Donald Trump likes to goad his national security adviser John Bolton about his lust for military action, according to officials who have spoken out on their relationship.

As Iran claims to have captured spies working for the US and accuses Mr Bolton of trying to start “war of the century”, new details have emerged of the president’s fondness for baiting his adviser in the company of top officials – including foreign dignitaries.

During a White House Situation Room meeting last year, Mr Trump reportedly said to his hawkish national security chief: “Ok, John, let me guess, you want to nuke them all?”

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According to the report by the Axios website, Mr Trump turned to Mr Bolton in an Oval Office meeting with Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar and said: “John, is Ireland one of those countries you want to invade?”

Quoting unnamed senior administration officials, the account claimed the president recently joked that “John has never seen a war he doesn’t like”, repeating sentiments made in public. “If it was up to him he’d take on the whole world at one time, okay?” Mr Trump recently told NBC’s Meet the Press.

Yet the president is said to get “quite touchy” if critics of Mr Bolton complain the national security adviser could pull the US into unnecessary conflict against Mr Trump’s will. “He doesn't want anyone to believe he’s anybody’s pawn.”

Sources said Mr Trump likes to keep Mr Bolton on his team because his aggressive reputation gives the president the opportunity to play “good cop” to his adviser’s “bad cop” routine.

“He thinks that Bolton’s bellicosity and eagerness to kill people is a bargaining chip when he’s sitting down with foreign leaders,” said one official. “Bolton can be the bad cop and Trump can be the good cop. Trump believes this to his core.”

On Sunday Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif tweeted about the White House hawk as Tehran’s dispute with both the UK and US threatened to escalate over the seizure of a British oil tanker.

“Make no mistake. Having failed to lure Donald Trump into a War of the Century, and fearing collapse of his B Team, John Bolton is turning his venom against the UK in hopes of dragging it into a quagmire.”

On Monday Iran announced it had arrested 17 people allegedly recruited by the CIA to spy on the country’s nuclear and military sites.

Intelligence chiefs said some of the group have already been sentenced to death following arrests made over the past few months. Iranian media published pictures purportedly showing intelligence “officers” working for the US.

“The identified spies were employed in sensitive and vital private sector centres in the economic, nuclear, infrastructure, military and cyber areas ... where they collected classified information,” read a ministry of intelligence statement.

The US has yet to respond to the claims.

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