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Sarah: Good afternoon. We are particularly honored to have a great American with us. Ambassador Bolton served as the National Security Advisor to President Donald Trump. Mr. Bolton also served as the US Ambassador to the United Nations. He has served in many administrations including that of President Ronald Reagan, President George H.W. Bush, and President George W. Bush. Ambassador Bolton is an attorney by profession. He is the author of three bestselling books, Surrender is Not an Option, How Barack Obama is Endangering our National Security and The Room Where It Happened. Ambassador Bolton has been published widely in practically every major publication including the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Time Magazine, Newsweek, the Washington Times, and the Washington Examiner. He is a frequent guest on Fox and CNN.

Ambassador Bolton received his BA from Yale College where he graduated summa cum laude. He then went on to receive his J.D. from Yale Law School. Ambassador Bolton heads the Foundation for American Security and Freedom, an organization dedicated to the preservation of international US leadership. He also heads the John Bolton PAC, which works to raise the importance of American national security in Federal elections.

Before we discuss Iran, the subject at hand, we should discuss what happened last week at the UN Security Council. Yesterday, you published an excellent article addressing the United States’ capitulation to international pressure. You discussed the difference between Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield’s initial draft resolution and the resolution that eventually passed. Would you like to discuss what happened and what it implies about the impact of international pressure on the United States?

John Bolton: Right. Well, it is a pleasure to be with you. I appreciate the opportunity to talk about these issues. They are critical both for us and for some of our most important friends around the world. The events at the UN Security Council over the past week or so, are a kind of microcosm of what is wrong with the policy of the Biden administration. They also illustrate how the administration is succumbing to international and domestic political pressure.

Over the past few months, the US vetoed three, totally unsatisfactory resolutions in the Security Council. These resolutions called for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza and failed to condemn Hamas for the October 7th attack. They also did not link a ceasefire to the release of the remaining kidnapped victims from October 7th. We all care about the hostages. There is no doubt about it. I will say, however, that I was not in favor of the hostages for the ceasefire deal. I think it gave Hamas a chance to regroup and recover from the initial Israeli retaliation. I question at this point how many hostages are still alive. I think that is one reason Hamas has not been willing to indicate who is still alive. Their refusal to share this information helps reinforce the idea that there are not very many who are still with us.

The Biden White House started off very supportive of Israel. However, they received criticism from the left wing of the Democratic Party and many in the US Muslim community. As a result, they have become increasingly worried about the domestic ramifications of their pro-Israel position. They know Israel needs to eliminate Hamas’ military capability to avoid another October 7th and they still claim to support that goal. However, they are walking a tightrope between what they know Israel needs to do and their response to the argument that Israel, and not Hamas, is causing the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. This argument ignores Hamas’ cynical and brutal use of its people as human shields.

So, last week, as you indicated, the US proposed a resolution. The charitable assessment of the draft resolution is that it included ambiguous language on the linkage between a ceasefire and the release of the hostages. One US diplomat at the UN Mission said, “Countries can read into the language anything they want”. This tells you this is not good language from our point of view or Israel’s. They put forward a resolution that did not expressly link the ceasefire with the release of the hostages. They anticipated it would pass and would satisfy both the domestic political concerns and the international pressure. To their surprise, and I heard this from inside the State Department, Russia and China vetoed the resolution. It was an unexpected humiliation. I think Russia and China did it because they were tired of having their resolutions vetoed. They wanted to show they knew where the veto button was too. The Russian and Chinese actions threw things into disarray. Over the weekend, as often happens, an even worse draft resolution came back. This draft resolution did not link the hostage release with a ceasefire and did not condemn the Hamas October 7th attack. The US abstained. This is a scenario I have seen played out many times at the UN. The US negotiated away their position based on their assumption of the outcome.

The US should have vetoed the draft resolution because of the two deficiencies I mentioned. However, this administration is weak. They were hoping to reduce the pressure they are facing and they were not gutsy enough to veto the resolution. Their abstention will not reduce the pressure. Our adversaries see the weakness inherent in the first draft resolution. They also see the weakness in our subsequent abstention. The administration has given away positions they held for several months and will not get them back. I think more resolutions are coming and this one is not the end of it. It shows what happens when you abandon your principles.

I think the action now shifts to Gaza. We will see whether Israel will pursue the remaining Hamas-organized military forces underground at Rafah. Rafah is really where the battle will be fought, and from where they can extricate any hostages who are still alive.

