John Bolton on Iran

March 22, 2018

On March 22, President Donald Trump announced that John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, will replace National Security Advisor General H.R. McMaster. Bolton served in the administrations of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. An outspoken critic of the nuclear deal, he has advocated for regime change in Tehran and use of military force against the Islamic Republic. Bolton took office on April 9. The following are excerpted remarks by Bolton on Iran.


Remarks as National Security Advisor

Hugh Hewitt: Let me turn from our ally to our enemy. The commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, Soleimani, used social media to threaten the White House. There are reports that there are sleeper cells in the United States. Given those sorts of threats and those sorts of reports, are Americans, should we be alarmed about Soleimani's reach into the United States?

John Bolton: I think we should be. I think the Iranian regime is an enemy of the United States. We just had, within the past month, the arrest of two Iranian agents in the United States scoping out Jewish and Israeli targets for possible attack. We've seen France and other European countries arresting agents of the Iranian Intelligence Service for planning an attack on a rally of dissident Iranians in Paris this summer. We've seen France, for example, now impose sanctions against Iran because of this behavior. So we see Iran not conforming to Western norms because of the Iran Nuclear Deal. They've not done anything to try to mollify our concern about their continued support for terrorism around the world. They are accelerating it. This, this regime is a threat. That's why the president got us out of the Iran Nuclear Deal. That's why the economic sanctions are being re-imposed. That's why we're putting maximum pressure on the Iranian regime. And just to be clear, we are having a very significant effect. You can hear the Europe governments talk about staying in the deal. European corporations, and I mean the being one, the biggest oil companies, the biggest manufacturing firms, are getting out of Iran. Iranian oil exports are plummeting. Their currency has gone through the floor. Unrest is spreading across the country. Even countries like China are reducing their imports of oil from Iran, because they don't want to tangle with the United States. This is something that we should be concerned about, because Iran remains what it has been since 1979. It's the world's leading state sponsor of terror. It oppresses its own citizens. And it continues to pursue programs of weapons of mass destruction - nuclear, chemical and biological. This is a dangerous state in the region and a dangerous state worldwide.

Hewitt: Any doubt in your mind of the response of this president to any Iranian-backed terrorism on the United States territory or against American ships or flagships?

Bolton: No. I think he's been very clear on this, not because we want hostilities with Iran, but the opposite. We want to be very clear about what our red lines. And I think the president's done that over and over again.

—Oct. 12, 2018, in an interview with Hugh Hewitt


“The Iran deal was in fact the worst diplomatic debacle in American history. It did nothing to address the regime’s destabilizing activity or its ballistic missile development and proliferation. Worst of all, the deal failed to achieve its fundamental objective, permanently denying Iran for all paths to nuclear weapons.”

“According to the mullahs in Tehran, we are the great Satan, lord of the underworld, master of the raging inferno. So I might imagine they would take me seriously when I assure them today that if you cross us, our allies or our partners, if you harm our citizens, if you continue to lie, cheat and deceive, yes, there will indeed be hell to pay.”

“We will continue to use all legal means to ensure the protection of our citizens… We will not stop pressuring Iran to change its destabilizing behavior.”

“If at any point we determine that the regime is expanding its enrichment activities, the United States stands ready to pursue a panoply of options – whatever may be necessary and appropriate to ensure the regime bears serious consequences for this action.” 

“Iran continues to use hostage-taking as a tool of state policy, in violation of all international laws and norms.”

“Iran must release all Americans and innocent civilians at once.”

“Robert Levinson, whose family I met last week, went missing in Iran over 11 years ago.”

“Siamak Namazi and Xiyue Wang are wrongfully detained in Iran.”

“Numerous other American and Western citizens are held captive by the regime. This shameful and barbaric practice must end, and Iran must return our Americans and other innocent civilians at once.”

“The ayatollahs have a choice to make. We have laid out a path toward a bright and prosperous future for all of Iran, one that is worthy of the Iranian people, who have long suffered under the regime's tyrannical rule.”

“The European Union is strong on rhetoric and weak on follow through.”

“[W]e will be watching the development of this structure that does not exist yet and has no target date to be created.”

“We do not intend to allow our sanctions to be evaded by Europe or anybody else.”

“The United States is not naïve.”

"We will not be duped, cheated or intimidated. The days of impunity for Tehran and its enablers are over. The murderous regime and its supporters will face significant consequences if they do not change their behavior. Let my message today be clear: We are watching, and we will come after you."

“The Trump administration has launched a pressure campaign to counter [IRGC Commander Qassem] Soleimani's insidious design.”

