Press Briefing by National Security Advisor John Bolton on Iran

May 8, 2018

Weapon Program: 

  • Nuclear
  • Missile

James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

2:37 P.M. EDT

AMBASSADOR BOLTON:  Well, I don’t really have much to add to the President’s speech.  I think the decision is very clear.  I think it’s a firm statement of American resolve to prevent not only Iran from getting nuclear weapons, but a ballistic missile delivery capability.  It limits its continuing support of terrorism and its causing instability and turmoil in the Middle East.

And I think the President also laid out what comes next.  As he said at the end, he’s prepared to look at discussions on a much broader resolution of the malign behavior that we see from Iran.  And we’ve been in discussions already with our allies on that.  We’ll be continuing it beginning, literally, early tomorrow morning.

So I’ll just stop there.  I’m happy to answer any questions.  Kevin.

Q    Thank you, appreciate it very much.  For the folks who are not inside the Beltway, who are not awash in policy, their overarching question generally is, “How does this make us all safer?”  Can you help explain that?  And then I’d like a follow up.

AMBASSADOR BOLTON:  Sure.  Look, this deal was fundamentally flawed, as the President said.  It does not do what it purports to do.  It does not prevent Iran from developing deliverable nuclear weapons.  It allows Iran to continue technologies like uranium enrichment, reprocessing of plutonium.  It allows them — even if they’re in compliance with the deal — to increase their research and development on the sophistication of their nuclear capabilities.  And it simply has an utterly inadequate treatment of the military dimension of Iran’s aspirations.

Contrary to basic arms control agreement practice, there was never a baseline declaration.  In fact, Iran has consistently denied it ever had a military program.  That’s enshrined in Security Council Resolution 2231.  And as we’ve seen from the data that we’ve collected before, that Israel discussed last week, this is a flat line.  Nor is there an adequate inspection provision in the agreement itself, ever to allow us to have confidence that we’ve detected all of Iran’s nuclear-related activities.

And then when you add in the fact that the theory behind the deal — that if we could reach agreement to limit Iran’s nuclear aspirations, it would change their behavior more globally — has also proven completely false.

So creating this new reality, recognizing that Iran has used the course of the negotiations, the lengthy period leading up to the deal to increase the capability and sophistication both of its nuclear weapons program and its ballistic missile program, and has continued to do so since the deal in 2015 — the only sure way to get on the path of stopping Iran from developing nuclear weapons and delivery capabilities is to get out of the deal.  And that’s what the President has done.

Q    My follow would simply be about a conversation with the leadership in Iran.  Coming from your position, your experience in particular over at the U.N., you know how that can go.  It is fraught with peril, some would certainly say, and others would say it’s worth engaging again, even if only for due diligence.  Do you foresee that happening from the administration’s perspective?

AMBASSADOR BOLTON:  The President said that expressly at the end of the speech in words that came directly from him.  The lesson that America learned, painfully, a long time ago, but that Dean Acheson once said, is we only negotiate from positions of strength.  It was a lesson that the last administration did not follow.

And I think another aspect of the withdrawal that was announced today is to establish positions of strength for the United States, and it will have implications not simply for Iran, but for the forthcoming meeting with Kim Jong-un of North Korea.  It sends a very clear signal that the United States will not accept inadequate deals, as the President said.


Q    In terms of the hundred — what happens in 180 days, what ultimately is going to happen with the European companies that have begun to trade with Iran?  Are we for certain going to be sanctioning those companies?  Or is there 180-day period where that can be potentially negotiated away?

AMBASSADOR BOLTON:  Well, the decision that the President signed today puts sanctions back in place that existed at the time of the deal; it puts them in place immediately.

Now, what that means is that within the zone of economics covered by the sanctions, no new contracts are permitted.  Treasury will be announcing, in the next few hours, what they call wind-down provisions that will deal with existing contracts.  And there will be varying periods within these contracts to be wound down.  Some will extend up to six months; some might be 90 days.  There might be other provisions as well.

