John Bolton criticizes Joe Biden’s trip to Jeddah; attempts to reach deal with Iran
ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) – Ambassador John Bolton, who served as Donald Trump’s National Security Adviser until resigning in September 2019, told Kurdistan 24 that the US withdrawal from Afghanistan was a mistake, and that “there was not much from President Biden's trip to the Middle East that changed that impression.”
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“It's not that Americans really want to have our troops deployed all over the world. That's really the farthest thing from their mind, but it's better to take care of threats and dangers to the US and its allies,” he told Kurdistan 24's Dr. Nahro Zagros.
The US Justice Department one week ago charged a member of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) with an attempt to assassinate Bolton, who remains a fierce critic of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Bolton also argued that the Trump administration did not go far enough in regards to Iran, although he said imposing sanctions on Iran and abandoning the nuclear deal was a good step.
“But, the problem will not be solved until there's a new government in Iran, a government that represents the people of Iran, not the Ayatollahs and that didn't happen. We didn't pursue a regime change, but we should have,” he said.
Bolton also criticized attempts by the Biden administration to reach an agreement with Iran. “I think the concessions that Biden has made over the past year to the Ayatollahs have made it worse. Iran has shown no strategic decision not to pursue nuclear weapons.”
Q: Joe Biden went to the Middle East after 18 months in power, do you think his visit was successful?
A: I don't think the trip was successful. I don't think he demonstrated the kind of leadership, the kind of grasp of the many issues that face the region. You know, there's a theory in the United States that says that China is the big threat of the 21st century and we can forget about the Middle East, forget about Europe, and only concentrate on China. It's a big mistake. America and its allies have interests all over the world and the Middle East remains a central focus for friends of the United States and for the US. And it requires leadership, requires doing things that help bridge differences among our friends. It means taking a tough stance against our adversaries, and you can't shirk that responsibility.
Well, the meeting was devoid of any drama or excitement, but knowing that, you know what Biden said in Saudi Arabia that America is not leaving the place and is leaving a vacuum for the Russians and Chinese to come over. That's a powerful statement, right?
Well, the statement was good now. Now the question is what he does about it. The principal threat in the Middle East today, as it has been for many years, comes from Iran and its pursuit of nuclear weapons, its support of terrorism in the region and around the world. Its aspirations for hegemony. There are many other sources of tension as well. Erdogan and Turkey have neo-Ottoman aspirations and there are terrorist groups that threaten many of our friends there. So, this is something that for long term peace and security in the region and around the world, the United States does not participate actively. It only makes the day much further away when we can expect peace.
"I think it left all of our friends around the world worried about our staying power, and there was not much from President Biden's trip to the Middle East that changed that impression."
So the previous administration, the Trump administration, and the Biden administration, it seems that they have something in common: they both wanted to get out of the Middle East and yet Biden came back. Do you think the visit was mainly to counter Iranian threats there or is it related to the Russia-Ukraine war? Or perhaps America doesn't want to leave their friends behind in the Middle East?
I think the President doesn't fully understand the impact in the region and more broadly, of the American and NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan. I think it was a strategic mistake by the United States to do it. And I think it left all of our friends around the world worried about our staying power, and there was not much from President Biden's trip to the Middle East that changed that impression.
So you think it was nothing to do about foreign policy, about countering Iran, about Americans leaving their friends behind in the Middle East. It was mainly about the price of oil and gasoline?
I think he wanted more production out of the Gulf Arab countries. They had agreed the month before and OPEC to a modest increase, but they didn't agree to anything more. But of course, being in the region, the President had to visit Israel and he had to say something about the American role, but I just think it reflects a lack of attention and surprisingly, for Biden, who's spent so much of his career in the Senate on Foreign Policy, he's made really little difference in international affairs. The events have gotten beyond his control, like the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
"I think the concessions that Biden has made over the past year to the Ayatollahs have made it worse."
What about the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action)? This administration promised that they will get the JCPOA back on the table. Do you think this is going to happen in the Biden administration?