Sarah: Last week, Kamala Harris pretty much threatened the government of Israel if they do go into Rafah. Do you think the administration can withhold armaments from Israel? I know that Israel is contemplating either fighting a war on two fronts, or dealing with Hezbollah when the war with Hamas is over. This is an existential war for Israel. What are the consequences if Israel does go into Rafah? Are there real consequences?

John: Well, there is an element of risk for Israel in entering Rafah. There are Democrats in the Senate and the House who would be happy to legislate conditions on Israel. However, Israel is pursuing its legitimate right of self-defense. If the Biden administration pushes Israel back, they are succumbing to a veto from a terrorist organization so brutal and barbaric that it does not care about its civilian casualties. If the Biden administration limits Israel’s ability to defend itself, they are effectively allowing Hamas to tell Israel how much self-defense they are entitled to. I think that kind of terrorist veto is unacceptable and I do not think that the Biden administration is going to flip entirely into a pro-Hamas position. I think it is still desperately trying to walk this tightrope.

There is currently a review underway of Israel’s war conduct. This review is still pending in Washington and is the latest of many. Until now, reviews by the embassy in Jerusalem, and in Washington, have found no evidence of Israeli violations of the laws of armed conflict. There is a lot of propaganda out there and we could argue about this for hours. However, no one has provided evidence that Israel deliberately targeted civilian facilities. They also have not provided specific examples of Israel targeting a legitimate military target and failing to make the appropriate proportionality analysis. This means they have not identified specific cases where the importance of the military target does not justify the associated civilian casualties. The casualty figures we are receiving are from Hamas and their health ministry do not differentiate between Hamas terrorists and civilians. Accusations of war crimes against Israel have been noise in the air thus far. Unfortunately, military commanders are forced to make hard decisions in military situations. Sadly, that is what war is about and why we try to avoid war where possible. We will see what the administration says.

To reiterate, I am waiting for somebody to provide specific instances of unacceptable conduct by Israel during this war. I think the conditions the administration imposed, that Israel comply with the law of armed conflict, are the same conditions we put on our forces. We expect the highest standards from our people and we should expect the same from our allies. Absent evidence to the contrary, placing additional conditions on Israel would be inappropriate and I would be surprised if the administration went that far. That being said, I was surprised when Chuck Schumer lectured Israel on how to conduct its elections and I think it was at the behest of the administration, So, the pressure on the war cabinet, and the Netanyahu government from the administration is unbelievable. The pressure the Biden administration feels because of its domestic political difficulties and what it hears internationally is pretty intense too. So, my advice to Israel for what it is worth is, if you are ready to go into Rafah, go. Time is not on your side and not on the side of the hostages.

Sarah: The UN Security Council passed the resolution overwhelmingly, by 14 to zero with an eruption of applause after. The prime minister has decided to cancel the planned trip to Washington. Do you think that was a wise move?

John: Well, I can certainly understand why he did it. The defense minister was already in Washington, and his meetings continued. I think it was the right thing to do. Look, tensions are high and maybe a cooling-off period makes a little bit of sense here.

Israel has had problems in its information warfare since October 7th. I think it is very important not to give up on the information front because the story that Israel can tell is important. It is surprising how well the pro-Hamas propaganda has succeeded. Their success is reflected in the decline in support for Israel in the American body politic, particularly among people under 30. The numbers are stunning. I do not know any other way to put it. I think we are facing a rise of antisemitism in this country that we hoped was behind us. So, notwithstanding the military situation, Israel cannot forget the public diplomacy or information dissemination aspects of the war. At some point, they should identify some very effective people and spokesman-spokeswoman in Israel. They need to get out there and they need to make the case 24/7.

Sarah: Yesterday in the UN Human Rights Council, the special rapporteur for the Palestinian Territories, Francisca Albanese, said that Israel is quote, “On the threshold indicating the commission of the crime of genocide against the Palestinians.” Would you care to comment on this?

John: Well, it is ridiculous, but it is typical of what happens at the UN. I have been at this since the days of the first Bush administration when we repealed the general assembly resolution equating Zionism with racism. We have not eliminated the problem in the UN system. The level of pressure on Israel is very strong. However, that cannot distract from Israel’s legitimate right of self-defense. It does mean those who agree Israel is entitled to self-defense, need to counter this kind of rhetoric and explain it is nothing but Hamas propaganda. The logical result, after allowing loose talk like that of Francisca Albanese, is that somebody proposes another “Zionism is racism” resolution. That’s what follows from this kind of speech.