This contingency has been posted on the Treasury Department website since 2015 because of the potential for the use of the provisions of Resolution 2231, which we’re not using because we’re out of the deal.  But in other words, the concept that there would be a wind-down period has been there for a long time.  And that’s basically the pattern we’ll follow — we are following.  But the fact of the sanctions coming back in is effective right now.

Q    But that won’t be negotiated away during that — for those existing —

AMBASSADOR BOLTON:  We’re out of the deal.

Q    We’re out.

AMBASSADOR BOLTON:  We’re out of the deal.  We’re out of the deal.

Q    Are we out of the deal?


Q    If North Korea (inaudible) the nuclear weapons, and you said that this is very critical signal to North Korea, what is the (inaudible) meaning is?  Is there more detail on nuclear issues?

AMBASSADOR BOLTON:  Well, I think the message to North Korea is the President wants a real deal; that what we’re asking for, what Secretary Pompeo will be discussing with people in North Korea when he arrives there in further preparation for the meeting with Kim Jong-un is — in part, rests on what North Korea itself agreed to going back to the 1992 joint North-South denuclearization declaration: the elimination of both the front and the backend of the nuclear fuel cycle; no uranium enrichment; no plutonium reprocessing.  There are other things we’ll be asking for as well.

But when you’re serious about eliminating the threat of nuclear proliferation, you have to address the aspects that permit an aspiring nuclear weapons state to get there.  The Iran deal did not do that.  A deal that we hope to reach, the President is optimistic we can reach with North Korea, will address all those issues.

Yes, sir.

Q    Thank you, Mr. Ambassador.  You said that the administration’s goal is to address Iran’s malign activities, but are you hoping a part of addressing those activities is regime change?  Is that a goal of this administration following this decision?

AMBASSADOR BOLTON:  No, what the President said was, following his discussion with his counterparts in many European countries, looking at what President Macron said, what Chancellor Merkel said, what he said to Prime Minister May, is that one of the fundamental criticisms that the President and others have made to the deal is that it sought to address only a limited aspect of Iran’s unacceptable behavior — certainly a critical aspect — but not taking into account the fact this is, and has been for many years, the central banker of international terrorism.

So that lifting the sanctions, as happened in 2015 as a result of the deal, helps fuel the activity that Iran is undertaking now in Syria.  Its support for terrorist groups all around the region and the world, like Hezbollah and Hamas.  And that to really deal with this threat and to try to bring peace and stability to the Middle East, and to relieve the world of the nuclear threat, you have to go after the whole thing.  This is what he talked about with the European leaders, and we’re going to try and pursue it.

Yes, ma’am.

Q    Thank you, Ambassador Bolton.  I wanted to know if you could clarify what will happen to companies like Total.


Q    Sorry, appreciate that.  They were asking for a waiver from this because they made an agreement with Tehran prior to this announcement.  Will they get a waiver?  Will anyone get a waiver?

AMBASSADOR BOLTON:  Well, I don’t want to discuss specific cases.  And, as I say, Treasury will be explaining this in more detail.

But the purpose of the wind-down provisions — for example, in the case of oil purchases from Iran, if it’s a long-term requirements contract, for example — what we’re saying is, that although the sanctions come back into effect immediately, precluding any new contracts, for those affected by our jurisdiction, they’ve got six months to phase it out.  And if that turns out to be the period — or 90 days or other periods — and then the sanctions take effect on existing contracts.  So that’s why it’s called “wind-down.”  It’s a way to give businesses a chance to get out.

Q    On North Korea — would you mind answering this really quickly?  The President sort of touched on that in his remarks today — but exactly why is Secretary of State Pompeo going to North Korea?  And is he there to bring home the prisoners — the three prisoners that were supposedly coming home this week?

AMBASSADOR BOLTON:  Well, look, the purpose of the mission is to prepare for the next meetings.  The President has said on any number of occasions he wants the hostages released, and that hasn’t changed.

