The Trump administration’s Iran hardliners want to underscore something as the United Nations’ annual diplomatic confab gets under way: they’re not trying to overthrow the Islamic Republic.
“Regime change is not the administration’s policy,” John Bolton, President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, said in response to a question from The Daily Beast. “What we expect from Iran is massive changes in their behavior.”
Bolton’s official disavowal of regime change is almost bound to hit a wall of skepticism. As The Daily Beast reported last week, on Saturday the president’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, spoke alongside a cultish Iranian exile leader at a conference devoted to replacing the Iranian government. The end of the Islamic Republic, “could be in a few days, months, a couple of years. But it’s going to happen,” Giuliani said.
That left senior administration officials once again scrambling to say they’re not planning on Iraq War 2.0. (“We’re not looking to do regime change anywhere,” averred U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley on Sunday.)
Instead, Bolton told a press conference near the United Nations that, as the annual General Assembly opens, the U.S. is pushing a program of “maximum pressure”—much like the administration termed its North Korea policy, which has yet to yield visible progress toward the unilateral North Korean nuclear disarmament Trump desires.
Its pathway to exert maximum pressure, however, is complicated by another major theme the president plans on pushing at this year’s summit, according to Bolton, Haley and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. It’s a reprise of Trump’s first U.N. speech, last year—national sovereignty, something diplomats are likely to read Trump as defining in opposition to the U.N. and other multilateral institutions.
Waving a pocket constitution before reporters, Bolton portrayed sovereignty in nationalist and populist terms familiar from his tenure as U.N. ambassador in George W. Bush’s administration. “Infringements on sovereignty are not infringements on abstractions or infringements on the government, they’re infringements on the people themselves,” Bolton said. “The Constitution is the highest authority we recognize.”
As he has throughout his diplomatic career, Bolton has expressed disdain for international institutions when their prerogatives diverge from U.S. interests. Two weeks ago, he warned that the U.S. would prosecute International Criminal Court officials who pursue an inquiry into alleged U.S. war crimes in Afghanistan, calling the court itself “illegitimate.”
That’s of a piece with major diplomatic rollbacks the Trump administration has pursued. It’s abandoned the meticulously negotiated Paris climate accords on fossil-fuel emissions reductions, and it abrogated the Iran nuclear deal that the Obama administration negotiated along with France, Britain, China, Russia, Germany and supported by the European Union. The U.S.’s European partners are now attempting the precarious balancing act of keeping Iran compliant with the spirit of the deal—that is, not restarting its shuttered nuclear program—while navigating the return of American sanctions on their companies that seek to do business in Iran.
The administration thinks its Iran approach is working as Iran’s economy reels. Pompeo heralded a forthcoming November wave of sanctions that will target crude-oil exports and business with Iran’s central bank. On Wednesday, Trump will helm a U.N. Security Council session on counterproliferation that will focus substantially on Iran, in an effort to rally the world to join in the maximum-pressure campaign. “You can bet the president will have well-deserved strong words for the Iranian regime, which is among the worst violators of U.N. Security Council resolutions, if not the absolute worst in the world,” Pompeo said.
But that has to overcome substantial foreign and particularly European dissatisfaction at the U.S. for pulling out of the Iran deal and risking a path to war.
Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French foreign minister, laid out an agenda that runs counter to the one Trump will present this week. Defending multilateralism, he vowed to defend the Iran deal, the climate accords and multilateral bodies that Bolton rubbished, like the ICC and the U.N.’s Palestinian-focused refugee agency.
“I think President [Emmanuel] Macron will have a very frank conversation with President Trump,” Le Drian told reporters at the French mission in New York. “I think the two can take stock of what they disagree and agree on….It’s not a confrontation.” Trump and Macron are scheduled to meet one-on-one on Monday, a date when, Pompeo said, Trump will also meet with South Korea’s Moon Jae-in and Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sissi.
“Whether it’s security issues, economic issues, human rights or anything else, the president is asking for countries to exert their sovereignty to solve challenges and listening to what America can do to help,” Pompeo said Monday. But the thing about sovereignty is that other countries have it too— and can exercise it in ways that frustrate Trump’s agenda.