—Sept. 25, 2018, in a speech at the United Against Nuclear Iran Summit


QUESTION: Rudy Giuliani over the weekend called for regime change in Iran.  Does that follow with the Trump administration's desires of policy?

AMBASSADOR BOLTON:  As I've said repeatedly, regime change in Iran is not the administration's policy.  As Mike Pompeo just said, we've imposed very stringent sanctions on Iran.  More are coming.  

And what we expect from Iran is massive changes in their behavior.  And until that happens, we will continue to exert what the President has called "maximum pressure."  That's what we intend to do.

—Sept. 24, 2018, at a press briefing in New York


“Let me be clear, the reimposition of the sanctions, we think, is already having a significant effect on Iran’s economy and on, really, popular opinion inside Iran.”

“Just to be clear, regime change in Iran is not American policy. But what we want is massive change in the regime’s behavior.”

“I think the effects, the economic effects certainly, are even stronger than we anticipated.”

“But Iranian activity in the region has continued to be belligerent: what they are doing in Iraq, what they are doing in Syria, what they are doing with Hezbollah in Lebanon, what they are doing in Yemen, what they have threatened to do in the Strait of Hormuz.”

“We are going to do other things to put pressure on Iran as well, beyond economic sanctions.”

“We expect that Europeans will see, as businesses all over Europe are seeing, that the choice between doing business with Iran or doing business with the United States is very clear to them.”

“So we will see what plays out in November. But the president (Trump) has made it very clear - his words - he wants maximum pressure on Iran, maximum pressure, and that is what is going on.”

—Aug. 22, 2018, to Reuters during a visit to Israel


MARTHA RADDATZ: [T]he situation in Syria was a topic in Helsinki as well with Putin. I know you’ll be discussing that today with Prime Minister Netanyahu especially about getting Iran out of Syria.

Where do we stand on that?

BOLTON: Well I think the – certainly the objective of the United States, of Israel, President Putin said it was Russia’s objective is to get Iran – Iranian forces, Iranian militias, Iranian surrogates out of the offensive operations they’re in in both Syria and Iraq and frankly, to end Iran’s support for Hezbollah.

I think the president’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal has put a real crimp into the Iranian economy. I think they’re feeling it in their capability for the Quds Force or the Iranian Revolutionary Guards to conduct offensive operations in – in the region here and in Yemen as well.

But I think this is part of the problem with the Iranian regime generally and why it’s such a threat to peace and security not just because of its nuclear program, but because of its military operations and its support for terrorism.

So that’s certainly on the agenda here in Israel.

RADDATZ: Do you trust Russia to do this?

BOLTON: Well I think President Putin is very candid in his comments to President Trump, he was to me as well. He doesn’t think Iranian –

RADDATZ: They said they’d get rid of chemical weapons, they weren’t all gone.

BOLTON: One – one issue at a time. He said he didn’t – didn’t have the same interest as Iran in Syria. And that he’d like to talk about ways to get out of them. I think it’s clear that we believe, for example, on the subject of chemical weapons, as British intelligence and law enforcement concluded that Russia was behind the attack on the Skripals in Salsbury using the illegal chemical weapons agent Novichok some months ago.

President Trump took very strong action expelling over 60 Russian so-called diplomats in response to that. Sanctions have been imposed on Russia recently. We feel very strongly about the use of these illegal chemical weapons.

That’s why the president has twice struck in Syria after the Assad regime used chemical weapons.

RADDATZ: Is Assad remaining in power an acceptable – an acceptable outcome for the U.S. now?

BOLTON: Look, the – the interest that we’re pursuing in Syria and in Iraq is the final destruction of the ISIS territorial caliphate, dealing with the ISIS territorial threat and – and getting Iran back into – getting its forces back into its own territory.'

That’s what we’re focused on, we’re obviously concerned about a number of things including humanitarian situation in the region. We’ll be discussing that here in Israel and – and with the Russians in Geneva.

—Aug. 19, 2018, in an interview with ABC News


Q: What will major economic sanctions do against the Iranian regime?

Bolton: Well when they come back into effect tonight, we’ve really already seen some of the implications. The pressure on the Iranian economy is significant, the value of the currency is going through the floor, we’ve seen public reporting of massive flights of capital out of Iran, the elites are getting nervous, we continue to see demonstrations and riots in cities and towns all around Iran showing the dissatisfaction the people feel because of the strained economy. More sanctions come back in in another 90 days. But this is an indication of how strongly we feel that the Iranian nuclear weapons program, its ballistic missile program, its support for terrorism, its belligerent activity in the Middle East have to stop.

