John Bolton: Trump Wants to Kill Iran Deal

The former George W. Bush administration adviser and diplomat talks Iran, North Korea, and other NatSec issues

By Lee Smith, TABLET

Last week the Trump administration certified to Congress for the second time that Iran had met the conditions for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action—aka the nuclear agreement that Trump called the “worst deal ever” on the campaign trail. Seven months after inauguration day, and bogged down in a seemingly unending flow of problems, Trump has yet to make good on his promise to tear up or renegotiate the deal when he came to the White House.

According to several reports, however, Trump certified the deal only reluctantly, and advised his aides to have other options ready when the next certification letter to Congress is due in three months. Rumors in administration circles suggested that Trump was partly motivated by an op-ed written by John Bolton. The George W. Bush administration’s ambassador to the United Nations, Bolton has worked for several Republican White Houses and was believed to be in the running for secretary of state in the Trump administration before Rex Tillerson was named to the post. It seems Bolton’s opinion nonetheless still carries weight with Trump.

I spoke to Bolton recently about the Iran deal, North Korea, and other foreign-policy and national-security issues facing the administration, and the United States. 

Earlier this week, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action came up for certification, a process where the executive branch has to write a letter to Congress explaining whether or not Iran is fulfilling its side of the bargain. The language of this most recent letter was very cautious, avoiding the use of the word “compliance.” Instead, it said, “Conditions … are met.” Reports show that there was a big debate in the administration over the certification process and maybe the deal itself. Can you explain what happened?

This was the second time the Trump administration had to meet the reporting requirement for the JCPOA certification. I certainly don’t know all the details, but it’s pretty clear that the president was unhappy about being blindsided on this for a second time.

The first time came with the certification in May, the president insisted that the bureaucracy make changes in the letter, and Secretary Tillerson went out with a strong statement about Iran the next day. This time, they just assumed the president would agree to the certification, so they did all the prep as if there was only one option. There was a conference call at noon to brief policy experts with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, talking points were sent out and somehow as it was happening, the rest of the White House realized the president was not happy. It was like a pot exploding. The talking points were pulled back, and there was a principals meeting of the National Security Council. The final letter stated that Iran is violating the agreement in spirit, which is evidence of compromise and confusion. But this is the way the State Department operates—I have seen it extensively in the arms-control world. They hate to use the “V word”—violate. So they hate to say Iran is violating the JCPOA. The fact is that Iran is not in compliance.

There’s word going around that a recent op-ed of yours arguing that the United States should withdraw from the nuclear deal is part of what stirred Trump to act.

I’ve previously talked to him about Iran and nuclear proliferation several times. He sees this as a clear threat to the United States and our allies. Perhaps almost alone in government, President Trump sees this as an urgent matter, like the way he sees North Korea. I don’t think this is going to happen again when the next certification letter to congress is due 90 days from now. Trump was unequivocal in his campaign about how bad the deal is, so how do you keep rolling along as if the deal is OK? The question is coming up with a strategy of what you do next. One problem is the bureaucracy that’s been on autopilot the last eight years.

You mentioned that Trump takes North Korea very seriously, too. What are the administration’s options there?

After eight years of Obama’s policy of strategic patience, North Korea has made eight years of progress. The threat of them gaining a delivery capability is real. Of course, different high-ranking generals say different things. First, no one believed that they could construct a nuclear device. Then they did. Last year, the commander of U.S. forces in Korea said he thought North Korea had the capability to reach the United States but he was not sure they’d mastered miniaturization. Another senior military officer, just a few weeks ago, said they had the range but not the guidance system. This is all a form of denial, wondering whether they really have a nuke until they explode one on a foreign target.

However you put this together, no serious person can argue this threat isn’t far more serious than it was eight years ago. The diplomatic options are extremely limited. Twenty-five years of diplomacy and sanctions didn’t produce anything, and they won’t produce anything in year 26 either. It may come down to trying to convince China to accept reunification of the two Koreas. There are lots of people in China who recognize that there’s no need for a buffer state like North Korea. For China, a much bigger worry might be Japan going nuclear in order to counter North Korea.

Do the North Koreans and Iranians cooperate on their nuclear-weapons programs?

