Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

Dear Common Dreams Readers:
Corporations and billionaires have their own media. Shouldn't we? When you “follow the money” that funds our independent journalism, it all leads back to this: people like you. Our supporters are what allows us to produce journalism in the public interest that is beholden only to people, our planet, and the common good. Please support our Mid-Year Campaign so that we always have a newsroom for the people that is funded by the people. Thank you for your support. --Jon Queally, managing editor

Join the small group of generous readers who donate, keeping Common Dreams free for millions of people each year. Without your help, we won’t survive.

National security adviser John Bolton, at a meeting with President Trump on Sept. 28, 2018. (Photo: Oliver Contreras / The Washington Post/Getty Images file)

National security adviser John Bolton, at a meeting with President Trump on Sept. 28, 2018. (Photo: Oliver Contreras / The Washington Post/Getty Images file)

Trump's Potential War With Iran Is All John Bolton's Doing. But It Might Also Be His Undoing.

The Iranian government knows the national security adviser wants a war, and is banking on the fact that the president doesn't.

Trita Parsi

 by NBC News

National security adviser John Bolton has reportedly requested that administration officials draw up plans to send 120,000 U.S. troops to the Middle East to counter Iran, sending shockwaves through Washington. Bolton, a key architect of the disastrous invasion of Iraq, has long gunned for war with Iran and seems intent on escalating tensions regardless of Tehran’s policies.

At first glance, the plans — a deployment on a scale with the force sent to Kuwait prior to the war in Iraq—suggest that Iran’s decision to respond to Donald Trump’s violations of the Iran deal by restarting elements of its nuclear program has backfired spectacularly.

Iran is not being deterred by Bolton’s theatrics and threats of war, because Bolton is actually playing the exact role Tehran expected—and wanted—him to play.

But there is a different interpretation of what has happened. Rather than Iran walking into Bolton’s trap, it is Bolton who is walking into Iran’s trap. Iran is not being deterred by Bolton’s theatrics and threats of war, because Bolton is actually playing the exact role Tehran expected—and wanted—him to play.

Here’s why.

Tehran’s strategy appears to be predicated on two assumptions. First, that there is an important—but not yet determinate—wedge between Trump and Bolton and that, as long as the distance between the two men remains limited, Trump’s maximum pressure strategy has little to no political cost to him, even if it has a significant cost to Iran.

The second assumption is that the wedge between Trump and Bolton is rooted in Trump’s lack of interest in Bolton's desired war with Iran. Trump appears to genuinely believe that maximum pressure will force Iran to totally capitulate on its nuclear program with no cost to the U.S. and give him an easy victory (a highly unlikely turn of events.)

Bolton, on the other hand, understands that the maximum pressure strategy won’t break Iran. But it will corner Trump and may force him to escalate matters all the way to military action, which is Bolton’s preference.

Trump instinctually opposes going to war but Bolton is most likely calculating that, when deprived of all other options, Trump's ego will not permit him to back off.

Tehran’s assessment is the opposite. As long as Trump is still a good distance away from any decision on war, the maximum pressure strategy carries few if any downsides for him, and the wedge between him and Bolton will remain indeterminate.

So Tehran’s plan appears to be to accelerate matters toward the point at which Trump will have to decide whether he is truly willing to go to war with Iran or if the strategy of “maximum pressure” will not cross that threshold.

“I don’t think he wants war,” Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said of Trump during his visit to New York last month — spelling out Tehran’s analysis that the push for war does not come from Trump but from his subordinates and foreign allies.

After all, while fetishizing the military, Trump has not started any new land wars. (By comparison, at this point in his presidency, Bush was knee deep into his second land war in the Middle East.) And, even when he has taken military action, it’s been limited, with Trump choosing the option that minimized both American casualties and the risk of the target country retaliating. In Syria, for instance, Trump forewarned Bashar al-Assad's government and allowed it time to evacuate the military base that was about to get bombed—revealing Trump’s sensitivity to getting him entrapped in a larger war.

A senior adviser to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani tweeted as much ton Tuesday: “You wanted a better deal with Iran,” Hesameddin Ashena wrote in a tweet directed at Trump. “Looks like you are going to get a war instead. That’s what happens when you listen to the mustache. Good luck in 2020!”

Tehran may be right, and many in Washington agree with Iran’s assessment of Trump disinterest in war. Yet, Iran’s strategy is also immensely risky: Trump is an unpredictable character and, while his political instincts lean against war, his easily manipulated impulses consistently override his instincts.

But with Trump crippling the Iranian economy, Tehran seems to have reached the conclusion that counter-escalating—despite its risks—is its best choice. Iran faces greater danger when all of the cost and risks are on its shoulders. If the cost and risks are more evenly distributed, Iran calculates that it can secure a better outcome for itself.

If the plan works, and the Trump-Bolton tensions grow and lead to Bolton’s firing, Tehran will have proved to Trump that it won’t crack under pressure. Trump will be forced to back off from his belligerent posture—just as he did with North Korea—and adopt a more conciliatory tone. With that leverage in hand, Iran may then be ready to confront Trump at the negotiating table.

But having planned to thwart a U.S. military attack on Iran ever since the mid-1990s, Tehran also appears ready for this plan not to work.


© 2019 NBC News

Trita Parsi

Trita Parsi

Trita Parsi is Executive Vice President of the Quincy Institute and an expert on US-Iranian relations, Iranian foreign politics, and the geopolitics of the Middle East. He is author of "Losing an Enemy - Obama, Iran and the Triumph of Diplomacy"; "A Single Roll of the Dice - Obama's Diplomacy with Iran"; and "Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the United States."

"I'm sure this will be all over the corporate media, right?"
That’s what one longtime Common Dreams reader said yesterday after the newsroom reported on new research showing how corporate price gouging surged to a nearly 70-year high in 2021. While major broadcasters, newspapers, and other outlets continue to carry water for their corporate advertisers when they report on issues like inflation, economic inequality, and the climate emergency, our independence empowers us to provide you stories and perspectives that powerful interests don’t want you to have. But this independence is only possible because of support from readers like you. You make the difference. If our support dries up, so will we. Our crucial Mid-Year Campaign is now underway and we are in emergency mode to make sure we raise the necessary funds so that every day we can bring you the stories that corporate, for-profit outlets ignore and neglect. Please, if you can, support Common Dreams today.

 

Right-Wing Justices Should Be Impeached for Lying Under Oath, Says Ocasio-Cortez

"We have a responsibility to protect our democracy," said the New York Democrat. "That includes holding those in power who violate the law accountable."

Kenny Stancil ·


'Infuriating': Biden Rebuked for Continued Opposition to Supreme Court Expansion

"What does Biden 'agree' with doing?" Mehdi Hasan asked. "What does the leader of this country want to do to stop the increasingly fascistic assault on our democratic institutions and basic rights?"

Kenny Stancil ·


'We Need Action': Biden, Democrats Urged to Protect Abortion Access in Post-Roe US

"The Supreme Court doesn't get the final say on abortion," Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Tina Smith wrote in a new op-ed.

Kenny Stancil ·


Motorist 'Tried to Murder' Abortion Rights Advocates at Iowa Protest, Witnesses Say

Although one witness said the driver went "out of his way" to hit pro-choice protestors in the street, Cedar Rapids police declined to make an arrest.

Kenny Stancil ·


'A Hate Crime': Oslo Pride Parade Canceled After Deadly Shooting at Gay Bar

A 42-year-old gunman has been charged with terrorism following what Norway's prime minister called a "terrible and deeply shocking attack on innocent people."

Kenny Stancil ·

Common Dreams Logo