Q: I know how you feel about this regime so let’s call it what it is. You’re trying to break the regimes back economically, are you not?

Bolton: Well our policy is not regime change but we want to put unprecedented pressure on the government of Iran to change its behavior. And so far they’ve shown no indication they’re prepared to do that. The president has made it clear repeatedly that he viewed the Iran nuclear deal as one of the worst in American diplomatic history, I thought he was right on target on that. We are not going to allow Iran to get nuclear weapons… 

Q: Well you can say, and you can argue that you don’t want regime change, but you know the protests that have been happening over the weekend have gotten rather intense. And they’re not protesting America; they’re protesting their own rulers and leaders today. [And with good reason]. Understood, make the case. What do you know about these protests today that we need to understand?

Bolton: Well look we know basically what we’re seeing in the press, that these are widespread, that they’re spontaneous, they’re not coordinating, they’re not due to the reimposition of American sanctions. They reflect long-standing opposition inside Iran to the regime to the economic deprivation to the repression to the religious intolerance. I think this regime is on very shaky ground. The real question is whether the revolutionary guards corps and the ayatollahs will use force against their own people. But what we’re focused on is the nuclear weapons program, the ballistic missiles, the support for terrorism, and the belligerent activity militarily.

Q: So the phrase was maximum economic pressure, from the president. Do you admit that you’re using the strength of the American economy right now as a weapon, globally? Maybe in Iran, maybe in North Korea? Would you agree with that framing?

Bolton: Well I think we’re using the economic system we have and its strength to put pressure on these rogue regimes. They’re the ones that have been defying their own commitments and obligations, the unanimous decisions of the UN Security Council that they not get deliverable nuclear weapons. It has not impressed the ayatollahs, I think we’re gonna make them see the light.

Q: Okay, what would satisfy this administration? What could the leaders of Iran do?

Bolton: Well they could take up the president’s offer to negotiate with them, to give up their ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs fully and really verifiably, not under the onerous terms of the Iran nuclear deal, which really are not satisfactory. To stop their support for international terrorism, to give up their military activities in the regime. You know this is a complete package. The president has spoken to numerous European leaders about this. If Iran were really serious, they’d come to the table. We’ll find out whether they are or not. 

Q: That’s a big ask, I think you’d admit that, right? And this is a complete reversal of American policy.

Bolton: It is certainly a 180-degree reversal from the failed Obama administration, absolutely.

Q: The president last week said he would sit down and talk with Iranian leadership, is that real? Or how real is it?

Bolton: I think he was very serious about it. If the ayatollahs want to get out from under the squeeze they should come and sit down. The pressure will not relent while the negotiations go on, much as in the case of the maximum pressure campaign against North Korea --

Q: Well has Tehran suggested that they would talk to President Trump?

Bolton: No, they flatly turned him down and I think that’s an indication they’re not serious about stopping their malign behavior. I think this regime is dedicated to getting deliverable nuclear weapons, they have been for 25 years, and I don’t think the Iran nuclear deal slowed them down at all.

Q: Can you isolate these European countries and companies, that are right now forced to make a decision, do they do business with Iran or do they side with you?

Bolton: Well you know we’ve been in continuous discussion with our friends in Europe about this, and while some of the governments still want to adhere to the nuclear deal, their companies are running from it. The amount of business they’re doing in Iran is down substantially, that’s a real contributing factor to the pressure on Iran. Because the business people know, they want to do business with the United States. And if it’s a choice between us or Iran, that’s a pretty easy choice for them. That’s pressure their own governments in Europe are beginning to feel.

Q: Okay the way I understand it, you will put on more sanctions in another 90 days or so? I believe that’s the oil? Perhaps in early November if I’m right on the calendar? There was the threat they would block the Strait of Hormuz, I guess it’s always real… Real or imagined. Do you believe the Iranian leadership would act on that in that crucial choke point there, between Iran and…

Bolton: Well the Iranian leadership has made a lot mistakes in the past several years. Trying to close the Strait of Hormuz would be the worst mistake yet. [Do you believe it to be real?] I don’t think that they’re serious about it, I think they’re still bluffing. But they should not underestimate our determination that we’re going to put pressure on them until they give up their pursuit of nuclear weapons, and all the other activities that I mentioned. That we are very serious about.

—Aug. 6 2018, in an interview on Fox News



"I think we have inadequate information on the nuclear weapons program now. So the real answer to your question is, we don't know. Since we don't know where they are now, we won't know where they are for sure in the near future.