Yes, sir.

Q    Thank you, Ambassador.  Two questions.  One, you mentioned that this was a signal to North Korea.  Isn’t it also a signal that the United States can now make deals and then get out of them if the political winds change?

AMBASSADOR BOLTON:  Well, that’s not what he said at all.  The issue here is whether the United States will accept the deal that’s not in its strategic interest, which is what happened, in our judgement, in 2015.  And any nation reserves the right to correct a past mistake.

I’ll give you an example:  In 2001, the George W. Bush administration withdrew from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty — not because we were alleging that the Russians were violating it, although they were, but because the global strategic environment had changed.  And that’s a fact of life, and that’s what we’re saying here.

Q    You raise an interesting point about the ABM treaty.  Part of the President’s objection to Iran’s behavior was their development of ballistic missiles.  And it appears that the bigger picture — many of his objections to the deal were that it only covered nuclear weapons and didn’t curb Iran’s ambitions to be a regional power.  Are we trying to dictate who can and cannot be a power in the Middle East?  Is that what we’re doing here, sir?

AMBASSADOR BOLTON:  Look.  I think the President made it clear in his remarks today how deleterious Iran’s conduct across the region has been on a whole range of fronts, and that one of the principal inadequacies of the nuclear deal was that it didn’t address that other malign behavior.  So that’s the purpose of what we’re doing there.

Yes, sir.

Q    Mr. Ambassador, thank you very much.  What do you expect, after making this announcement today, of European allies who are in the deal to do?  Are you calling on them, or will the President call on them, to get out of the deal?  And secondly, if you could just give us any, sort of, behind-the-scenes tick-tock or view or explanation about how the President came to this decision.

AMBASSADOR BOLTON:  Well, let me answer the second question first.  He’s been saying it since the earliest days of the 2016 campaign that he thought this was one of the worst deals ever negotiated in American diplomatic history, of an assessment that I don’t think he could be clearer on in repeated remarks since he first addressed the question.

With respect to the European and other allies, we’ve been in extensive consultation with them over the past several months.  I think since I’ve been here, I’ve spent more time in consultation with them than probably almost anything else I’ve done, starting with the response to the Syrian chemical weapons attacks, but really continuing on the Iran question.  And it’s something the President views as extremely important.

And everybody involved in the national security sphere here will be engaged in talking to the Europeans and others who are affected by this about how we carry this forward.  It’s not just the Europeans.  As the President said, we’ve got many people in the Middle East who are very concerned about the Iran nuclear weapons program.  They’ll be involved in the discussions, too.

Q    Yeah.  Mr. Ambassador —

Q    President Macron — let me just finish up on that one topic.  President Macron came; Chancellor Merkel came to town.  You say quite rightly that the President has been saying since 2016 that he wanted to get out of the deal.  But he didn’t until now.  When did he actually decide?

AMBASSADOR BOLTON:  Well, he didn’t get out of the deal until now because he gave repeated opportunities to try to fix the deal.  But I think, as we’ve seen from the comments from various Iranian leaders over the past several weeks, the government of Iran had no interest in changing this deal.  And why should they?  It was an excellent deal.

I think the President wanted to let all the efforts go forward, and he did right up until just a few days before the May 12 deadline.  And I think faced with the overwhelming evidence that the core flaws of the deal could not be fixed, he made the decision to proceed.

Q    Mr. Ambassador, a couple of quick questions.  One, can you put down — there are those who believe that this is merely a precursor for the United States to put boots on the ground in Iran.  Is that true?

AMBASSADOR BOLTON:  They would be badly mistaken if that’s what they thought.

Q    And secondly, although we have backed out of this agreement, do you have plans — are we making plans to go back at Iran to discuss the — although you’ve mentioned Dean Acheson; that was Vietnam and Korea, and hope we have better success —

AMBASSADOR BOLTON:  I don’t think Dean was terribly involved in Vietnam, but go ahead.

