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.
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Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).