“I think that the United States has not done as much for the Kurds as it should,” Amb. John Bolton, Donald Trump’s former National Security Council Advisor, told Kurdistan 24, “but over the years, over the past two decades, nobody else has done more for the Kurds.”
Bolton was responding to a question about Iran’s claim that it was the party that protected Erbil from ISIS, when the terrorist organization suddenly emerged in 2014. Bolton, however, dismissed the claim as Iranian “propaganda,” while he described Tehran as the “principal threat to international peace and security in the Middle East.”
Iran: Main Threat to Regional Peace and Security
Bolton, speaking to Kurdistan 24 earlier this week, identified Iran as the issue most likely to represent the biggest change in US Middle East policy, as Joe Biden’s administration takes over from Donald Trump’s. Yet he cautioned that while the Biden team wants to return to 2015, when the Iranian nuclear deal, formally known as the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) was concluded, that will be rather difficult.
Bolton noted that the new administration was still in a period of thinking through its policy, “getting themselves organized,” he said, and “the transition is still not finished.
Bolton’s understanding was borne out when Biden gave his first major address on his administration’s foreign policy at the State Department on Thursday. He said very little about Iran and nothing about the JCPOA. His team is still thinking through its policy.
But the form of new administration’s approach to Iran, and how it emerges, will have very significant “consequences for the Kurds, for Iraq, [and] for the region as a whole,” Bolton stated
Biden’s team believes that a return to the JCPOA “will lead to peace and security in the Middle East as a whole,” Bolton said, but “I think that’s a badly mistaken idea.”
“I don’t think there’s any chance that Iran will back away from its belligerent behavior,” he continued, “and the difficulty it’s caused throughout Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen.”
Bolton also expressed strong skepticism toward prospects for a renewal of the JCPOA, as well as a negative view of the agreement, as it was originally concluded.
“The Iranians have already announced a series of conditions” which “they expect from the United States,” and “I don’t think that will happen,” he said, while the original deal contained a “fatal mistake”: allowing Iran to have any uranium enrichment capability at all, even if that capability was set at the low level of 3.67%. Merely having “the right to enriched reactor grade” uranium gave Iran a “substantial” step toward building a bomb, he said.
Support for Kurdish Independence—or at least distance from Baghdad
Bolton noted Iran’s strong influence in Iraq, suggesting that it was a significant danger to the Kurds.
“I don’t think the government in Baghdad can function any longer as a national government for Iraq,” he stated. “More than before,” Iraq is “under the dominance of Tehran,” while “Iraqi Shi’a militia groups are functioning as elements of instability in non-Shi’a Iraq and across the region.”
“I’ve thought for some time that Iraqi Kurdistan should be independent,” and “I supported the independence referendum,” Bolton stated. And because of Iran’s strong influence in Iraq now, “I think for the security of the Kurdish people, keeping separate from the government in Baghdad is the only prudent course.”
“I know that’s very difficult,” he continued,” but, alluding to the strong support in Congress for the Kurds, he suggested that now was “a time to put heavy emphasis on talking to the American Congress to get them to help persuade the Biden administration that it’s very much in America’s interest to keep the close ties we have with the Kurds.”
Bolton also noted Biden’s time as a senator, when he supported a federal system in Iraq that would have given the Kurds, as well as the Sunni Arabs, a very significant degree of autonomy from Baghdad.
Future of US Presence in Iraq and Syria
The new administration has said little about whether it intends to keep US troops in Iraq and Syria. However, as Bolton noted, “The Biden administration seems to be more reluctant to pull US forces out of Afghanistan than the Trump administration,” so by extension, it might also recognize that withdrawing from Iraq and Syria, could lead to a resurgence of ISIS.
Bolton stressed that it would be a “big mistake” for the US to abandon the “successes that we’ve had in northeastern Syria and elsewhere.”
“There remains enormous support in the United States for the efforts that the Kurds made against ISIS,” he continued, “and it’s important to remind people of the work that we did together.”
Trump’s Flawed View of the Kurds, Disinterest in Middle East
Bolton alluded to the difficulties in advising Trump. There was a lot that Trump seemed not to understand, including “the Kurds and America’s partnership with them to defeat ISIS,” he explained.
Trump’s “interest in the Middle East was pretty limited,” he said, and “consisted mostly of trying to get the United States’ military presence withdrawn”—but, most notably—“without regard to what the consequences would be.”
Bolton clarified that the reason that the US forces remained in northeast Syria, after Trump first moved to remove them, was not to protect the oil. That was merely an argument that the President’s advisors made to counter his impulse to pull them out—in a partial fulfillment of his campaign pledge to end the “forever wars” that have followed the 9/11 attacks—nearly twenty years ago!
Indeed, as Bolton noted, “there was security” in northeastern Syria, “and ISIS had been defeated.”
“So why we would want to get out of it, I never understood,” he said, and “I hope we don’t, until there are larger solutions across the region as a whole.”