In 2013 John Bolton held virtually no political power when he wrote an article arguing the only way to deal with Iran was to bomb it. A former US ambassador to the UN in the George W Bush administration, he had become better known as a hawkish commentator on US political chat shows.
Today, the 70-year-old national security advisor with the incredible moustache has the ear of the US president when it comes to orchestrating foreign policy.
Bolton has made a huge impact since being appointed last March, and has been instrumental in a number of decisions that have ramped up tensions between the US and Iran.
Over the last month, the US has deployed an aircraft carrier, a missile defence system and B-52 bombers to the gulf, following “clear indications” that Iranian forces were preparing to possibly attack US forces in the region, according to defence officials.
And recent announcements from the White House suggest not only is there tension between the US and Iran, but the relationship between Bolton and President Trump is also becoming fraught.
Weren’t things reasonably quiet between Iran and the US?
Yes, relatively speaking. The two countries have had a troubled history – most notably in 1953 when the CIA overthrew Iran’s democratically-elected government, and 1979 when Iranian militants held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days.
But during the presidency of Barack Obama, tensions were calmed dramatically with the signing in 2015 of a long-term deal that saw Iran limit its nuclear programme in return for the lifting of economic sanctions that were crippling its economy.
And for a while, everyone seemed happy. Everyone except a certain reality TV star and business mogul.
.#IranDeal will go down as one of the dumbest & most dangerous misjudgments ever entered into in history of our country—incompetent leader!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 28, 2015
“Since Trump was elected it was clear something was going to change. On the electoral campaign he said he would rip up the nuclear deal on the first day of the job.
“He didn’t but at the same time it was heading in that direction.”
It headed in that direction until May of last year when President Trump pulled out of the deal, despite the fact that all the other signatories, Russia, China, the EU and of course Iran, said it was working.
The Iran Deal is defective at its core. If we do nothing, we know what will happen. In just a short time, the world’s leading state sponsor of terror will be on the cusp of acquiring the world’s most dangerous weapons.... pic.twitter.com/58qwBLzxIH— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 8, 2018
Trump reimposed sanctions on Iran, announcing with a Game of Thrones-style tweet that was widely mocked.
i'm starting to question whether we are a grown-up, adult country https://t.co/vsnJjev3d2— Dave Itzkoff (@ditzkoff) November 2, 2018
The White House said the sanctions would remain in place until Tehran met demands including ending support for terrorism, ending military engagement in Syria and completely halting its nuclear and ballistic missile development.
So why the change?
As well as Trump’s long-term scorn for the Iran nuclear deal, the hardening US stance also coincided with the appointment of Bolton as national security advisor and Mike Pompeo as secretary of state.
“The decision on the nuclear deal is very much driven by Trump himself, it was his personal commitment,” says Dr Tabrizi.
“However the broader escalation and current tensions are mainly driven by the secretary of state and the national security advisor, Bolton and Pompeo.
“We know that these are people that are pushing for some sort of escalation.”
The ‘bully’ with the moustache
AKA, John Bolton.
If there’s one thing you need to know about Bolton it’s that he appears to have a real fondness for military action and confrontation.
- He was instrumental in the decision to invade Iraq in 2003
- He accused Cuba of having a secret biological weapons programme.
- He accused Libya and Syria of pursuing weapons of mass destruction.
- He wrote an article the legal case for striking them first.
And then there are his inter-personal skills – he was branded a “bully” by José Bustani, a man Bolton tried to have removed as the head of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).
And Iranian diplomats, although hardly the least biased of parties, have called him “rude” and “undiplomatic”.
Where are we now?
Well, things are a bit fraught to say the least.
Tensions rose dramatically on 5 May when Bolton announced that the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier would be rushed from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf ahead of schedule in response to “a number of troubling and escalatory indications and warnings”.
Since then, four oil tankers, including two belonging to Saudi Arabia, have been targeted in an apparent act of sabotage off the coast of the United Arab Emirates, according to officials in the region, and a Saudi pipeline was attacked by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels from Yemen.
The US also ordered non-essential staff out of Iraq and has dispatched additional military assets to the region, according to Press Association reports.
But the US has also been accused of playing up the threat from Iran. There was a public clash this week between the Pentagon and the Ministry of Defence (MoD) over doubts expressed by a British general about the potential threat Iran poses to the US and its allies.
Major General Chris Ghika, a senior British officer in the US-backed coalition fighting Islamic State (IS), said: “No, there’s been no increased threat from Iranian-backed forces in Iraq and Syria.”
But on Friday, the Foreign Office advised dual British-Iranian nationals against all travel to Iran, warning that they face an “unacceptably higher” risk of detention and mistreatment.
In a statement, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt also urged Iranian nationals living in the UK to exercise “caution” when returning to Iran to visit family or friends.
Will the US go to war with Iran?
On Friday Trump played down reports that 120,000 US troops were to be mobilised to counter Iran.
In an indication that Trump is trying to rein in Bolton, he reportedly told his national security team and other aides that wants to keep tensions with Tehran from boiling over into an armed conflict.
“I think it’s fake news, OK? Now, would I do that? Absolutely. But we have not planned for that. Hopefully we’re not going to have to plan for that. And if we did that, we’d send a hell of a lot more troops than that,” Trump told reporters at the White House.
But not wanting a war doesn’t mean there won’t be one.
“Neither side seems to really want a direct confrontation,” says Dr Tabrizi.
“However, given the lack of communication channels and the deterrence strategies which both countries are adopting, it is still possible that accidents will still happen and potentially lead to an unintended confrontation.”