I hope not, because I thought it was a bad (nuclear) deal in 2015 and I think the concessions that Biden has made over the past year to the Ayatollahs have made it worse. Iran has shown no strategic decision not to pursue nuclear weapons. Do they want relief from economic sanctions? Yes, they do. Are they willing to give up the pursuit of no nuclear weapons? I don't think so. So, I think they represent really a huge threat not just because of the nuclear program, but because of their support for terrorism, and it requires much more of a stronger position by the United States.
You advised Donald Trump about the JCPOA and you advised him to leave the pact. So he did. Do you think it was successful because it doesn't feel that he has achieved anything?
I don't think we went far enough. I think it was the right thing to do to withdraw to impose US sanctions on Iran, to try for what we call maximum pressure. But the problem will not be solved until there's a new government in Iran, a government that represents the people of Iran, not the Ayatollahs and that didn't happen. We didn't pursue regime change, but we should have.
"It was the leverage, the pressure that we put on the regime that caused them to want to negotiate."
Well, he did advocate for a preemptive strike on North Korea and Iran and regime change in the latter. But do you think it was a lack of understanding from the Trump perspective, that he didn't go far enough?
I didn't think he really understood what the implications were. He was against the JCPOA because Obama had negotiated it, but not really appreciating that the regime in Tehran wanted nuclear weapons, and would have been prepared to negotiate at great length if they could get free from the economic sanctions. It was the leverage, the pressure that we put on the regime that caused them to want to negotiate, but while they were willing to say they'd give up nuclear weapons, they never did anything to accomplish it.
In your book, you mentioned that Trump wanted to leave Iraq, and yet at the same time, he was criticizing Barack Obama for leaving Iraq in 2011, who creating a vacuum for ISIS. So, what was the narrative that we don't understand? On the one hand, Trump is against staying in Iraq, on the other hand criticizing Obama for leaving Iraq in 2011?
I didn't understand the narrative either. It's not that Americans really want to have our troops deployed all over the world. That's really the farthest thing from their mind, but it's better to take care of threats and dangers to the US and its allies, where the threats originate not in the streets or the skies of America. So, the presence in Iraq, which Obama should not have abandoned, was a way to see if Iraq could succeed as a nation, and to keep troublesome outsiders like Iran, like Syria, like Turkey, at a distance while we tried to solve that problem.
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"So that I would say the one of the reasons for failure was the American failure to see the threat that Iran poses."
Iraq is an important country in the region. One of the reasons America went there was to get rid of Saddam Hussein and all the threats that his regime was posing, but also at the same time to counter Iran. And yet, Iraq is run by Iranians, thanks to the invasion, it's in the hands of Iranians. From that perspective, it's a complete fiasco, right?
Well, I think as it worked out because of Iranian interference, you know, in the balance between the Kurds, Sunni Arabs and Shia Arabs, the influence of Iran, even within the Shia community to build an Iraq that looked like Iran was quite small. And yet we were not able to find a way to compromise so that you could have a non-secular population, but a secular government that could accommodate different interests. And I don't think we gave the kind of support we could have, recognizing the threat from Iran. So that I would say one of the reasons for failure was the American failure to see the threat that Iran poses, not just because of the nuclear program, not just because its support for Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Houthis in Yemen, but their interference and their desire not to have a success at creating an effective Iraqi government.
I'll move to another subject about the Kurds in the Middle East. In your book, you mentioned that Trump said he doesn't like Kurds, and reading what you wrote that made you furious, right? Because you have these people in the Middle East who are the most reliable American friends in the region and yet the President of the United States is saying he doesn't like them. So, was it lack of understanding or, or something else?
Well, he disparaged the Kurds. I think he heard from people who said they're great when they have American airpower. They're not so great when they don't. We tried to explain to him that the Kurds had fought valiantly for many years for their own independence and had been critical for decades against Saddam Hussein, who had resisted against all odds, who were helping us critically and against the Assad regime and against the Iranian and Hezbollah interference in Syria. And it was just one of these things that you couldn't reason with him on what the facts were and it obviously made coming up with a sensible and fair policy for the Kurds. It was very, very difficult.
"As often happens to the Kurds, other priorities interfere with handling the issue of what kind of government the people of Kurdistan should have."