Sarah: While we are on the subject of the UN and we are speaking of propaganda, can you comment on UNRWA and its relationship with Hamas and the Palestinian authority?

John: Right. I have watched UNRWA in operation since the first Bush administration, if not before. At the moment, UNRWA has a staff of roughly 40,000 people. UNRWA’s employees are around 99% Palestinian. It is a UN agency because it is funded by UN members. However, it is part of the Palestinian government in Gaza and the West Bank. It is the civil government arm of Hamas in Gaza and the civil government arm of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. So, when I hear senators say UNRWA does not collaborate with Hamas, they are incorrect.

How many UNRWA employees engaged in terrorist activity? Well, we know some participated directly and many others collaborated. I think when the story of Gaza comes out, we will see there was enormous support for Hamas from the population. We all remember the pictures of people cheering and applauding when the terrorists returned to Gaza with hostages and jeeps and trucks on October 7th. I have not seen demonstrations against Hamas in Gaza over the years. Part of that is due to repression, that is for sure. But where is the opposition to Hamas in Gaza? It is not coming from UNRWA, I will tell you that.

Since its creation, UNRWA has represented a failure of the UN system. The UN created UNRWA expressly to deal with Palestinian refugees, even though they created the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) shortly thereafter. For 75-plus years, Palestinian refugees have been treated differently from any other refugee population anywhere else in the world. There was some exception in Cambodia which was temporary. In the 50s and 60s, the radical Arab governments, including Nasser in Egypt and others, wanted to use the Palestinian refugees as a wedge to help drive Israel into the sea. Their influence was the reason for UNRWA’s creation.  So, the Palestinians became the only hereditary refugee population in contemporary history. The whole project has been a massive failure and hugely unfair to the Palestinian people. It was not Israel’s doing, it was the doing of the radical Arab states. Now, I think everybody, except the most radical, concede Israel is not going to be driven into the sea. Yet, the Palestinians are still in limbo. My recommendation would be to abolish UNRWA. We should certainly defund UNRWA if the UN continues to be involved in it. The Palestinian refugee issue should fall under the mandate of the UNHCR. The UNHCR has developed a policy for using its mandate to assist and protect refugees worldwide.

Remaining in a refugee camp indefinitely is the worst option for a refugee. Anybody who has been to a refugee camp will know how disheartening it is for the people who live there. They have little opportunity and no control over their futures. Refugee camps are not a place for people to live, and especially not for children who are caught in limbo.

UNHCR’s prescription is to either return refugees to their country of origin or, if that is not possible, resettle them in a third country where they can resume a normal life. That is not forcible resettlement, that is resettlement for the good of the refugee population. We need to be willing to start looking at that approach. It has been applied to every other refugee population in the world. Nobody is picking on Palestinians. The Palestinians have been victimized under the UNRWA approach. The best thing for the Palestinians is to resettle them in a functioning economy. UNRWA is not helping to solve the Palestinian refugee problem, rather it is part of the problem.

Sarah: We know someone whose sister is a banker with Citibank. She makes upward of $200,000 a year. She gets a monthly stipend because her great, great-grandfather was a refugee. It is the most absurd thing in the world.

Ambassador, even before you entered the Trump administration, you were a sharp critic of the JCPOA, the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. I think you were one of the voices in the former White House persuading President Trump to break away from the deal. Now, many people on the left complain that this has enabled the Iranians to go forward with their nuclear weapons. How would you dispel these sorts of criticisms?

John: From the beginning, the problem was the deal itself. It was not simply a question of Iranian violations of the terms of the deal. The provisions of the JCPOA allow Iran to enrich uranium. It purportedly limits enrichment to reactor-grade levels of the U-235 isotope and it also has provisions for inspections and so on. However, the fact is, as a state it had been pursuing nuclear weapons contrary to its solemn treaty obligations. As such, I would not have agreed to anything that allowed Iran to enrich uranium. The Obama administration responded, “Well, but if we do not agree to it, there will not be a deal.” That reveals the fundamental problem. The deal was not the answer. The fundamental question was, are the terms of the deal going to keep Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon? The answer was no.

