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John Bolton Drives U.S. Pressure On Iran


The Trump administration has been ratcheting up the rhetoric about Iran, and it's not just words. The U.S. also sent ships and bombers to the Middle East. The State Department ordered staff to evacuate from Iraq. The administration says Iran or its proxies might attack U.S. forces somewhere. All of this has many worried about war. Now we're going to dig into the role of the White House official who seems to be in the middle of all this. National Security Adviser John Bolton has been warning about Iran for years. Here he was at a conference in New York last fall.


JOHN BOLTON: If you cross us, our allies or our partners, you harm our citizens, if you continue to lie, cheat and deceive, yes, there will indeed be hell to pay.


SHAPIRO: NPR diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen has covered John Bolton for more than a decade and is here in the studio. Hi, Michele.


SHAPIRO: Let's back up and talk about Bolton's worldview because it's been pretty consistent for a long time, right?

KELEMEN: Yeah. I mean, I first came across Bolton when he was a top nonproliferation official at the State Department during George W. Bush's administration. And he was always really skeptical of negotiations with the North Koreans or the Iranians, you know, skeptical that they can be talked out of their nuclear programs. And I remember sitting down with him after he had left government. It was toward the end of the Bush administration. And, you know, this was also after the Iraq war. And he was still talking about why pre-emptive strikes may be necessary to keep weapons of mass destruction out of the hands of regimes like Iran.


BOLTON: You can't allow the world's most dangerous weapons to fall into the hands of the world's most dangerous people. And the point is the cost-benefit ratio of political and diplomatic life changes dramatically once a country gets nuclear weapons. So thinking about the pre-emptive use of force is intended to prevent the catastrophic shift that occurs once the weapons fall into their hands.

SHAPIRO: It's striking to hear somebody say that so soon after the Iraq War had gone sour and a pre-emptive strike had really created a mess for the administration.

KELEMEN: Yeah. I mean, but this is his world view, that, you know, you do have to be forceful to prevent countries from getting weapons of mass destruction. And he was very focused on this, very focused on American security, on nonproliferation. He's a lawyer by training. He quickly gained a reputation at the State Department of being a very effective bureaucratic fighter but also angered a lot of people in the way that he pressured people about intelligence reporting, for instance. And all that came back to haunt him when he tried to get confirmed as U.N. ambassador. The assistant secretary of state for intelligence at the time, Carl Ford, had some choice words about Bolton at a confirmation hearing.


CARL FORD: Unfortunately - my judgment, my opinion - he's a quintessential kiss up, kick down sort of guy. There are a lot of them around. But the fact is that he stands out that he's got a bigger kick, and it gets bigger and stronger the further down the bureaucracy's kicking.

SHAPIRO: He's always been skeptical of multilateral relationships. Is that part of why he didn't get confirmed for the U.N. ambassadorship under George W. Bush?

KELEMEN: Yeah, for sure. I mean, he was very dismissive of the U.N. bureaucracy in particular and had a quite famous quote about that as well.


BOLTON: The Secretariat Building in New York has 38 stories. If you lost 10 stories today, it wouldn't make a bit of difference.

KELEMEN: But, you know, Ari, he didn't get confirmed for the job, but President Bush gave him a recess appointment. So he did serve there for just over a year.

SHAPIRO: And then about a year ago, President Trump appointed him to this job that does not require Senate confirmation - national security adviser, a top position in the White House. What was going on at that point?

KELEMEN: Well, one of the first things that happened after he came on board was that President Trump actually pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal. It was something he had been promising his voters. And it was something that John Bolton often talked about on Fox News before he was tapped for the job. Of course, this was the U.S. pulling out of a deal that the Obama administration had made to limit Iran's nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.

The Trump administration also really pushed hard on reinforcing those sanctions, reimposing those sanctions. And they've been probably more successful and effective on that front than many analysts had predicted. But the question really is, to what end? I mean, administration officials say they want to starve Iran of cash and force it to change its behavior. But Bolton himself has never hidden his desire for regime change in Iran. It was a common theme in his many paid speeches to a group called the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (ph), which is an exiled Iranian opposition group that was once on a U.S. terrorism list.


BOLTON: The behavior and the objectives of the regime are not going to change, and therefore the only solution is to change the regime itself.


BOLTON: And that's why, before 2019, we here will celebrate in Tehran. Thank you very much.

SHAPIRO: So right now you have these two world views in the West Wing. There's John Bolton, who talks about regime change and pre-emptive strikes. And there's President Trump, who talks about pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq and Syria and putting America first. How are those different world views playing out right now?

KELEMEN: Well, in some ways, they're similar when you think about, you know, Bolton putting America's security first, not being very concerned with U.S. allies, working multilaterally when possible. But there is kind of that America first in him, although he's much more ambitious, I would say, in his world view. It's interesting because I once heard that, in a meeting with a foreign leader, that President Trump introduced Bolton and said, John here wants to get me into a war, but he is not going to get that under me. And I'm never sure if I should believe this kind of cocktail conversation, but then President Trump basically said that just last week.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Yeah. John's very good. John is a - he has strong views on things, but that's OK. I actually temper John, which is pretty amazing, isn't it?

KELEMEN: So he tempers him, at least for now.

SHAPIRO: NPR diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen. Thanks, Michele.

KELEMEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.