But during the campaign, Donald Trump, just before becoming President, when he was touring around the states, he was advocating for independent Kurdistan. And yet when he was the president, he disagreed with it. The reason I'm saying that is because it reminds me of Joe Biden. When the invasion of Iraq happened, he wrote an article and he advocated for a three state solution for Iraq. So now he's the president, but he's doing nothing. This reminds me of Trump, on one hand, saying he supports Kurdish independence, on the other hand, he says he doesn't like Kurds. So, do you think this administration can protect the Kurds in the Middle East?
I guess the lesson is that American politicians campaigning for office say a lot of things they may not fully understand. To be fair to them, or they just say things because they think that's what their audience wants to hear. And so everybody is well advised as Americans have learned painfully that the politicians' promises don't always come true. I'm very worried at the moment about the Biden administration because it remains convinced that if it can either revive the JCPOA or find some kind of accommodation with Iran, that that it can it can somehow bring the regime in Tehran out of the self-imposed exile that it's in isolation from more civilized regimes around the region. And I think the Biden administration is reluctant to do anything that would distract Iran from that objective. So, the notion of an independent Kurdistan, which has been so hard to bring about for so many years, because the neighboring states don't want an independent Kurdistan. It could interfere with their objective with Iran, as it could with Turkey. And so, as it often happens to the Kurds, other priorities interfere with handling the issue of what kind of government the people of Kurdistan should have.
So, the referendum for independence took place in Iraqi Kurdistan, or in the Kurdistan Region on September 25 2017. We didn't get support from the United States and yet when the United States wanted Kurds to fight ISIS, we were the first ones to go to the battle and defeat ISIS on behalf of the world. So, this bond was created between the United States and Kurds, yet when 99% of the population of Kurdistan voted for independence, the United States didn’t want to support this. What was the reason?
Well, it was a mistake on the part of the United States. I don't think people fully appreciate what the implications would be, they didn't see what the government of Iraq might do in response or how others in the region would respond. You know, you can attribute some of the problem, I think, to divisions among the Kurdish people.
.@AmbJohnBolton disagrees with people that think the Sept. 25 2017 Kurdish independence referendum was a bad idea. “Whether this referendum resulted in a concrete achievement or not, there will be another referendum in due course.” pic.twitter.com/PZiLtbHiQq— Kurdistan 24 English (@K24English) August 17, 2022
But the threat was realistic from neighboring countries?
Well, I think I think the problem was not so much the evaluation of the threat as understanding that when Kurds voted on independence, there wasn't much question what the answer would be and yet in the US and elsewhere in the West, people didn't think through what those implications meant.
"And whether this referendum resulted in a concrete achievement or not. There will be another referendum in due course."
Now, in hindsight, a lot of people who said the referendum was therefore a bad idea. I don't agree with that. I think there's a lot of responsibility to allocate here. But we collectively did see that others would not simply accept the referendum and we weren't prepared and among the Kurds, there wasn't adequate preparation for the response. But the notion of asking people how they want to be governed is fundamental. And whether this referendum resulted in a concrete achievement or not. There will be another referendum in due course.
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"In playing a critical role in the anti-ISIS coalition is proof of the merit of giving the Kurds a government that allows the people to control their own destiny."
To be fair, the Kurdish leadership never wanted to break up from Iraq, but it became unlivable. And it became a difficult reality of the whole environment in Iraq the way the government's been hijacked, the way the militias rule in different parts of Iraq. So, because the Kurds had no choice but to break away or to decide to break away. But do you think a better administration would have supported independence during the Trump administration when Tillerson was in charge of the State Department?
Well, I think that should have been the US policy and it was a great lost opportunity and very difficult and painful for the Kurds when we didn't follow through on it. Look, I've watched this issue for over 30 years now, but going back to Operation Provide Comfort after the first Gulf War. And I have to say, no set of leaders. No political unit ever operates perfectly but in terms of cooperation of trying to find concrete solutions to problems of putting up with a lot of unnecessary diplomatic grief. I think the Kurds and their leaders have behaved in an exemplary fashion for a long time, and it's to be disappointed as they were at the time of the referendum. It was really tragic. Unfortunately, the Kurds have a long history and in finding themselves on the wrong end of the of an arrangement like that and their subsequent behavior, as you just said, in playing a critical role in the anti-ISIS coalition is proof of the merit of giving the Kurds a government that allows the people to control their own destiny.
