How Bolton, Netanyahu and Pompeo Sabotaged Trump’s Dream of Talks With Iran

In his new book, John Bolton recounts how a potential meeting between the U.S. president and Iran’s foreign minister spread panic among top U.S. and Israeli officials last summer

Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon
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Then-U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, September 2018.
Then-U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, September 2018.Credit: Amos Ben Gershom / GPO
Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon

WASHINGTON – Benjamin Netanyahu is mentioned over 30 times in John Bolton’s new book, “The Room Where it Happened,” which details his tumultuous 18 months working as President Donald Trump’s national security adviser.

Most of the references to the Israeli prime minister are short descriptions of conversations between Netanyahu and Bolton regarding Iran, containing very little new or significant information.

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One story Bolton tells in more detail, however, reveals how Netanyahu – together with Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo – reportedly sabotaged Trump’s attempts to open diplomatic channels with Tehran last summer.

Bolton recounts this story with pride, and hints that the efforts by himself and Pompeo, with Netanyahu’s backing, stopped Trump from going for a broader U.S.-Iran deal, which was being pushed at the time by French President Emmanuel Macron.

The events Bolton describes happened in the lead-up to his own ouster from the White House. First, in June 2019, Trump surprised and disappointed Bolton and the other Iran hawks in his administration by canceling, at the last moment, a military strike against Iranian targets in retaliation for an Iranian attack on a U.S. military drone. Bolton describes that event as one of the most unprofessional decisions he had ever witnessed in his career in national security.

Later that summer, as tensions with Iran continued to rise, Macron began to offer Trump his help as a mediator between the two countries. His grand plan, according to Bolton, was for Trump to meet with a senior Iranian official in late August in the French coastal town of Biarritz, as France was hosting a meeting of the G-7 countries with the American president in attendance.

A copy of John Bolton's book "The Room Where it Happened," which is published on June 23, 2020.Credit: Alex Brandon/AP

Bolton writes how he and Pompeo, the administration’s two most prominent Iran hawks, both worked during the summer to scuttle Macron’s diplomatic efforts and convince Trump to reject any proposal. But Macron, he explains, surprised them by inviting Mohammad Javad Zarif to the G-7 gathering, opening the door for a potential meeting between Iran’s foreign minister and Trump.

For Bolton, Pompeo and Netanyahu, this was unacceptable, especially because Macron was also promoting another idea: an international “credit line” to Iran that would ease some of the grave economic pressure placed on the country by Trump’s imposition of sanctions.

Bolton writes that when Trump arrived in Biarritz in August, he had an unscheduled one-on-one meeting with Macron, during which Iran was the sole topic under discussion. According to Bolton, Trump later described that conversation as “the best hour and a half he’d ever spent.”

The next day, rumors about Zarif’s imminent arrival in southern France began to surface. Bolton received a worried call from Pompeo, who had spoken earlier with Netanyahu about airstrikes against Iranian targets in Syria that had been attributed to Israel. Bolton fails to mention in the book that all of this was happening just three weeks before Israel’s September 17 election, at a point in time when Netanyahu was down in the polls and short of the majority he needed in order to be granted immunity from prosecution on corruption charges.

After the call with Pompeo, Bolton heard from Trump’s personal staff that Macron had invited the president to meet with Zarif, and he was “eager” to take the meeting. Bolton’s reaction was to ask his own staff to prepare a flight for him to return to the United States: if the meeting were to go ahead, he would resign immediately from the White House.

Pompeo and Bolton continued to communicate in an attempt to stop Trump from meeting Zarif, and Bolton writes that both of them were at the same time also speaking to Netanyahu and his ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer. Bolton asked Pompeo to tell Netanyahu and Dermer that he “felt like the Light Brigade” – meaning that his efforts to stop the meeting were running into powerful forces he was not necessarily equipped to overcome.

In Bolton’s telling, two other senior administration officials – Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner – were in favor of taking the Zarif meeting. Pompeo complained to Bolton that “we have Mnuchin and Jared, two Democrats, running our foreign policy.”

Bolton told Pompeo of his intention to resign, and the secretary of state replied that if the meeting went through, he would do the same, according to Bolton.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in 2015.Credit: Reuters

Bolton wrote that he then had a conversation with Trump, in which he told the president that if the United States released even just a bit of the pressure placed on Iran, it would be “very difficult” to put it back in place. He urged Trump not to meet Zarif at all – not even for a private handshake, as Trump suggested at some point he wanted to do. Bolton said he was encouraged, however, by the fact that Trump had soured on the credit line idea, stating: “They’re not getting any line of credit until the whole deal is done.” This, Bolton writes, was the opposite of what Macron suggested – opening a line of credit as a gesture of goodwill that would lead to further negotiations.

Netanyahu, meanwhile, was trying to reach Trump directly to explain his strong opposition to the meeting but, in Bolton’s telling, could not get through to the president. Bolton said Kushner was against connecting the two men, because he found it inappropriate for a foreign leader to try to dictate to Trump whom he should speak to.

Bolton was convinced the meeting with Zarif would happen before the end of the G-7 summit, but he provides no clear explanation as to why it eventually didn’t. At the time, most analysts wrote that the meeting never took place mostly because of the Iranians, who demanded a concrete easing of sanctions before giving Trump the photo opportunity he was craving.

Bolton concludes the chapter by writing that he “couldn’t rule out” the possibility that Kushner or Mnuchin met with Zarif instead of Trump, in order to “create a future channel of communication,” and that this option caused great concern to Israeli officials and made Pompeo “livid.”

“I don’t know if I had talked Trump out of meeting Zarif,” Bolton concluded, “but the decision [not to hold the meeting] was enough” to stop Bolton from resigning, at least for a few more weeks. Eventually, he left the White House in early September 2019. In the year that has passed since those summer months, there has been no diplomatic progress between the United States and Iran.

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