In America, we still have the bulk of the world’s nuclear technology outside of Russia. Even though our companies are no longer dominant in the nuclear reactor industry, Korean and other foreign companies still rely on American technology. When a country, such as the United Arab Emirates, wants to use American technology to build a nuclear reactor, they have to get a license from the United States government. Our typical policy is to agree to license the technology if the country in question agrees to give up uranium enrichment or plutonium reprocessing capabilities. These are the two ways to get to nuclear weapons. When they accept our provisions, then we license the technology. Acceptance of these provisions is known as the “gold standard.” This standard is designed to prevent nuclear proliferation.

Our friends in the Gulf Arab states and elsewhere, question why the US allows Iran to develop uranium enrichment technology when they are not afforded the same consideration. This makes no sense to them since they are friends of the US while Iran is not. Iran is not a friend of theirs either. Those defending Iran’s sanctioned uranium enrichment program argue it was limited and defined.

There are two objections to that. Firstly, any country with a uranium enrichment program, in addition to civil nuclear reactors and other things, is gaining nuclear expertise every day. They are training more scientists and technicians and increasing their nuclear capabilities daily. Allowing them to increase their capabilities in this way, means we are effectively subsiding their illicit nuclear weapons program. Secondly, it is a mistake to think we know the full measure of what Iran is doing concerning its nuclear program. There are certain locations, such as the Natanz Enrichment facility, and some others that we know about. However, there are other locations where we have very limited accessibility and some locations where we have none at all. We do not know if there is a hidden uranium enrichment facility in Iran. We do not know whether or not Iran has uranium enrichment facilities under mountains in North Korea. We do not know whether or not they have licensed the North Koreans to enrich uranium for them. They may also have enabled the North Koreans to manufacture nuclear warheads and store them in North Korea. We simply do not know everything there is to know about their program.

The proponents of the JCPOA argue the US withdrawal from the deal brought Iran closer to nuclear weapons. This is because they are now able to enrich uranium to higher concentration levels of U-235. I am a lawyer and not a nuclear scientist and the numbers are confusing. Enrichment to reactor-grade levels of U-235, it’s typically 3% to 5%. Enrichment levels for a nuclear weapon are typically 90%. As such, people maintain that a pretty big differential. However, when you enrich to reactor-grade level, you’ve done 70% of the work. When you are at reactor-grade uranium, you have done 70% of the work to get to weapons-grade uranium. From the start, the program that allowed Iran to do this put them very far along the road to nuclear weapons.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) recently complained about being denied access to Iranian facilities. If they had been as candid five or six years ago, people would have understood that Iran was keeping them at a considerable distance. There is much we do not know. There has never been any inspection of Iran’s weapons-related activity. They have never had to declare their prior level of weapons activity. There are fatal flaws in the 2015 agreement and we are seeing the consequences of them today. The JCPOA was never a good idea.

During the Trump presidency, I think we made a mistake by not pursuing regime change after withdrawing from the JCPOA and reimposing sanctions. The imposition of sanctions should have been the first step toward creating a new regime. In my view, regime change has always been the only solution to the Iranian Nuclear Weapons Program. The Trump administration was not willing to go that far. Iran’s terrorism threat and its nuclear program are only going to disappear when the radicals are removed from power. They are still as radical today as they were in 1979, or even more so. Iran is the principal threat to international peace and security in the Middle East.

Sarah: Exactly. On February 12, Ali Akbar-Sala, the former head of Iran’s nuclear agency, appeared in a televised interview. During that interview, he implied Iran has everything it needs for at least one atomic bomb. Is the international community willfully blinding itself to the threat of an Iranian nuclear bomb? I know there are several sunset clauses according to the JCPOA and the resolutions that came out of the UN in 2015. What are the implications of the sunset provisions? What provisions have already reached their sunset date? Is there anything at all we can do about this?

John: As a practical matter, I do not think there is anything we can do because we have allowed Iran to flout the inspection obligations. The agreement itself also never required them to account for their military-related activities. We know North Korea has detonated multiple nuclear devices already and we believe Iran is cooperating with them in this regard. This cooperation with North Korea does not get nearly the attention it should. I am referring not just to their partnership on the nuclear program, but to the ballistic missile program as well. In September 2007, Israel destroyed a reactor in the Syrian desert. That reactor was a clone of North Korea’s nuclear reactor. North Korean personnel helped build it and they were on-site when it was destroyed. The North Koreans did not get to Syria by accident. So, the naivete that dominated the signing of the JCPOA is now coming back to haunt us. There is no question about it.

