the Defense Department] doesn’t do enough.”

However, the former administration official added, Greenway was less aggressive when it came to Iran’s nuclear posture and the need to impose even more aggressive sanctions on Tehran. “The push to kill the deal and collapse it entirely, kill the waivers … [was] never out of Victoria and Rob’s shop, always out of Tim Morrison and Rich Goldberg,” said the former administration official.

The NSC hard-liners also viewed the office of Brian Hook, the U.S. special representative for Iran at the State Department, as “more accommodating” of Iran than necessary, the former administration official said.

As a result, when Bolton was the national security adviser, a “little civil war” developed among Trump’s advisers on Iran, according to the former administration official. “Victoria, Rob and Brian Hook had their own club, so they’re sort of allies together,” the former administration official said. Facing off against them, “Bolton, Tim Morrison [and] Rich Goldberg had their own sort of silo.”

But Goldberg, Morrison and Greenway were united in their belief that the Defense Department was not hard enough on Iran. During the first year and a half of the administration (before the arrival of Goldberg and Morrison on the NSC), when retired Marine Gen. James Mattis was defense secretary, the disagreements between the Pentagon and the NSC had centered around the nuclear deal.

Then-Defense Secretary James Mattis in August 2018. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images)

Under Mattis, the view from the Pentagon was that the JCPOA represented “a really good deal,” according to the former senior administration official. Military and civilian leaders alike in the Pentagon, including the key political appointees, argued that the administration should engage with its European allies and get them to back sanctions on Iran for its use of proxies like the Houthis to attack Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, “rather than blow up the JCPOA, which ruptures a lot of our relationships with the Europeans,” the former senior administration official said.

The CIA agreed with the Pentagon’s logic, without advocating a policy position, according to the former senior administration official. “Their assessment would be that we would cause problems with our allies by doing this,” he said. However, while the State Department’s career civil servants also supported the Pentagon’s position, “all the appointed people,” particularly Pompeo and Hook, disagreed, the former senior administration official said. “They thought that we had to exit the JCPOA and that was the only way to deal with them, and then start this substantial economic pressure campaign.”

The former senior administration official described the Pentagon and the State Department, with the exception of Pompeo and Hook, as a “moderating force” on Iran policy. “The NSC was the igniting force,” the former official said. “They were the ones that constantly wanted to push the [Defense Department] and the elements of State that weren’t onboard with a more aggressive position.” 

But with Bolton urging him on, Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal in May 2018, less than two months after announcing that Bolton would be his national security adviser. To Pentagon officials, the administration’s policy “just seemed backward,” the former senior administration official said.

In the meantime, disagreements between the Pentagon and the NSC escalated over the policy coordination committee meetings, which were supposed to coordinate Iran policy. Those meetings occurred “every week or two” and were run by Coates or Greenway, according to the Pentagon official.

President Trump speaks to reporters at the White House after signing a proclamation declaring his intention to withdraw from the Iran nuclear agreement, May 8, 2018. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

At first, Defense officials would respond “informally” to the summaries of conclusions, asking the NSC to change the memos to reflect they were not in agreement with the policy proposals mentioned in the documents. However, when that did not work, the department sent formal requests for changes and Undersecretary of Defense John Rood would call the NSC, according to the former senior administration official. 

But the Pentagon’s protests had little effect. The original summaries would stand as the official record of the meetings. A senior Obama-era Pentagon official described a formal rebuttal of a policy coordination committee meeting summary of conclusions as “highly unusual” and said he could not recall it happening during his two years in the Defense Department. The former senior Trump administration official agreed.

“I’ve served through many administrations, but I’ve never heard of having this done this way,” he said.

As an example of how things have worked in the current administration, the former senior Trump administration official cited the debate over whether to continue military aid to the Lebanese armed forces. NSC hard-liners wanted the U.S. government to halt the aid because some senior Lebanese military figures had links to Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia group that is Iran’s most powerful proxy force. The Defense Department’s response was, “That’s one of the best programs we’ve got in the Middle East,” the former senior administration official said. The Pentagon “just flat out disagreed with the idea that everybody who talked to Hezbollah should be excommunicated from us, because they are the most significant people, that’s why Hezbollah wants to talk to them.”

The Pentagon joined with the State Department on a rebuttal to the summary of conclusions on the issue of military aid to Lebanon, one of several related to the Middle East to which both departments objected, he said.

The NSC officials got their way on the aid for a while late last year, but under pressure from Congress the Trump administration released it in late November, in the midst of the impeachment investigation into the administration’s similar withholding of military aid to Ukraine.

The same thing happened when the Pentagon officials argued against designating the IRGC as a terrorist organization, according to the former senior administration official. The NSC’s summary of conclusions made it appear as if the Pentagon was in favor of the step.

Pentagon officials disagreed with designating the IRGC as a terrorist organization on the grounds that it was “a state entity,” albeit “a bad state entity,” and that if the United States took that step, then Iran might reciprocate, treating U.S. special operations units or CIA personnel as terrorists and targeting them accordingly, the former senior administration official said.

The hard-liners again won the internal debate. On April 8, Trump announced that he was designating the IRGC, including its Quds Force, as a foreign terrorist organization.

Two weeks later, in what a former administration official described as “a historic game-changing moment” in Trump’s shift to a more hard-line Iran policy, the administration announced that it was ending the sanctions waivers it had granted to several countries that had allowed them to buy oil from Iran. The decision was “intended to bring Iran’s oil exports to zero and deny the regime its principal source of revenue,” the White House said. The announcement marked a victory for Bolton, Morrison and Goldberg and their vision of a “maximum pressure” campaign that would put the Iranian regime under intolerable economic duress.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announces that the U.S. will designate Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization, April 8, 2019. (Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)

Less than five months later, however, Bolton was out as national security adviser, after what Trump said were “many disagreements” between the two of them. One of those was Bolton’s oft-stated desire for regime change in Tehran, a goal Trump publicly said he did not share.

But with that key exception, Bolton succeeded in shaping the direction of Trump’s Iran policy, gradually overriding resistance from the Defense Department and the rest of the government.

However, the former administration official pointed out that Bolton was able to achieve his goals only because they largely coincided with Trump’s. He noted that the administration’s policy has been moving in the same direction since Trump took office, through four national security advisers and a succession of different heads of the Pentagon and the State Department. 

“There’s one common denominator throughout the spectrum of time,” he said. “It’s the president.”


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