Q    But nonetheless, are we going to sit down with them and try to negotiate from that position of strength?

AMBASSADOR BOLTON:  Yeah.  Look, what the President said in the speech, I think, very explicitly — I don’t know want else I can say to elaborate on it — is that we’re prepared, along with the Europeans and others, to talk about a much broader deal addressing all of the aspects of Iran’s conduct that we find objectionable.  We’re prepared to do that beginning right now.

Q    But have they said that they would speak with us?  Have you spoken to them?

AMBASSADOR BOLTON:  The President said that expressly in the speech.  He said they’ve said they don’t want to, and then he said, I’d probably say that if I were in their shoes too.  But he expects that they will.  And we’ll be talking with everybody about that.

Yes, ma’am.

Q    A question about the phone call to President Xi today.  Was the announcement by President Trump regarding the nuclear agreement discussed with President Xi?  And was there any effort to get China to be part of any future negotiations?

AMBASSADOR BOLTON:  Yeah, the issue was raised, but I don’t want to get into the details of it.


Q    Thank you, Mr. Ambassador.  One of the points that came up repeatedly at the Iranian Freedom Convention, the conclave of Iranian exiles, was regime change.  And at one point, Mayor Giuliani said: If you want regime change, look around you.  It’s in this room.  Does the administration have any contact with the Iranian exile community, such as the National Council for Iranian Resistance?  And do they ever talk about them as a government in exile or a future government in Iran?

AMBASSADOR BOLTON:  I’m not aware of any of that, and that’s just not something that’s ever come up.

Yes, ma’am.

Q    Thank you, Mr. Ambassador.  In talking a bit further about regime changes, when President Macron was here, he talked about his four pillars for success in the Iran deal, and a lot of that pertained to Syria and making Syria politically stable.  Does this administration think that you can achieve peace and political stability under Bashar al-Assad?  Or would this administration support a regime change there, potentially, as well?

AMBASSADOR BOLTON:  Well, I think the President made clear in his address a couple weeks ago when he announced the response to the Syrian chemical weapons attack, that the use of military force there and our diplomatic responses was limited to the question of the use of weapons of mass destruction.  We’re obviously concerned to finish the business of extinguishing the ISIS territorial caliphate, but very concerned, as well, about Iran extending its influence through Iraq, linking up with the Assad regime in Syria, and Hezbollah in Lebanon.  That’s something that President Macron, Chancellor Merkel, Prime Minister May have all said, as well.

So the prospect for lasting peace and security in the Middle East depends on addressing a lot of complex factors, but certainly one critical one is the role that Iran has played in supporting the instability and conflict.  And what the President has talked about, as I say, with a number of European leaders, is whether we can address that as part of the overall effort to retrain Iran’s behavior.  And that is going on.

Yes, sir.

Q    Yeah, I’m just hoping you can clarify the timing of sanctions.  You had said that sanctions are in effect now.  The Treasury Secretary just put out a statement saying, as you talked about, a 90-day wind-down and a 180-day wind-down.  So is it that the action to withdraw has happened now, and then sanctions come at 90 or 180?  Or are there indeed sanctions this very second?

AMBASSADOR BOLTON:  Let me try again.  We have announced a withdrawal from the deal.  So we’re out of the deal.  The President signed a decision memorandum that instructs the departments and agencies to effectuate that.  And part of that is reinstituting all of the nuclear-related sanctions that were waived by the Obama administration.  So the sanctions are in effect as soon as they’re promulgated.

What that means is, with respect to any new or prospective contract that’s covered by it — with firms covered by our jurisdiction, that they are forbidden.  So, in other words, no new contracts in the prescribed areas.

For contracts that already exist, there is a wind-down period to allow an orderly termination of the contract, so that people who — in good-faith reliance on the waiver of the sanctions — have engaged in business are not totally surprised.