Sarah: Right. I would like you to discuss what some people call the rule-based international order that was in place post World War II and during the Cold War. During that period, America was the dominant world power. What has happened to erode that? How far have we descended, and is there anything we can do to change it?

John: I think a lot of our problems stem from one of our greatest successes. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, the Warsaw Pact collapsed and communism fell. In the early 1990s, many people across the world believed the Cold War was over and thought we had resolved our international problems. Military budgets, including that of the US, were slashed dramatically. People said, “Well, there is no need to worry anymore” and “It’s the economy stupid and globalization will take care of that.” September 11 was a wake-up call for us on the terrorism front. However, we were still not paying attention to China and its actions around the world. Once we overthrew the Taliban in Afghanistan, killed Osama Bin Laden, and fought ISIS in Iraq and Syria, people thought the terrorist threat had diminished to the point where it was insignificant. During the Obama administration, people talked about pivoting away from the Middle East because it was not as important anymore. They believed the terrorist threats had been virtually eliminated and they had solved the issues relating to Iran’s nuclear program. A similar attitude persists amongst members of both parties today. Unfortunately, we can pivot away from the Middle East, but the Middle East will not pivot away from us. I think the US made a catastrophic decision to withdraw from Afghanistan and the blame is shared by both the Trump and the Biden administrations.

The overall effect has been that the terrorist threat has re-emerged in Afghanistan with ISIS-Khorasan. ISIS-Khorasan was responsible for the attack in Moscow over the weekend and the attack on Iran two months ago. Terrorism has not gone away. On a more global level, we have also seen the recreation of the Sino-Soviet Alliance of Cold War days, this time with China as the dominant partner. We have seen this new axis at work in the war in Ukraine. The axis includes countries like North Korea, Iran, Syria, Belarus, Cuba, Venezuela, and probably others like Nicaragua. So, the idea that we can pivot to worry about China is wrong. If we leave the Middle East, we will likely see Russia, China, and Iran conducting joint naval maneuvers in the Arabian Sea. We already see North Korea selling Russian ammunition, and Iran selling Russian drones to use in Ukraine. The threat is growing again. We see the worst manifestations in Ukraine and the Middle East, but we need a serious debate in the United States.

I cannot predict the outcome of our upcoming election. However, our citizens need to be involved in a serious debate over our role in the world. We need to deal with the growing isolationist sentiment. We need to explain to people that the Reaganite peace-through-strength approach is our best bet. We need to argue that a strong position is a prerequisite for us to preserve our economy and our way of life. We are not working with Israel, Ukraine, NATO, and our Japanese, South Korean, and Australian allies, because we are nice people who are doing them favors. We are engaging internationally because it is in our interest to do so. Collective international engagement allows all involved countries to enhance their self-defense capabilities. If we lose sight of that, we will pay the price down the road. Since the end of the Cold War, American political leaders have not explained clearly to the American people why it is in our interest to engage with the world. We need more leaders who will articulate this clearly. There is a long road ahead, but it is clearly what we need to do.

Sarah: Right. On February 9, you authored a column in the Washington Post titled “Biden’s Middle East problem: Too many competing goals.” In this column, you discussed the many reasons the Biden administration will not confront Iran. Do you think there are any red lines that Iran could cross after which the Biden administration, or even a future Trump administration, would take action against Iran?

John: I think any lines there are quite limited. I think Iran understands there is a risk if it kills more Americans. So, after three Americans were killed some weeks back, Iran dialed down attacks from the Shia militia groups in Iraq and Syria. There have been very few if any, reported attacks from there since that time. That does not mean they have given up on these attacks. It means they probably dialed up the Houthi rheostat to cut off traffic in the Red Sea or dialed up the rheostat on Hezbollah. This is an Iranian war against Israel using terrorist surrogates. It is not a Palestinian war against Israel in Gaza. However, the Biden administration is afraid of a wider war both in Ukraine and in the Middle East.

Russia and Iran know we are worried about the implications of us using our capabilities to defeat Russia in Ukraine or defeat Iran in the Middle East War. We are being deterred by Russia and Iran rather than them being deterred by us. If Iran were foolish enough to attack Israel directly, I would hope Biden would see that as a red line. However, Iran has a much more sophisticated strategy. They use their terrorist surrogates. We responded to the terrorists in Syria and Iraq, and Iran suffered no harm. We responded to the Houthis in the Red Sea, and Iran suffered no harm. On the other hand, they have let us know we are crossing a red line if we strike their territory. Our response has been to avoid crossing their red line. However, we ought to cross their red line and show them we understand Iran is the real man behind the curtain. Unfortunately, I have no confidence the Biden administration will take that step.