"The leadership of the United States has not argued effectively that a forward presence by the United States in very difficult situations can be to our advantage."
Knowing where we are right now, knowing how chaotic Iraq and the Middle East is, do you think the Kurds should count on America?
Well, I'm worried about the Biden administration. I mean, I have to be straight about this. I'm not sure their focus is there. I'm not sure their level of attention is there or their energy to make sure that they have solid support from the American people for another effort in the Middle East. There's a narrative in this country unfortunately about endless wars. The leadership of the United States has not argued effectively that a forward presence by the United States in very difficult situations can be to our advantage not just to the advantage of the people involved, although that's an important factor, but ultimately can lead to stability in a place like the Middle East that benefits the United States. So, you need American leaders who can explain a complicated situation in a faraway place to the American people. I think that's something that can be done. I'm worried at this point, that it's not the Biden administration that can do it.
"I can tell you that there's a very widespread feeling in Congress and I think increasingly around the country that the withdrawal from Afghanistan was a mistake."
What happened in Afghanistan? You know, the United States left Afghanistan and the Taliban came back. Do you think you might also leave Iraq and Syria and leave the Kurds behind?
You know, anything is possible, but I can tell you that there's a very widespread feeling in (US) Congress and I think increasingly around the country that the withdrawal from Afghanistan was a mistake.
They understand that America is less safe now the terrorist attacks from the territory of Afghanistan are again possible. Hopefully they don't occur. But we gave up an enormously strong position and are now in a more vulnerable position. This is not the time for further withdrawal from the Middle East. We've seen dramatic changes in the region with the Abraham accords with the extension of full diplomatic relations between Israel and some of the Arab states. The threat of Iran has brought former adversaries together. There's a lot of potential in the Middle East, still dangerous and difficult, but this is exactly the wrong time for the United States to reduce its involvement.
Do you think in a few years we might see an Iran who is part of the international community or will there be a war between them and Israel and the US?
I think people should understand, Israel will not allow Iran to get nuclear weapons and in fact won't allow Iran to get very close to nuclear weapons if they need to do that. I do believe that the regime in Tehran is weaker today than any point since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. I think people don't see it because Western reporters don't go out of Tehran or the other big cities, but out in the countryside. Among the farmers, the small business people, the shopkeepers, they're not shouting death to the United States or death to Israel anymore. They're saying death to the Ayatollahs. Now, the Revolutionary Guard and the military still have a monopoly on force. But I believe there's splits even within the regime. And this is a time, I think, to put real pressure and support behind the people of Iran and give them a chance for self-government. And if we could resolve that we won't solve all the problems of the region, but solving other problems I think will be significantly easier.
So, if they continue to pursue, Israel might attack?
Israel is attacking now and other states in the region. And I think that to the people of Iran that is something that they're increasingly understanding. They're not safer, because Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons. They're more in danger. And I think that is undercutting the regime as well.
"I think the Biden administration it is not going to provide the leadership, there's no indication that it's of interest to them. They're more interested in climate change than a lot of American strategic interests."
But what we need in the Middle East is strong leadership, American leadership boots on the ground, and that's what it's lacking at the moment. So, without that nothing can be achieved?
Well, I think that's why I think the Biden administration is not going to provide the leadership, there's no indication that it's of interest to them. They're more interested in climate change than a lot of American strategic interests. But we're now in a period in our country where we're in an election campaign. For Congress, by November there will be an election campaign for 2024, for the presidential nomination. It seems like we're always in an election campaign, but it's important for aspiring leaders in the United States to explain to the people that our best interest here comes from having a strong presence internationally, especially in regions that are important to us and where the risk of conflict is high. So, if we're not present, we're not going to have influence, if we are then we've got a chance to make progress.
So, Ambassador Bolton, do you think that the future administrations of the United States will realize that Kurds are the only supporters of the United States and the only friends of the United States? Therefore, they have to support Kurdish independence?
Well, I think there's a large number of people in the United States who have dealt with the Kurds over the years and the American military, the diplomatic corps, American business community, who are the strongest friends of an independent Kurdistan and if you want stability in a difficult and unstable region, there are ways to do it and one of them is to continue to find ways to achieve the long side goal of an independent Kurdistan.