We know they cooperate on ballistic missiles. In 1998 North Korea said it would have a moratorium on launch testing from the peninsula, which lasted until 2006. During that period, the Iranians were testing for them. Both use the same Soviet-era Scud technology, their objective to use the missiles as delivery vehicles for nuclear weapons is the same, they’re both rogue states. So are they working together on the nuclear side? There’s circumstantial evidence, like the reactor in the Syrian desert that Israel destroyed in 2007, which was modeled after the North Korean reactor Yongbyon and had North Korean scientists working there. What better place for the Iranians and North Koreans to work on illicit activities than where no is looking for it—except the Israelis found it. What if there’s a uranium-enrichment facility under a mountain in North Korea paid for by Iran? Transactionally, it’s not hard to imagine. North Korea needs money and Iran can afford it. Even worse is the possibility that the day North Korea gets the capability to reach the United States with a nuclear weapon, Iran can get it the next day by writing a check.

Is the Trump administration ceding Syria to Iran? 

It’s not clear to me. I don’t think there’s a post-ISIS strategy for the region. It’s coming to the point where the collapse of ISIS is visible, by the end of the year, maybe. But the government doesn’t seem to have a full understanding of what comes after that. Or what else is going on. For instance, what happens when Iran gets the arc of control of the region, from Iran through the Iraqi government in Baghdad to the Assad regime in Syria to the eastern Mediterranean and Hezbollah. And there doesn’t seem to be an appreciation of the fact that Russia is on the wrong side of that arc. I don’t attribute that to the Trump presidency. It’s the bureaucracy after eight years of Obama, with nothing new coming from the departments of defense or state.

The essence of the Defense Department’s strategy is to aid the Kurds in Iraq and Syria with also some financing of Syrian opposition forces. But aiding the Baghdad government is tantamount to aiding Iran. I’d have hoped that in the first six months of the Trump administration, the defense department would get off this approach so we don’t have to rely on Shia militias in Iraq. But it hasn’t. We now see news reports that the Baghdad government is alienating Sunnis in western Iraq just recaptured from ISIS. Many Sunnis supported ISIS not because they like ISIS but because don’t want to be ruled by Baghdad, or in Syria, ruled by Assad. If there’s no alternative, what will they do when ISIS is defeated except find another vehicle to fight Iranian allies?

Why is a Republican president running Barack Obama’s foreign policy with the same guys who brought billion of dollars in cash to Teheran on an airplane? 

I have a long list of people who I think should have been fired the minute the Trump administration started Jan. 20, like James Comey. These are not just implementers of Obama’s policy, but the architects of his policy. They’re not going to change their minds. They might trim their sails, but if you don’t get new people in, you won’t get new thinking.

Officials from the Obama national security team, national security advisers, including Susan Rice, Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes and UN Ambassador Samantha Power are caught up in an unfolding scandal about the use of foreign-intelligence intercepts to gain information about US citizens—including people around Donald Trump—for domestic political purposes. “Unmasking” the names of US citizens may have gone back to the Iran Deal, and perhaps earlier. If that’s true, do you think it’s a crime?

It potentially is criminal. I was involved with unmasking—“deminimization,” we called it—revealing what is concealed in the intercept. It was a big deal in my confirmation hearing as UN ambassador. I had made a dozen requests to deminimize over a four-year period. John Negroponte, then director of national intelligence, said he reviewed them and there was no problem. Richard Armitage, who was not likely to do me any favors, told Democrats that “you ought to back off on this.” It is perfectly legitimate if you can say to the National Security Agency, “Here’s why I need to know the name of American.” If you have a legitimate reason, they give it to you.

What I hear is that the number of requests, the sheer volume is staggering, which alone should have raised questions at the NSA. The potential legal liability is if a person says,“I want to know someone’s identity because I have legitimate national-security reasons,” and it turns out it’s for domestic political purposes. They could be in trouble. It’s a violation of 18 U.S. Code § 1001. You can go to jail for making a false statement, for instance, on your tax return. You can be guilty of making a false statement even if you weren’t sworn in. If they were lying to NSA, and because of the volume of the requests it’s pretty clear they were, they could be in jeopardy.

July 30, 2017 | 10 Comments »

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  1. Attn: Wooly, BK, Edgar G:

    Back in 1977, while my wife and I were studying part-time for what we hoped would be doctoral degrees in archaeology/anthropology/historical linguistics (her) and city and regional planning (me) at the University of Wisconsin/Madison, I was offered, and accepted limited term employment for one year by the office of the Secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. The assignment was to design and carry out a survey of field personnel of that department’s field staff specialists for fish and wildlife management, on one hand, and the department’s law enforcement personnel — game wardens — who routinely feuded with the wildlife management personnel.