Sarah: At this point, the Israeli defense forces have lost over 500 fighters. These Israelis lost their lives fighting the Iranian terror proxies, Hamas and Hezbollah. You wrote in a January 14th article, that October 7th was the opening of the Ring of Fire war against Israel. Can you elaborate on that? Also, please discuss how Israel is the eastern outpost of Western democratic freedoms. Many people in the Middle East consider Israelis as interlopers who do not belong there. How long do you envision this fight to go on? Maybe say a few words to encourage Israel in this very long fight, the longest they have had since the 1948 War of Independence.

John: I think, in addition to Israel, Iran’s Ring of Fire strategy applies to the Gulf Arabs as well. The Gulf Arabs have not addressed this publicly and I wish they would. At the same time, they also have not broken diplomatic relations with Israel. In the case of Saudi Arabia. I think moving toward normalization is still possible at some point in the future. That is because Saudi Arabia understands the threat posed to them by Iran’s two major strategic objectives. Iran’s first objective is hegemony within the Middle Eastern region. Its second is hegemony within the Islamic world as a whole. So, the Ring of Fire is intended to squeeze Israel to such an extent that Iran can achieve both of its major goals. Now, I do not know what Iran’s specific objectives were regarding the Hamas operation, and it may well be that they have misfired. I think they certainly underestimated Israel’s resolve and the extent of its retaliation.

So, the war in Gaza is not necessarily going according to plan for Iran. However, if you are in Tehran and you are cynical enough, you may see these terrorist proxies as expendable. Hamas may not be winning the war, but they have Israel pinned down. They have Israel worried about Hezbollah and they have captured the attention of the world. People in this country say there is no evidence Iran is controlling this chaos. They maintain there was no evidence Iran ordered Hamas to attack on October 7th. I think it is important to understand that we missed the October 7th attack completely. While we have not found the letter saying, “Dear, Mr. Hamas, attack Israel signed by your friend, the Ayatollah Khomeini”, that is not the way any military or political-military alliances work. NATO allies do not provide specific instructions to each other. We do not say Germany, tomorrow you will do X. By the way, France, the day after tomorrow, you will do Y. Rather, NATO alliances involve endless consultations.

I think it is certain Hamas did not wake up one fine morning and say, “I think we will attack Israel and then see what happens.” They anticipated certain results which may or may not have been achieved. As long as Iran itself is not paying any price for the activities of its proxies, it will continue to cause chaos in the area. I think the Biden administration does not appreciate this. The Gulf Arab states, by and large, see the threat from Iran almost the same way Israel does. They too are concerned about both terrorist and nuclear threats. The reason the Abraham Accords were negotiated successfully was because of a tectonic shift in the Arab world. They understood they and Israel had common interests. The leaders on both sides were prepared to sweep away past misconceptions and take advantage of their commonalties. I think the Gulf Arab world today sees the United States as feckless, and they wonder where our strategic sensibilities are. They have more in common with Israel at the moment than they do with the United States.

We should simply allow Israel to continue to exercise its right of self-defense. After October 7th, it is Israel’s right to eliminate Hamas and not simply to respond proportionally to their brutal attacks. When you are threatened and brutally attacked, self-defense means eliminating the threat. During World War II, Winston Churchill said something that can be applied to Israel’s position in this case. He said, “Without victory, there is no survival.” As long as Israel abides by the conduct of war we expect from our soldiers, we should support their right to defend themselves. They are our ally and we should say it clearly. We should not allow others to engage us in negotiations about resolutions that do not recognize Israel’s right to defend herself. What I enjoyed doing most often at the UN, was just saying, “You can negotiate anything you want. I have other things to do. We are going to veto it.”

Sarah: Wonderful. I want to talk to you about the relentless criticism Israel is facing relating to the delivery of humanitarian aid. I know that you know the proper channels for delivering humanitarian aid, and there seem to be some obvious problems in this delivery. Hamas might have something to do with this. Would you like to comment on that?

