Amb. John Bolton: Biden Administration fails to understand Iran’s centrality in regional attacks

"I think it’s very risky to Kurdistan," Bolton said, "because as Iranian control in Iraq increases, I think the threat to Kurdish autonomy is very, very real.”
John Bolton, National Security Advisor under Donald Trump and America’s U.N. ambassador under George W. Bush (Photo: Kurdistan 24)
John Bolton, National Security Advisor under Donald Trump and America’s U.N. ambassador under George W. Bush (Photo: Kurdistan 24)

WASHINGTON DC, United States (Kurdistan 24) –  John Bolton, National Security Advisor under Donald Trump and America’s U.N. ambassador under George W. Bush, spoke last week with Kurdistan 24. Bolton delivered a withering critique of the Biden administration’s policy toward the series of Middle East crises, which began on Oct. 7 with Hamas’s bloody cross-border assault into Israel. 

Bolton’s fundamental charge is that the Biden administration lacks a strategic understanding of those crises. It compartmentalizes and divides what is essentially one, single maneuver: an Iranian-engineered attack that is directed against Israel, in which Tehran is using multiple proxy groups.

But the effect of these Iranian proxy attacks go far beyond Israel. They are “gravely threatening to peace and security all across the region,” Bolton said.

Bolton also warned that the administration had failed to establish deterrence vis-a-vis Iran. Its response to the Iranian-backed attacks has been weak. So they will, most likely, continue, even as one incident or another may result in large-scale U.S. casualties and force the administration to respond in a way that it is unwilling to do now, and from a less advantageous position.

Strategic Vision vs. Confused Understanding, Priorities

“I look at the conflicts across the region as all being on one chessboard,” Bolton explained, “and the responsible party here are the ayatollahs in Tehran through their surrogate proxy groups—terrorists like Hamas, Hizbollah, the Houthis in Yemen, the Shi’ite militia groups in Iraq and Syria.”

“I don’t think this is a series of separate conflicts,” he continued. “I think it’s basically all driven by Tehran.”

Iran’s objective is “not entirely clear,” but, possibly, it aims to block the Gulf Arabs from drawing closer to Israel, Bolton suggested, and, more broadly, to counter the “threat to their efforts to achieve hegemony within the Middle East.”

Senior figures in the Biden administration, however, do not view the issue this way. “They don’t see that Iran is really the central actor here,” Bolton said.

“And they’re more concerned about not widening the war, as they put it, than they are in dealing with this threat to people in the region, specifically to American personnel in Iraq and our ships in the Red Sea,” he continued. 

“The Biden White House is more concerned with not seeing the war grow more intense than it is with dealing with the real problem,” is how Bolton summarized the problem. 

Illusory Optimism of White House

Indeed, one could point to an interview that Jake Sullivan, National Security Advisor, gave three months ago as an important indication of the Biden administration’s misunderstanding of the Middle East.

In that interview, Sullivan actually boasted that the situation in the Middle East was relatively calm, due, in significant part to the policy of the Biden administration, which was superior to that of its predecessors.

On Sept. 29, at The Atlantic Festival, a two-day policy forum sponsored by The Atlantic magazine, Sullivan was interviewed by the magazine’s editor-in-chief, Jeffrey Goldberg. 

Sullivan told Goldberg about all the problems in the region that the Biden administration had inherited from the Trump administration. It was a litany of complaints.

“When we came into office, you had the war in Yemen raging, as the world’s largest humanitarian catastrophe,” Sullivan said. “A few months” earlier, “you had our embassy in Baghdad stormed,” and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo threatening to pull “the entire American mission out of Iraq.” In addition, Sullivan continued, “You had Iranian groups in both Syria and Iraq firing missiles at U.S. forces.”

Those problems, in Sullivan’s Sept. 29 recounting, were addressed by the Biden administration’s more reasonable and far-sighted policy, which was “to depressurize, de-escalate, and ultimately integrate the Middle East region.”

“Challenges remain,” he continued, “but the amount of time that I have to spend on crisis and conflict in the Middle East today compared to any of my predecessors going back to 9/11, is significantly reduced.”

The events of Oct. 7 would soon reveal that assessment as a gross illusion, perhaps, reflecting the dubious kind of staff work in which the boss is told, to his relief and satisfaction, there is no problem here.

Such an approach can easily blow up suddenly and unexpectedly. And that is pretty much what happened just eight days after Sullivan spoke, as Hamas launched its extraordinarily brutal assault on Israel. 

The war in Gaza followed, continuing to this day, with clashes spreading to the West Bank, and violence increasing across the region. That includes a heightened state of tension between Israel and Lebanon, as Hizbollah has stepped up its cross-border attacks, and Israel has responded. 

In Iraq and Syria, Iranian-backed militias have increased their assaults on U.S, forces, and in Yemen, the Houthis, also backed by Iran, have launched a campaign against international shipping, which prompted the passage, on Wednesday, of a U.N. Security Council resolution demanding they stop such attacks “immediately.”

Failure of Biden Administration to Deter Attacks

The Biden administration’s earlier misunderstanding of the Middle East has had enduring consequence. That includes its failure to recognize what actions on the part of the U.S. are required to achieve deterrence and stop the attacks by Iran and its proxies.

The administration’s earlier understanding of Iran was far too optimistic, and that remains the case. It seems to believe that if it shows good will, if it is “reasonable” in how it responds to Iranian backed attacks and limits itself to defensive measures, Iran will reciprocate, and this will “contain” the conflict.

But as Bolton repeatedly stated, such thinking could not be more wrong—it actually invites more attacks. Moreover, one of the Iranian backed strikes may cause significant U.S. casualties. The administration will then be forced to respond from a position significantly less advantageous than what it enjoys now. And, of course, people will have died needlessly, when a more assertive posture might well have prevented the attack in the first place.

Describing the U.S. position as “weak,” Bolton said, “There have been some retaliatory attacks against the Houthis” for their assaults on Red Sea shipping and “some against the Shi’a militias in Iraq for their attacks on American military and civilian personnel,” but that will not deter Iran.

“You don’t get deterrence until the aggressor understands that the pain that they’re going to feel outweighs whatever benefit they think they’re going to get from taking action.”

“We have not achieved creating deterrence yet,” he continued. And “that’s a concern to all of America’s friends in the region, because they are there getting the brunt of these belligerent Iranian activities directly and through their surrogates.”

Bolton worries that a failure to achieve deterrence will only result in continuing attacks. That carries the risk of “a mass casualty incident” in which “a substantial number of American service members or civilians would be killed.” 

“That would be a tragedy, and that, in turn, would force the Biden administration to take even stronger military action,” Bolton said. “So the best way to get to a position of peace and security is to act now, before a lot more is required to get back to stability.”

Bolton also warned of the dangers of increased Iranian influence in Iraq, particularly if Iran succeeds in unifying its proxy militias in the country.

That “would be a direct threat to the government in Baghdad” and “really should concern” all Iraqis, Bolton said, “whatever their view of the government.” 

And he concluded, “I think it’s very risky to Kurdistan, because as Iranian control in Iraq increases, I think the threat to Kurdish autonomy is very, very real.”