As hawks take centre stage in Washington, so does Iran’s challenge

Early statements from the new US national security team indicate a more pragmatic than ideological approach.
Sunday 15/04/2018
New dynamics. CIA Director Mike Pompeo takes his seat to testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in Washington, on April 12.   (Reuters)
New dynamics. CIA Director Mike Pompeo takes his seat to testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in Washington, on April 12. (Reuters)

Washington - The rise of two prominent foreign policy hawks to crucial positions in the Trump administration is likely to put a bright spotlight on Iran as the biggest challenge for the United States in the Middle East. However, early statements from the new national security team indicate a more pragmatic than ideological approach.

John Bolton started work as US President Donald Trump’s national security adviser on April 9, replacing H.R. McMaster. Unlike McMaster and Michael Flynn, Trump’s first pick as security adviser who only lasted three weeks, Bolton, 69, is an experienced bureaucrat who knows how to work the political machinery in Washington.

He is also an unapologetic supporter of the US-led war against Saddam Hussein in 2003, largely seen as a disaster both for Iraq and the United States. The former US ambassador to the United Nations began his new job as the administration pondered a missile attack on Syria. Bolton’s position in the deliberations was not immediately known.

Mike Pompeo, 54, the director of the CIA, faced a confirmation hearing in the Senate as the secretary of state on April 12. The former US lawmaker from Kansas is seen as one of the most influential foreign policy aides in Trump’s team because he has been presenting the daily intelligence brief for the president for some time.

Pompeo’s predecessor, Rex Tillerson, a former oil executive without previous experience in government who was fired by Trump last month, was never a member of the inner circle around the president.

“There is an obvious systemic shift in the US national security apparatus that will alter the dynamics of the Trump administration’s decision-making process on the Middle East,” said Joe Macaron, a fellow at the Arab Centre in Washington.

Macaron said he expected Defence Secretary James Mattis and Chief of Staff John Kelly, two former generals seen as supporters of a moderate approach, “to be balanced by the hawkish civilians” Pompeo and Bolton. “However, the verdict is out on how these bureaucratic changes will translate into policy making,” Macaron added via e-mail. “The Pentagon seems to have the upper hand for the foreseeable future.”

Bolton and Pompeo are both known as sharp critics of the international nuclear agreement with Iran and have indicated in the past that they would support military strikes against Tehran.

The pair will advise Trump about whether to pull the United States out of the nuclear deal when the next deadline arrives May 12. America’s European allies are asking Trump to save the pact, arguing it is the best way to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel will try to convince the US president on separate visits to Washington this month.

Pompeo told the Senate he wanted “to fix” the Iran accord once he became secretary of state. He did not repeat earlier statements about attacking Iran but stressed the value of diplomacy instead. “Even after May 12, there’s still much diplomatic work to be done,” Pompeo said.

Asked whether, for the moment, Iran remains in compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the Iran agreement is officially known, Pompeo said: “I’ve seen no evidence that they are not in compliance today.”

Bolton has not commented on the Iran accord publicly since he started his new job. In an interview on Fox News in March he did not repeat earlier harsh statements about Iran, saying that former comments were behind him.

Macaron noted that Trump’s hard-line position on Iran was “in rhetoric only.” The administration’s main goal was to distance itself from the JCPOA without hurting US interests in the Middle East but it did not know how to go about that, he said.

“The United States has no strategy in the Middle East. There is neither appetite nor willingness to embark on new military adventures in the Middle East,” Macaron said.

Bolton and Pompeo also face a president with isolationist instincts. David Mack, a former US diplomat who worked closely with Bolton in the early 1990s, said the new security adviser was a highly intelligent and hardworking official whose views on issues such as the Iraq war differ considerably from those of the president.

Trump has called the Iraq war of 2003 a big mistake and is sceptical of foreign interventions by the United States in general and of nation-building — the central idea behind the Iraq war — in particular. “It will be interesting to watch how Bolton interacts with him,” Mack said in an interview, referring to Trump.

Another key question is whether Bolton and Pompeo will steer US foreign policy away from the Twitter storms and erratic statements that have become Trump’s trademark. The president fused Twitter to trumpet an upcoming US missile attack on Syria, only to walk the announcement back a day later. These statements came after he used a campaign-like speech in Ohio to say the United States would withdraw from Syria “very soon”.

Pompeo insisted at his Senate hearing that he would not be a “yes” man but would stand up to Trump if he felt it was necessary. He said he had been able to convince the president to change his mind in conversations he had with him during his tenure as CIA chief. The Senate is to vote on Pompeo’s confirmation this month.