Bolton is doing something similar today. For more than a decade, he’s consistently promoted war with Iran. All that has changed are the pretexts he’s offering to justify one.
In January 2007, President George W. Bush accused Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps of “providing material support for attacks on American troops” in Iraq and launched a series of raids in which American soldiers detained Iranian officials there. U.S. and British intelligence analysts cast doubt on the claims of top Bush officials that Iran was a major driver of the Iraqi insurgency. Nonetheless, in internal administration discussions that summer, Vice President Dick Cheney reportedly urged air strikes against alleged insurgent training camps in Iran. And Bolton, who had left the Bush administration the previous year, publicly endorsed the idea. He argued on Fox News that the U.S. “is fully entitled to take defensive measures, which could include going after the Revolutionary Guards inside Iran.”
But Bolton was just getting started. In 2008, he offered another rationale for striking Iran: that in addition to supporting anti-American forces in Iraq, it was “doing much the same by aiding the Taliban in Afghanistan.” Over the next few years, as American soldiers left Iraq, Bolton’s initial rationale faded. But his desire for war did not. From 2012 to 2015 he repeatedly called for bombing Iran to stop its nuclear program.
Since becoming Trump’s national security adviser, Bolton has continued this pattern. Along with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, he’s offered justification after justification for attacking Iran. When one hasn’t worked, he’s found another.
Last September, a militia linked to Iran allegedly launched three mortars into an open lot near the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, hurting no one. According to The New York Times, then–Defense Secretary Jim Mattis dismissed the attack as “insignificant.” But Bolton demanded that the military draw up plans for retaliation. “People were shocked,” one former administration official told The Wall Street Journal. “It was mind-boggling how cavalier they were about hitting Iran.”
Mattis averted an American strike. But he couldn’t stop Bolton from giving a speech that same month that all but advertised his desire for war. Addressing Iran’s leaders, Bolton announced, “If you cross us, our allies or our partners, if you harm our citizens, if you continue to lie, cheat and deceive, yes, there will indeed be hell to pay … We are watching and we will come after you.”
In November, according to The New Yorker, Bolton found another pretext for military action. Iran was preparing to test-fire a medium-range ballistic missile, and Bolton suggested shooting it down. Again, he was overruled.
Then, in January, Iran launched a satellite into space. “This is in defiance of UNSCR 2231,” Pompeo tweeted. “We won’t stand by while the regime threatens international security.” The New York Times noted that “the Pentagon and intelligence agencies disagreed with Mr. Pompeo’s interpretation of the threat posed by the satellite launches,” which Iran had been conducting since 2005. Yet again, security officials reined in Pompeo and Bolton. But within the military, alarm was spreading. “Senior Pentagon officials are voicing deepening fears,” another Times piece reported that month, “that President Trump’s hawkish national security adviser, John R. Bolton, could precipitate a conflict with Iran.”