Bolton re­quested mil­i­tary op­tions to strike Iran, caus­ing deep­en­ing fears in Pen­tagon

The Buffalo News - - WASHINGTON NEWS - By Eric Sch­mitt and Mark Landler

WASH­ING­TON – Se­nior Pen­tagon of­fi­cials are voic­ing deep­en­ing fears that Pres­i­dent Trump’s hawk­ish na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser, John Bolton, could pre­cip­i­tate a con­flict with Iran at a time when Trump is los­ing lever­age in the Mid­dle East by pulling out U.S. troops.

At Bolton’s di­rec­tion, the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil asked the Pen­tagon last year to pro­vide the White House with mil­i­tary op­tions to strike Iran, De­fense Depart­ment and se­nior U.S. of­fi­cials said Sun­day.

The re­quest, which alarmed thenDe­fense Sec­re­tary Jim Mat­tis and other Pen­tagon of­fi­cials, came after Ira­nian-backed mil­i­tants fired three mor­tars or rock­ets into an empty lot on the grounds of the U.S. Em­bassy in Bagh­dad in Septem­ber.

In re­sponse to Bolton’s re­quest, which the Wall Street Jour­nal first re­ported, the Pen­tagon of­fered some gen­eral op­tions, in­clud­ing a cross-bor­der airstrike on an Ira­nian mil­i­tary fa­cil­ity that would have been mostly sym­bolic. But Mat­tis and other mil­i­tary lead­ers adamantly op­posed re­tal­i­at­ing, ar­gu­ing that the at­tack was in­signif­i­cant – a po­si­tion that ul­ti­mately won out, these of­fi­cials said.

Such a strike could have caused an armed con­flict and could have prompted Iraq to or­der the United States to leave the coun­try, said a se­nior U.S. of­fi­cial, who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity to dis­cuss in­ter­nal pol­icy de­lib­er­a­tions.

Since Bolton took over from H.R. McMaster in April, he has in­ten­si­fied the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s pol­icy of iso­lat­ing and pres­sur­ing Iran – re­flect­ing an an­i­mus against Iran’s lead­ers that dates back to his days as an of­fi­cial in the Ge­orge W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion. As a pri­vate cit­i­zen, he later called for mil­i­tary strikes on Iran, as well as regime change.

Bolton has made head­way on some is­sues, like per­suad­ing Trump to with­draw from the Iran nu­clear deal, but has had less suc­cess with oth­ers, like main­tain­ing a U.S. mil­i­tary pres­ence in north­east­ern Syria to counter Ira­nian in­flu­ence – some­thing Bolton vowed to do only weeks be­fore the pres­i­dent an­nounced in De­cem­ber that he was pulling out.

In ask­ing for mil­i­tary op­tions, a se­nior ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial said, Bolton was merely do­ing his job as na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser. He pointed out that the Ira­nian-backed mil­i­tants also tar­geted the Amer­i­can Con­sulate in Basra.

“The NSC co­or­di­nates pol­icy and pro­vides the pres­i­dent with op­tions to an­tic­i­pate and re­spond to a va­ri­ety of threats,” said a spokesman for the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil, Garrett Mar­quis.

Bolton, 70, is not the only Iran hawk in Trump’s cir­cle of top ad­vis­ers. Sec­re­tary of State Mike Pom­peo de­clared in a speech at the Amer­i­can Univer­sity in Cairo last week that “coun­tries in­creas­ingly un­der­stand that we must con­front the ay­a­tol­lahs, not cod­dle them.”

Ear­lier this month, he warned Iran against launch­ing three space­craft, de­scrib­ing them as a pre­text for test­ing mis­sile tech­nol­ogy that is nec­es­sary to carry a war­head to the United States and other na­tions. His state­ment ap­peared aimed at build­ing a le­gal case for diplo­matic, mil­i­tary or covert ac­tion against the Ira­nian mis­sile pro­gram.

It was sur­pris­ing be­cause Iran has used these mod­est space mis­sions, mostly to de­ploy satel­lites, since 2005. The se­nior U.S. of­fi­cial said that the Pen­tagon and the in­tel­li­gence agen­cies dis­agreed with Pom­peo’s in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the threat posed by the satel­lite launches.

Speak­ing Sun­day on CBS’ “Face the Na­tion” dur­ing a visit to Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emi­rates, Pom­peo dis­counted the ar­gu­ment that Trump’s de­ci­sion to with­draw 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria in the com­ing months un­der­cuts Wash­ing­ton’s abil­ity to achieve its other goals in the re­gion. “That cer­tainly in­cludes in Syria,” he said. “It cer­tainly in­cludes into Iran, if need be.”

But Pom­peo also op­posed the idea of an airstrike on Iran after its at­tack on the em­bassy, ac­cord­ing to a for­mer se­nior ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial. On Sun­day, he de­clined to com­ment about the Jour­nal’s re­port. On each stop of his Mid­dle East trip, Pom­peo, a for­mer Army of­fi­cer, has spo­ken of the need to counter Iran, but has not talked of mil­i­tary ac­tion.