But I will tell you, if you look at the advances that Iran has made under cover of this agreement, its conventional military and terrorist advances, in Iraq, in Syria, in Lebanon, in Yemen, since 2015, Iran was really on the march. They were shifting the balance of power in the Middle East until President Trump got out of this deal."

—May 13, 2018, in an interview with Martha Raddatz from ABC's "This Week" 



“President Trump acted prudently. He spent more than a year studying the deal, soliciting information and assessments from within his administration, and consulting with our allies. He decided that this deal actually undermines the security of the American people he swore to protect and, accordingly, ended U.S. participation in it. This action reversed an ill- ­advised and dangerous policy and set us on a new course that will address the aggressive and hostile behavior of our enemies, while enhancing our ties with partners and allies.”

—May 9, 2018, in an op-ed for The Washington Post


Pre-Appointment Remarks

“This deal is not a treaty, but in treaties often there's a provision for a 90-day or 180-day notice of withdrawal. That, in effect, is what he served today. Because the idea that Congress and Europe can somehow change the deal in a way that satisfies the president's concerns is simply not going to happen. There's a small complication here. Iran is part of the deal, and they have to agree to it. Believe me, they're not going to do it.”

“I think the president has to say that this deal remains a strategic mistake for the United States, it was a bad deal when we entered into it, it's a bad deal today, we should get out of it. I think there's been far too much debate over whether Iran is in violation of the deal.”

“The alternative policy is regime change in Iran. The people rose at the end of December. That protest is over. But they crossed a red line in Iran, too, by calling for the death of the Ayatollah Khamenei for the overthrow of the regime itself. Widespread across Iran. I think this regime is weak.”

—Jan. 13, 2017, on Fox News “Journal Editorial Report” in reaction to President Trump’s pledge to withdraw from the nuclear deal if the United States and European partners cannot agree to changes to the agreement



“The outcome of the president’s policy review should be to determine that the Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1979 Revolution will not last until its 40th birthday. Now the fact is, that the Tehran regime is the central problem in the Middle East.

“There’s no fundamental difference between the Ayatollah Khamenei and President Rouhani, they’re two side of the same coin. I remember when Rouhani was the regime’s chief nuclear negotiator – you couldn’t trust him then, you can’t trust him today. And it’s clear that the regime’s behavior is only getting worse: their continued violations of the agreement [JCPOA], their work with North Korea on nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, only continues to grow.

“The regime has failed internationally, it has failed domestically in economics and politics. Indeed, its time of weakening is only accelerating. And that’s why the changed circumstances in the United States [President Trump’s election], I think throughout Europe, and here today are so important. There is a viable opposition to the rule of the ayatollahs, and that opposition is centered in this room today. I have said for over ten years since coming to these events that the declared policy of the United States of America should be the overthrow of the mullahs’ regime in Tehran! The behavior and objectives of the regime are not going to change, and therefore the only solution is to change the regime itself. And that’s why, before 2019, we here will celebrate in Tehran! Thank you very much!”

—July 1, 2017, speaking at the National Council of Resistance of Iran’s "Free Iran Gathering" in Paris



“There’s so much we don’t know about activity in Iran that for president Obama to say that [“If Iran cheats, we’ll know about it”] really he had to be consciously deceiving the American people. We know that we never got a baseline description of Iran’s nuclear-military related activities. They said ‘we never had a military program’ when everybody else in the rest of the world believes that they did. So the idea that we’ve got enhanced inspection internationally is totally false, and because our intelligence inside Iran is, I’ll put it this way, far from perfect, there’s every reason to think that they’re either violating it in locations we don’t know about inside Iran, or quite likely in North Korea, another place our intelligence is not great.”

—March 5, 2018, speaking to Fox Business


“My preference, and I’ve said this all along, is that we just oughta [ought to] abrogate the deal and get out of it.”

“This deal doesn’t mean a thing to the Iranians, and the very fact we’ve gone through this negotiation shows they can’t be trusted. People seem to have forgotten, starting with John Kerry, not to mention the Europeans, that Iran is a party to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty where they solemnly pledged never to seek or acquire nuclear weapons. They’ve been violating the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty…”

—Oct. 13, 2017, speaking to Fox News



“The United States and Israel must also avoid the latest snare set by the Europeans, who are desperately seeking to prevent the Trump administration from doing what Trump has repeatedly said he wants to do, namely exiting the failed Iranian nuclear deal.”

“Israel, of course, will welcome the withdrawal, but there must be diplomatic preparation both for such an announcement and the West’s follow-up actions that will make clear that denuclearization is Iran’s only way forward.”