Now, as I say, there are going to be different wind-down periods depending on the nature of the commodities, but I don’t really think anybody in the business world is surprised at this action.

Q    Mr. Ambassador —


Q    I have two questions for you.  So, first, would you argue with the contention, with the assertion that, for all technical intents and purposes, it is the U.S., with this action, that is violating the JCPOA?

AMBASSADOR BOLTON:  No, I don’t think we’re violating; I think we’re withdrawing from it.

Q    But you acknowledge, too, that Iran has been in compliance?  This administration —

AMBASSADOR BOLTON:  I don’t.  No.  I think there are plenty of cases where we’re simply incapable of saying whether they’re in compliance or not.  There are others where I think they’ve clearly been in violation.

For example, their production of heavy water has repeatedly exceeded the limits permissible under the JCPOA.  They’re almost in the heavy water production business.  They sell excess to Oman.  They’ve sold it to European countries.  It’s a way of keeping the heavy water production facilities alive.  They’re warm.  And that’s part of the danger.  And they have exceeded the limits.

I could go into others, as well.

Q    I have one more question on North Korea for you, as well.  But just to follow up on that, this administration — I mean, intel officials in this administration, as you know, have said Iran technically is in compliance.

AMBASSADOR BOLTON:  No, I think they’ve said technically —

Q    So is this an issue of the spirit of the law or —

AMBASSADOR BOLTON:  No, no, no.  I think they’ve said — they have characterized it as technical non-compliance.  I think what you should look at is the overall pattern of Iranian behavior of pushing at the limits of the terms of the deal, and our basic uncertainty, whether we know everything.  You cannot say that Iran is in compliance unless you are 100 percent certain that the IAEA and our intelligence are infallible.

Q    I want to ask about North Korea, as well, given that it’s all related.  Secretary —

AMBASSADOR BOLTON:  I wish we could say that.  But I don’t know anybody who’s willing to.

Q    Would you be able to say that about North Korea, for example, if you negotiate a deal with them?

AMBASSADOR BOLTON:  Look, no, this is — the verification and compliance aspects of any proliferation or arms control deal are absolutely essential.  And here, in the Iran deal, as the President said, they were utterly inadequate.

Q    Very quickly, on the detainees.  Secretary Pompeo is telling reporters that he will bring that up in his conversations in Pyongyang.  If those detainees are not released, does that mean that the President will not conduct talks with Kim?  Is that a deal-breaker?

AMBASSADOR BOLTON:  Look, I’d rather not speculate on that.  Secretary Pompeo is almost on the ground in North Korea, and he is the President’s negotiator, and I think we’ll look to him for the judgment as to how it’s going out there.

Yes, ma’am.

Q    Thank you.  So when you say that the sanctions that were in place before this deal are back in place now, does that mean that we’re back at the status quo before the 2015 deal was in place?  And does the administration plan to impose more sanctions or do more to force Iran to come to the table?

AMBASSADOR BOLTON:  Well, I think we are back in place in terms of what sanctions are applicable from the U.S. perspective.  But as you ask in your question, I think it’s entirely possible that additional sanctions will follow as new information comes to light.  And that’s something that we should pursue vigorously because we want to put as much economic pressure on Iran as we can, and deny them the revenues that they would have gotten from the transactions we’re now eliminating.

Q    So the U.S. is out of the deal; that’s very clear right now.  But did President Trump put forward like a timeframe for a diplomatic initiative to start of new agreements?  Because he still wants to go to a deal.

AMBASSADOR BOLTON:  Yeah, it’s begun already in consultations with European and other allies before today’s announcement, because we were trying to be fully transparent with them about our thinking, to make sure they understood that withdrawal was a live option under consideration.  And I think the President has had some calls today; I’m sure he’s going to have more in the coming day.  I’m going to be discussing this tomorrow morning with my British, French, and German counterparts, so we’re already underway.

Okay, thank you very much.


3:01 P.M. EDT