When McMaster, then a three-star Army gen­eral, took over as na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser in early 2017, he or­dered a new over­all war plan for Iran. Mat­tis, who is him­self an Iran hawk from his days as a Ma­rine Corps com­man­der in the re­gion, de­liv­ered op­tions. But those plans were not for the kind of pin­point strikes that Bolton en­vi­sioned after the at­tack on the U.S. Em­bassy on Sept. 6.

On the Sun­day fol­low­ing the at­tack, the se­nior U.S. of­fi­cial said, Bolton’s deputy at the time, Mira Ri­cardel, con­vened an emer­gency meet­ing of na­tional se­cu­rity aides to Trump, called a deputies com­mit­tee meet­ing, and asked for re­tal­ia­tory op­tions.

On Sept. 11, the White House said in a state­ment, “The United States will hold the regime in Tehran ac­count­able for any at­tack that re­sults in in­jury to our per­son­nel or dam­age to United States gov­ern­ment fa­cil­i­ties. Amer­ica will re­spond swiftly and de­ci­sively in de­fense of Amer­i­can lives.”

What hap­pened next il­lus­trates Bolton’s man­age­ment style. As the pres­i­dent’s na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser, he has largely elim­i­nated the in­ter­nal pol­icy de­bates that could air high-level dis­agree­ments. Bolton does not want to hear op­pos­ing views, these of­fi­cials said, ab­hors leaks and wants to con­trol ev­ery­thing that flows to the pres­i­dent. But the re­sult is that there is not much con­sid­er­a­tion of op­tions and, more im­por­tant, the risk of es­ca­la­tion, ac­cord­ing to these peo­ple.

The Pen­tagon de­clined to com­ment on Bolton’s re­quest for mil­i­tary op­tions, say­ing in a state­ment, “The Depart­ment of De­fense is a plan­ning or­ga­ni­za­tion and pro­vides the pres­i­dent mil­i­tary op­tions for a va­ri­ety of threats; rou­tinely re­view­ing and up­dat­ing plans and ac­tiv­i­ties to deal with a host of threats, in­clud­ing those posed by Iran, to de­ter and, if nec­es­sary, to re­spond to ag­gres­sion.”

A se­nior ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial said the United States would con­tinue to pur­sue the with­drawal of Ira­ni­an­backed forces from Syria and a po­lit­i­cal so­lu­tion in that coun­try. He said the United States was leav­ing a con­tin­gent of U.S. troops at the Al Tanf base in south-cen­tral Syria, as a de­ter­rent to Ira­nian move­ments in that re­gion.

The past few days have been tur­bu­lent for Bolton. He trav­eled to Tur­key to present a list of con­di­tions for the Syria with­drawal, in­clud­ing a pledge by the Turks not to at­tack Amer­ica’s Kur­dish al­lies in Syria. Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan re­jected that de­mand and re­fused to see Bolton.

On Sun­day, Trump backed up his na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser, declar­ing on Twit­ter that the United States would “dev­as­tate Tur­key eco­nom­i­cally if they hit Kurds.”

With Pom­peo over­see­ing the nu­clear ne­go­ti­a­tions with North Ko­rea and tak­ing a prom­i­nent role on China pol­icy, Bolton has made Iran the heart of his fo­cus as na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser. He scored an early vic­tory when Trump with­drew from the nu­clear deal ne­go­ti­ated by his pre­de­ces­sor, Barack Obama.

The news of Bolton’s ef­fort to find a way to strike back at Iran comes as ev­i­dence is ris­ing that Tehran is con­sid­er­ing – or at least threat­en­ing – to leave the nu­clear agree­ment.

The chief of Iran’s nu­clear pro­gram, Ali Akbar Salehi, an MIT-ed­u­cated physi­cist who helped ne­go­ti­ate the deal, said Sun­day that Tehran had be­gun “pre­lim­i­nary ac­tiv­i­ties for de­sign­ing” a process for en­rich­ment of ura­nium. The ac­tual en­rich­ment – which he said would be at 20 per­cent pu­rity, just short of be­ing suf­fi­cient to build a nu­clear weapon – would vi­o­late the ac­cord. Un­der its pro­vi­sions, Iran could not en­rich ura­nium at any sig­nif­i­cant quan­ti­ties un­til 2030.

But the Ira­nian gov­ern­ment has been un­der pres­sure to re­spond to Trump’s with­drawal and the reim­po­si­tion of sanc­tions by the United States. Euro­pean pow­ers have been urg­ing Iran not to leave the deal, fear­ing it would give the United States an ex­cuse for mil­i­tary ac­tion.

New York Times

John Bolton, Pres­i­dent Trump’s na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser, had asked the Pen­tagon last year to pro­vide the White House with mil­i­tary op­tions to strike Iran, De­fense Depart­ment and se­nior U.S. of­fi­cials said Sun­day.

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