John: Yeah. Again, this is a story of the incredible success Hamas and its sympathizers have had in manipulating the narrative. The non-governmental organizations in Gaza are so deeply embedded with Hamas that they are simply megaphones for Hamas propaganda. This was the situation even before October 7th and includes UNRWA. When the US first became involved in providing humanitarian assistance, we had very clear rules. These rules were established during World War I with Herbert Hoover’s Committee for Relief in Belgium. Hoover provided aid with two conditions. First, the aid was not to be distributed to combatants. Aid was to be made available to non-combatants only. Second, the aid was to be delivered by neutral parties. At the very least, the delivery of aid was to be monitored to make sure it was not diverted from those for whom it was intended. Those are the two principles under which we have administered humanitarian assistance ever since then. I was at USAID in the beginning of the Reagan administration and those were the terms under which USAID delivered humanitarian assistance in natural disasters and in times of war. I think Israel is simply insisting on those principles. People are complaining that they are trying to ensure the aid is delivered to the appropriate parties and is not diverted by Hamas.

If Hamas is allowed to control the distribution of humanitarian assistance, it will extend its control over the Gazan citizens. We saw this play out with Saddam Hussein and the Oil for Food program in Iraq. There is very clear evidence on that. So, insisting that aid go only to innocent civilians and that it is not controlled by Hamas, is not a violation of humanitarian principles. Rather, it is the expression of humanitarian principles. Herbert Hoover realized there would be more aid for innocents if donors were convinced it was only going to go to the innocent. I see that principle as important for America to uphold, not just in the case of Gaza, but around the world.

Sarah: We are going to turn to the audience for a few questions. Before we do, which organization do you think is most culpable for the situation in Gaza? Is it the World Health Organization? We have seen a lot of collaboration between the International Committee of the Red Cross and Hamas. We have also observed the failure of the International Committee of the Red Cross to get medicines to the hostages. Which organization might serve as an objective independent organization?

John: I am not sure there is one. As I mentioned before, I would start by bringing in the UNHCR to introduce a fresh perspective. It will not solve all the problems in Gaza. They may succumb to the temptation to become advocates for the Palestinians rather than impartial observers. However, I think we are not going to solve any problems with the people who are there now, that is for sure.

Sarah: Okay. It is now my pleasure to turn the podium over to Joseph Epstein, who will read some of the questions that have come in. Joseph…

Joseph Epstein: Thank you, Sarah, and thank you, Ambassador. For over a year, we have heard that Iran is a couple of weeks away from attaining weapons-grade uranium. After that, all the regime needs to do is place the enriched uranium in a warhead and run a nuclear test. Do you think it is inevitable that Iran will reach nuclear proliferation?

John: No, I do not. A lot of this talk about their breakout time is disconnected from reality. The key factor is how many centrifuges the Iranians have. None of the people who talk about it have any idea of what the facts are. Iran’s centrifuges are between 110 and 115 in cascades. If you have one cascade, it’s going to take X amount of time to get to weapons-grade U-235. If you have a hundred cascades, it will take a different amount of time. Similarly, if you have a thousand cascades, the time it takes will be different as well. We do not know how many cascades of centrifuges the Iranians have, because we do not have perfect knowledge about this. People act like they do. I can settle this very quickly. In my view, the amount of time it would take Iran to get a nuclear weapon is about 72 hours. I base this on the following scenario. They send a wire transfer to the Central Bank of North Korea in Pyongyang. Pyongyang puts a nuclear weapon on an airplane and flies it across China to Iran. Bingo – Iran has nuclear weapons. That is how close they are, and that is how close they have been for about the past ten years.

Joseph: Thank you. We have quite a few questions from the audience. What is your opinion on why the Biden administration has not taken a stronger stance on Iran?

John: I think the Biden administration is an outgrowth of the Obama administration, which is an outgrowth of the Clinton administration. Since 1979, that collective group of people, or their predecessors, have been convinced they can persuade the rulers in Tehran that they have no hostile intent. Once they do, sweetness and light will break out and Iran will behave like a civilized nation again. This is a fundamental mistake. Before 1979, Iran was a westernizing, modernizing state. It was not perfect and you do not have to defend the Shah of Iran or his regime to admit it. There were human rights abuses under the Shah but women wore the clothes they wanted to wear and people could choose to worship or not to worship. Religion was not a state-enforced mandate. After 1979, they went back to the Middle Ages. They have remained there and the regime has not moderated.

