Bolton Says U.S. Should Overthrow Iran's Ayatollahs, Give Power to People

Former National Security Adviser John Bolton has criticized President Donald Trump for taking too soft an approach on Iran, suggesting his administration should have pivoted toward regime change in Tehran.

Bolton left the White House in September 2019 after a series of disagreements with the president, and in recent months has returned to the fore with the publication of a book about his time in the administration: "The Room Where it Happened."

Bolton spoke with the Kurdish Rudaw TV at the end of last month for an interview published online Wednesday, in which he was again broadly critical of Trump's foreign policy in the Middle East and regarding Iran.

Bolton—a foreign policy hawk who was influential in President George W. Bush's interventionist administration—told Rudaw that the president should push to bring down the regime in Tehran.

"I think one of the things that we should look for in Iran is the overthrow of the regime," Bolton said. "I think that one way that happens is if the regular military and the Revolutionary Guard fragments."

"So this could exacerbate the instability that already exists in Iran where I think the regime is very unpopular. And I think it should be U.S. policy to overthrow the ayatollahs and restore the government to the people of Iran."

Bolton has long been an advocate of regime change in Iran, though advocates of less extreme action point out that there is no clear alternative government to take over. The collapse of the regime, they argue, would therefore risk chronic instability and conflict as seen in countries like Iraq and Syria.

Bolton has been criticized for backing a fringe Iranian dissident militant group—the People's Mujahedin of Iran, also known as the MEK—which is now based in Albania. The group is widely unpopular in Iran having sided with Iraq in the ruinous war between the two nations in the 1980s, and critics have described the group as more akin to a cult than a government in waiting.

Other pro-democracy organizations abroad have called for a national referendum to decide Iran's government if the current regime falls. Among them is Reza Pahlavi, the son of the deposed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

Last year, Pahlavi told Newsweek: "Our national aspiration is to have a secular democracy and therefore the people of Iran will decide what groups, parties, or individuals are relevant and constructive to our nation's future. The future of Iran is to be decided by Iranians, not by any foreign leader's advisors."

The regime in Tehran has brutally suppressed anti-government dissent. Last year, the State Department said Iranian security forces killed around 1,500 people in crushing protests against a controversial new fuel tax.

Bolton told Rudaw he does not think that Trump really wants regime change. "I think that's been one of the problems," he explained. Bolton said he backed the assassination of Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani earlier this year—branded unlawful by a United Nations investigator—and Trump's withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, but said this is not enough.

"I don't think the Ayatollahs have given any sign whatever that they've made a strategic decision to give up nuclear weapons and I don't think they will do that," Bolton said.

"I think they believe the nuclear capability will help keep them in power, which is the principle reason I think they need to be removed from power and get in place a government that really will renounce the search for nuclear weapons."

john Bolton, Donald Trump, Iran, regime change
Former National Security Adviser John Bolton speaks on stage during a public discussion at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina on February 17, 2020. LOGAN CYRUS/AFP via Getty Images/Getty