    Not long after I was hired, the management team which had hired me called me in for an informal interview. The first question they asked was:

    “How attached are you to that beard and mustache?”

    To which I replied:

    “They have been attached to me for the past few years, and shall remain.”

    Silence for a few seconds. Then the management team blinked, but I did not.

    The question was never again voiced.

    My wife and I began raising the first of our four children, which left us little time both for graduate studies and employment in our respective fields. So we never completed those doctorates even though we did finish our studies.

    Both of us live our lives on our own terms.

    Arnold Harris, Outspeaker

  2. Gorka expressed Trumpism foreign policy. It is something new it is not the neo-cons wanting to build democracies and controlling other countries nor is the liberalism of the Obama. They are formulating something new. Ask me they are just winging it as they go along.

    Anyway Bolton is pretty hard core neo-con in his beliefs and this does not mesh with Trumpism. Probably more important than the facial hair.

  3. @ Bear Klein:
    Yes true, I saw that same interview and was very surprised at how silly it all sounded. Imagine a really stupid looking sprouting of facial hair to come between a man with world important work to do, and his vanity -or whatever reason he grows that Keystone Kops undergrowth. Until I first saw that excrescence, I always thought that goats looked like silly old men with their chin whiskers.. But Bolton wins first prize….

  4. @ ArnoldHarris:

    I think that is a mistaken view. Offices and other places of work have requirements, often to do with appearance. You’d be in a pickle of you were working on a machine which required almost nose touching positions, and your whiskers got caught in the gears….. I’ve seen something like that happen,years ago, not whiskers but long hair. It was horrific. The machine didn’t have the safety guards suitable for long hair. You can be sure that everyone after that wore a close fitting cap or hat.

  5. @ ArnoldHarris:
    Talking about orang-utangs, they have whiskers something like Bolton’s which is unfortunately compounded by being white rather than his normal drab hair colour. So it gives him an odd appearance. My strong, and never changed opinion, ever since the Clark Gable days, is that a moustache and/or facial hair are an affectations that feed some need for the wearer (apart from straining soup). It’s not accidental that in modern times, 99% of oddballs and hippies all had straggly facial hair…..something like the first pre-humans are suppose to have had. Well…they MUST have had since there were no razors then. A shaven face is by far most comfortable and cleaner looking. Bolton’s looks like that of an old -time movie comedian named Billy Bevan if I’m not mistaken, one of the Keystone Kops.

  6. @ woolymammoth:
    Actually I saw in an interview a while Bolton said he is very “attached” to his mustache and would not shave it.

    Bolton and Trump may not agree on other things besides for facial hair. Bolton is basically a neo-con and Trump has opposed many positions which neo-cons hold.

  7. @ woolymammoth:
    As the proud owner of a mustache and goatee, ever since my wife and I undertook graduate studies in Israel during 1973-1974, I would hold anyone in contempt who would clean-shave his face merely to receive appointment to public office, irrespective of how high that office might be.

    I alone determine how I should face the rest of the world. And anyone who challenges that assertion, wherein I am its target, knows in advance precisely where in their anatomy they can shove it.

    Arnold Harris, Outspeaker

  8. I would be interested in who may have influenced Trump to appoint Tillerson.
    I think Bolton would shave for the job of US Secretary of State.
    Actually the dyed hair is worse.rr

  9. @ ArnoldHarris:
    I agree I wish Bolton had become Sec. State or the Dept Sec of State. I believe Trump does not like him including many of his philosophies. We have to remember that Bolton has a strong belief system and knows what he is talking about.

    Rumors are Tillerson may resign so Trump may get a second chance at the apple to appoint Bolton but I do not think it will happen. Hopefully Tillerson leaves sooner than later.

  10. Weighing all considerations, I cannot avoid thinking that John Bolton, who had served competently as US ambassador to the UNO, shall one day be appointed by President Trump to help him carry out a significant share of the overall American foreign policy that the president is aiming to achieve.

    I had read somewhere about a possibly flippant consideration that President Trump dislikes mustachioed men, such as Mr Bolton. But I cannot think such a consideration would carry much weight with this particular chief of state, who is goal-driven to an extant greater than I can remember for most recent presidents. I imagine that if by doing so he could achieve many of his significant US foreign policy goals, he would hire an orangutan.

    Arnold Harris, Outspeaker