—Jan. 24, 2018, in an op-ed published by The Hill


“Most important, there is no evidence Iran’s intention to obtain deliverable nuclear weapons has wavered. None of the proposed “fixes” change this basic, unanswerable reality. Spending the next 120 days negotiating with ourselves will leave the West mired in stasis. Mr. Trump correctly sees Mr. Obama’s deal as a massive strategic blunder, but his advisers have inexplicably persuaded him not to withdraw. Last fall, deciding whether to reimpose sanctions and decertify the deal under the Corker‑Cardin legislation, the administration also opted to keep the door open to “fixes”—a punt on third down. Let’s hope Friday’s decision is not another punt.”

“Tehran’s rulers are far more unpopular than previously believed. Like many seemingly impregnable authoritarian regimes, the facade belies the reality. Iran’s opposition needs external support, material as well as rhetorical, to continue its momentum. It would be tragic not to torque up the economic pressure by reactivating all sanctions now under waiver, and adding more.

“America’s declared policy should be ending Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution before its 40th anniversary. Arab states would remain silent, but they would welcome this approach and might even help finance it. Israel can also remain silent but pressure Iran’s forces, as well as its clients, in Lebanon and Syria, to maximize the stress on Iran’s security assets.”

—Jan. 15, 2018, in an op-ed published by The Wall Street Journal



“Some say that trashing the deal will spur Iran to accelerate its nuclear-weapons program to rush across the finish line. Of course, before the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action], Iran was already party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which barred it from seeking or possessing nuclear weapons, but which it systematically violated. … Burying Iran in paper will not stop its nuclear program.”

“Nor will abrogating the deal somehow induce Iran to become more threatening in the Middle East or in supporting global terrorism than it already is with the JCPOA in force. Consider Tehran’s belligerent behavior in the Persian Gulf, its nearly successful effort to create an arc of control from Iran through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon, threatening Israel, Jordan and the Arabian Peninsula, and its continued role as the world’s central banker of international terrorism. The real issue is how much worse Iran’s behavior will be once it gets deliverable nuclear weapons.”

—Oct. 9, 2017, in an op-ed published in The Hill


“These protests [in December 2017 and January 2018 over economic grievances and corruption] are about whether the regime survives, or not. And that makes them much more threatening to the ayatollahs, much more dangerous, and raises the stakes considerably. I think President Trump has already signaled a huge difference from the Obama administration by supporting the protesters, but I think we need to do more. We do not want to make the same mistake that America made before in 1956, calling opposition out in Hungary and standing by watching while Soviet tanks crushed the opposition, after defeating Saddam Hussein in 1991 we called for that regime to be overthrown and stood by where Saddam massacred other Iraqis.

“So I think we do need to provide assistance, I think we can do it in several ways. Number one, this is yet another reason why the president should get out of the nuclear deal with Iran, should resume all of our previous sanctions, putting increased economic pressure on the regime. We should provide material, financial support to the opposition, if they desire it. We should work with intelligence services from other countries, Saudi, Israel, to provide more pressure. There’s a lot we can do and we should do it. Our goal should be regime change in Iran.”

—Jan. 1, 2018, speaking to Fox News


“The inescapable conclusion is that Iran will not negotiate away its nuclear program. Nor will sanctions block its building a broad and deep weapons infrastructure. The inconvenient truth is that only military action like Israel’s 1981 attack on Saddam Hussein’s Osirak reactor in Iraq or its 2007 destruction of a Syrian reactor, designed and built by North Korea, can accomplish what is required. Time is terribly short, but a strike can still succeed.”

“The United States could do a thorough job of destruction, but Israel alone can do what’s necessary. Such action should be combined with vigorous American support for Iran’s opposition, aimed at regime change in Tehran.”

—March 26, 2015, in an op-ed titled “To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran” in The New York Times


“Mrs. Rajavi’s [leader of the Mujahedin-e Khalq] position is exactly the right position. Because an Iran with nuclear weapons will be a less secure Iran. If this regime gets nuclear weapons, you can count on Saudi Arabia getting nuclear weapons, Egypt getting nuclear weapons, Turkey getting nuclear weapons, perhaps others getting nuclear weapons. So, in a very brief period of time, five to 10 years, you could have a multipolar nuclear Middle East that will make everybody less secure, and particularly Iran. This is why it’s so important that we support the democratic opposition in Iran to see regime change at the earliest possible date.”

—June 2010, speaking at a National Council of Resistance of Iran/People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran rally in Paris


Homepage photo credit: John R. Bolton 2017 by Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America (John Bolton) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons