Bolton: America Willing to Talk to Iran But Ready to Retaliate

Iran standoff 'very precarious situation' amid new covert attacks on tankers

John Bolton / Getty Images

White House National Security Adviser John Bolton said the United States is willing to talk to Iranian leaders to ease tensions but also is set for retaliatory action against Iranian military provocations.

Bolton revealed in an interview with the Washington Free Beacon that intelligence reports over the past month warned of covert attacks in the Middle East and South Asia by Iranian proxies, including the Quds Force, Iranian intelligence operatives, and other Tehran surrogates. The Quds Force is part of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Tehran's Islamic shock troops.

"It's a very precarious situation," Bolton said during a meeting in the White House West Wing when asked about the standoff with Iran.

The national security adviser spoke two days before Iran's latest military provocation on Thursday—sea mine attacks against two tankers transiting the Gulf of Oman near Iran's coast.

The United States earlier had dispatched the aircraft carrier strike group led by the USS Abraham Lincoln and also deployed bombers to the region—clear signs of the danger and steps designed to deter Iranian action as well as retaliate for attacks.

"The National Security Strategy lists Iran as one of the four top threats, and we just need to be sure we've got the capability to deter them from these kinds of activities, threatening American lives and facilities, threatening the international oil market," Bolton said of the deployment of military forces. Additional forces could be dispatched in the coming days.

On Iranian provocations, Bolton issued a blunt warning: "They would be making a big mistake if they doubted the president's resolve on this."

"We're very concerned about the dangers of the Quds Force and Iranian intelligence operatives and others through surrogates—Shia militia groups in Iraq, the Houthi in Yemen posing threats to commerce in the Red Sea, targets in Saudi Arabia, American personnel and facilities in Iraq, the Arabian Gulf, Gulf of Oman, and in Afghanistan," he said.

The intelligence indicates the Quds Force and Iranian intelligence are planning attacks on these targets carried out in "deniable" ways designed to mask Tehran as the source, he said.

The Iranians are "acting as if it's the Obama administration and that they don't really fear American capabilities," Bolton said. "And they are in deep economic trouble in Iran as a result of the president's termination of the nuclear deal and the reimposition of sanctions."

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Thursday said U.S. intelligence agencies concluded Iran was behind two mine attacks, including a Japanese ship that was left with a large hole in the side by the mine blast.

The attack came as Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe was visiting Tehran to convey an offer from President Trump for talks.

On Sunday, Pompeo said a range of response options, including military retaliation, are being studied. "We’ve briefed the president a couple of times. We’ll continue to keep him updated. We are confident we can take a set of actions that can restore deterrence, which is our mission set," he said on CBS.

Video released by the Central Command showed what officials said is an IRGC patrol boat removing an exploded magnetic mine from the hull of a damaged Japanese tanker, the Kokuka Courageous.

The command, in charge of military forces in the Middle East, said in a statement the two ships were damaged in a "limpet mine attack" in the Gulf of Oman. Several Iranian vessels were near the attacks including a Hendijan-class patrol boat and multiple IRGC fast-attack craft, CENTCOM spokesman Capt. Bill Urban said in a statement.

The vessel seen removing the mine was described as "an IRGC Gashti Class patrol boat."

"Today's attacks are a clear threat to international freedom of navigation and freedom of commerce," Urban said, adding a warning: "The United States has no interest in engaging in a new conflict in the Middle East. However, we will defend our interests."

Bolton said the president has stated since the 2016 campaign that he is ready to meet Iran's leader for talks and would be ready to work on a deal with Tehran "assuming they give up nuclear weapons and stop the other malicious activity that they're engaged in."

"That doesn't mean he's compromising his substantive position. It means, as with North Korea, he's prepared to talk about what the future will be once they give up their nuclear and other unacceptable activities," Bolton said.

Trump on Thursday tweeted that he appreciated Abe's meeting with Iran's Ayatollah Ali Khameini, but added: "I personally feel that it is too soon to even think about making a deal. They are not ready, and neither are we!"

Bolton said the threat of Iranian-backed attacks "very definitely" is continuing.

"A lot of preparations for the threat continue," he said, noting mine attacks, an attack on a Saudi pipeline, and a rocket attack near a U.S. embassy that appeared linked to Iran.

The latest tensions with Iran began after Trump pulled out of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) last year over concerns Iran will continue developing nuclear weapons in secret under the agreement.

The Trump administration also has reimposed economic sanctions on Iran.

Bolton said Iran did not anticipate the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA and thought that other signatories to the Obama-era deal would provide economic benefits despite the U.S. pullout.

That has not been the case. According to Bolton, Iran is now threatening to exceed several key provisions of the nuclear deal including limits on uranium enrichment and heavy water storage.

A recent report by the International Atomic Energy Agency stated that Iran has violated the deal by using highly sophisticated centrifuges that are not permitted under the deal, he said.

Bolton said the IAEA board of governors was meeting soon "and there's no doubt in the minds of IAEA that uranium enrichment has increased."

"It's not just the more sophisticated centrifuges but the pace of production, the pace of enrichment has picked up, and so it threatens the various limits in the JCPOA that the Iranians have said they'll violate, they'll exceed beginning July the 8th," he said.

Iran announced May 8 that it would exceed JCPOA limits in 60 days unless the Europeans provided them with tangible economic benefits.

"So we're more than halfway through that period and again because of the effectiveness of the Trump administration sanctions, there are not going to be tangible economic benefits," he said.

Trump said Friday the IRGC vessel seen near the damaged ship is proof "Iran did do it" and that removing the mine was an attempt to hide Iran's role in the attack.

The president criticized the Iran deal as "an outrage" made by President Barack Obama that he said would allow Iran in five or six years to "be allowed to make nuclear weapons."

"They cannot have nuclear weapons. They understand they are not going to have nuclear weapons," the president said on Fox News Channel.

Asked if Iran could close the Strait of Hormuz through which handles up to 30 percent of the world's oil, Trump said: "Well, they are not going to be closing it. If it's closed it's not going to being closed for long and they know it, and they have been told in very strong terms and we want to get them back to the table if they want to go back. I am ready when they are but whenever they are ready it is okay. In the meantime I am in no rush."

Asked to comment on the statement from Khamenei that the president was not "worthy" of meeting for talks, Trump said wryly, "I'm glad he likes me so much."

Trump said the American pressure campaign on Iran had caused Tehran to pull back in the region. "I'm not looking to hurt that country but they can't have a nuclear weapon," he said. "It's very simple."

Bolton was asked about an apparent pro-Iran influence campaign seeking to portray him as differing from the president and seeking to lead the United States into a conflict with Iran. The U.S. media, he said, has been assisting in the disinformation campaign on several fronts.

"It's probably not surprising but we've seen real evidence that it's not just Iran, it's Venezuela and North Korea that have adopted this strategy of trying to separate the president's advisers from the president," he said. "And not surprisingly the stenographers in the American media pick that up and run with it as if it's a real story."

Inside the administration, the disinformation is not having any effect but the mainstream media are continuing to echo Iran's propaganda. "You know, they get a new tweet from the foreign minister of Iran and that's another news cycle for them," he said.

On Venezuela, Bolton said the administration is continuing to pressure the Marxist-backed regime of Nicolas Maduro while increasing pressure on Cuba, which is providing support to the Maduro regime.

"The opposition in Venezuela came very close on April 30 to overthrowing the regime," he said. "It was a disappointment for them and the over 50 governments that support Juan Guaido as the legitimate interim president."

Bolton said he is confident the Maduro regime will eventually be toppled. Senior regime figures are "like scorpions in a bottle," he said.

"They don't trust each other," he said. "It's just not going to be in power for a sustained period of time. The opposition continues to talk to people. They continue to show how they can have a peaceful transition of power. Life within the country is suffering after 20 years of total misrule, and conditions continue to worsen. So the importance of getting a peaceful transition of power is actually greater now than before to ease the suffering of the Venezuelan people."

The administration's strategy seeks to force the estimated 15,000 Cuban military and security personnel out of Venezuela. The administration recently tightened sanctions against travel to Cuba in a bid to pressure Havana.

"If by magic we could make them disappear and go back to Cuba immediately it would be a very short period of time before Maduro fell," Bolton said. "And that's what's so ironic here. You've got an imperial power, Cuba, in effect ruling Venezuela. And what's the benefit, what's the reason Cuba does this? They get their oil at substantially below global market prices from Venezuela."

The people of Venezuela, by contrast, receive no benefit from the Cubans, he said.

The administration is studying several other additional measures aimed at pressuring Cuba.

"There are additional designations of individuals in Venezuela and Cuba," he said. "We're going to do more to prevent the transfer of oil from Venezuela to Cuba. Obviously, every time we put sanctions in place, the Maduro regime tries to evade them, so we're looking at new ways to prevent that."

Bolton said that while it has become clear that the Maduro regime will eventually be ousted, it is possible another player in that regime could take over. "But once the rocks start rolling downhill, the regime itself is unsustainable," he said.