Recently, there was an article in the Financial Times about the new young radicals who think the Ayatollahs have gone soft. The Iranian regime is not moving closer to accepting the norms we understand and believe in. As long as they are a fundamentally revolutionary regime, they are not going to accept our terms. It is delusional to think that you can negotiate with a regime like that. They have proven that time and time again. Again, I think the top officials of this administration believe they can influence and change the Iranian regime.  I am afraid our policies toward Iran will not change until somebody snaps their fingers and brings them back to reality.

Joseph: Thank you. You mentioned the Iranian youth. Two years ago, we saw massive protests across all of Iran. These protests failed to lead to regime change. I wanted to ask you how secure you think the Iranian regime is right now. How susceptible do you think they are to say, a popular revolution, a coup, or something of that sort?

John: I think the regime is the most unpopular it has been since 1979. What holds it in place is the barrel of the gun. The Revolutionary Guard, the military, and the paramilitary have guns and the people do not. I think the opinion inside Iran is overwhelmingly against the Ayatollahs. I think the moment of vulnerability will come when Ayatollah Khamenei passes from the scene. He is 84 and not very well. The regime does not have a coherent succession plan in place. They have only had one transition from the Ayatollah Khomeini till now. There are several candidates who want to be the supreme leader. I think we should be working with the Iranian opposition and finding ways to shatter the regime at the top. This does not involve the US military or anything like that. This involves helping the people find the cracks in the regime. The regime can come apart when we get closer to that transfer of power. I think that is the moment of opportunity.

Joseph: Thank you. According to Mikhail Zygar, Vladimir Putin was partially inspired to invade Ukraine because of the US’s bungled withdrawal from Afghanistan. Mikhail Zygar quoted senior Kremlin officials in this regard. I wanted to ask what you think the consequences of the current wars in Ukraine and Israel will be in the international community. Do you think that China is looking at these wars when it considers whether or not to make a move on Taiwan?

John: I think the withdrawal from Afghanistan was a catastrophic mistake. I am not referring just to the bungled withdrawal. I am talking about the concept of pulling out from Afghanistan entirely. I do not have any doubt Afghanistan played a role in Putin’s decision to attack Ukraine. I think we have been deterred from helping Ukraine win the war by the constant talk of the threat of escalation into a wider war. I do not know where Putin is going to get troops for a wider war and I think his nuclear threats have been bluster. I do not take them seriously and there is no evidence they were real. I think China also sees us deterred in the Middle East by Iran and the threat of a wider war. So, if I were in Beijing, I would say, “Look, the Americans are in the middle of a divisive presidential election. Their bandwidth is stretched by wars in Central Europe and the Middle East. How can we gain advantages in Taiwan, the South China Sea, and along the border with India?” I think it’s a very dangerous period, and I think it gets more dangerous the closer we get to November. I think what they see is a weak and feckless administration in the White House today and it spells more trouble down the road.

Joseph: Thank you. As you mentioned, it is an election year. Former President Trump has painted himself as a strong man when it comes to issues like Iran and its role in the Middle East. He said that the war in Ukraine and the October 7th attack would not have happened on his watch. At the same time, he has quite the isolationist streak. I am wondering how you think Trump’s presidency would play out for the Middle East.

John: Well, I do not think we know yet. Trump does not have a philosophy. He does not think in policy terms. Rather, he views things transactionally, through the prism of what benefits Donald Trump. Friends of mine, and people I have worked with, think he would remain strongly pro-Israel. I would not count on that. He said recently, “You need to wrap this up. You need to finish this. Israel’s image is being harmed around the world.” That is a signal. He worries that if he has to defend Israel, his image will be harmed around the world. So, he will do what is politically expedient for Donald Trump. Remember, he never faces the electorate again after his second term. So, the political arguments that were sometimes useful in the first term will have less impact this time. I do not know. I just say do not count on Trump being the same supporter of Israel that he seemed to be in the first term.

Sarah: Okay. We are reaching the end of the hour. It was always an honor, privilege, and pleasure to talk to you, Ambassador. I wish that you could run for president of the United States.

John: Well, thank you. I am glad to be with you, and I wish you all the best.

Sarah: Okay. Thank you. Bye-bye.

Joseph: Thank you so much.



About the Author

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Founded in 2005, The Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET) is a Washington, D.C. based think tank and policy center with an unabashedly pro-America and pro-Israel stance. EMET (which means truth in Hebrew) prides itself on challenging the falsehoods and misrepresentations that abound in U.S. Middle East policy.

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