Official transcript from NSA Amb Bolton’s on the record press briefing in Abu Dhabi

 

 

John Bolton:

Thank you all very much for coming out this morning. I’m glad to be here. I’ll be seeing the Crown Prince and Sheikh Tahnoon, who is my opposite number and the Foreign Ministry here a little bit later in the morning. Then I’ll be heading out to London this afternoon to help prepare for the President’s state visit there and then the D-Day celebration.

So here obviously we’re going to talk about the tensions in the region and a series of other elements of the U.S.-UAE bilateral relationship. So why don’t I stop there, and I’d be happy to answer the questions.

 

Nadia Ziyadeh, Embassy Media Officer:

We’re going to go around them one by one. If you’d like to begin?

 

Reuters:

Yes, first of all, Ambassador Bolton could you tell us please what progress has been made on the investigation into the tanker attacks off the coast of Fujairah. I know the UAE was due to release some details soon. I don’t know how much the U.S. has heard on that?

 

John Bolton:

Well, we’ve been involved in it and some of our special operations forces were asked to give their expert opinion. I think it’s clear that these were naval mines, almost certainly from Iran.

I think you have to take that action in connection with the drones fired at the two pumping stations of the Saudi East-West Pipeline and the rocket fired into a park about a kilometer from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad a few days after that.

So we take all of this very seriously. These actions, unfortunately, were consistent with the very serious threat information that we had been obtaining, one reason that we increased our deterrent capability in the region since those three incidents.

And there had also been an unsuccessful attack on the Saudi port of Yanbu, a couple of days before the attack on the tankers, which may or may not had been part of it, so three or four depending on how you look at it.

Since those, there has not been any further actions by Iran or their surrogates in the region that we’re aware of. But we remain very concerned about this, and we want to be as watchful as we can. I think you’re all familiar with the decision that President made at the end of last week to increase force protection capabilities in the region and that’s consistent with our continuing concern over the information that we have.

 

AFP:

Just to confirm that preliminary investigations say that Iran was behind those attacks?

 

John Bolton:

Who else would you think is doing it?

 

AFP:

I don’t know, that’s why I’m asking you.

 

John Bolton:

Somebody from Nepal?

 

AFP:

Okay. Could you tell me by the U.S. beefing up its military presence in the region and sending 1500 – the announcement that they are going to send 1500 troops, how exactly is that going to help fend off Iranian threats?

 

John Bolton:

Well, as I said, it’s a force protection question. One of the major components involves keeping a Patriot battery in the region longer than had been scheduled. That’s – I think – I don’t have the papers in front of me – 600 people right there. How does that help? Because if our troops are protected, it’s less likely that there will be an attack. That’s sort of rational calculation if you follow me, where also we will be bringing in engineering, we will be bringing in capabilities to help harden facilities associated with U.S. and partner military bases here in the region and various other steps that we think will demonstrate that our forces are not vulnerable, our civilian personnel and embassies and consulates in the region are not vulnerable. It’s certainly not as vulnerable as Iran may have thought. So that’s what the purpose of it is.

 

Female Speaker:

Thank you. James?

 

The National:

Hi, I’m James from the National. I’m wondering if you could talk about any concerns that the U.S. has about Shia backed militias in Iraq and popular mobilization forces, especially as the U.S. has interests and forces in Iraq as well?

 

John Bolton:

Well, we’re very concerned about the Quds Force and Qassem Soleimani using Shia militia groups and others in Iraq as indirect ways to attack our embassy in Baghdad or consulate in Erbil, our various bases around the country, and we have made it clear, I think, that we are going to hold the Quds Force responsible if we see attacks, like perhaps the one in Baghdad where the rocket landed on a park about a kilometer away from the embassy, whether that was intended to send a signal or not, we do not know. But we know who sends these rockets into Iraq. We know who trains the Shia militia groups. We know who finances the Shia militia groups. We know who, to a large extent, directs their activities, and we will hold them responsible if they make the mistake of going further.

 

Wall Street Journal:

Yes, I just want to pick up on the investigation point. You said in the past, that you protect your allies in the region. And here we’re seeing Iran essentially attack your allies in the region. So, what will be the U.S. response to that?

 

John Bolton:

Well, I think we have responded in part. But I think overall, we are trying to be prudent and responsible. We gathered evidence about the nature of the attacks on the tankers and the attack on the Saudi pipeline. We have sent additional forces into the region to act as a deterrent, which – knock on wood – has been successful since the round of three attacks that I mentioned earlier. We have increased force protection. So, we are responding and we are consulting more closely with the allies in the region. That is one reason I am here today to discuss what to do next.

 

Financial Times:

Do you think there should be a harder reaction to what you believe to be an attack?

 

John Bolton:

I am sorry, could you say that again?

 

Financial Times:

Do you believe that there should be a harder reaction – rather than a defensive posture, there should be a reaction against the wrong for what it has done of Fujairah?

 

John Bolton:

I obviously support what we have done so far. The point is to make it very clear to Iran and its surrogates that these kinds of actions risk a very strong response from the United States.

 

Male Speaker:

What kind of – what do you mean by very strong response?

 

John Bolton:

I think I have just said what I mean.

 

Bloomberg:

So, basically, there has been a lot made up about differences between you and the President, with the President in Tokyo talking about, you know, wanting a dialogue with the Iranians and that Iran can become a great country with the current leadership. So, a lot has been made about possible differences between you and him. Can you tell us, do you have any differences? And, and if so, you know…

 

John Bolton:

Well, actually, we do not discuss internal administration discussions for the benefit of the press. At least, I don’t, either on the record or off the record. And you know, there are a lot of stories out there. Some are even close to accurate, others are more fantasy. But I have to tell you, my view of all this sort of gossip columnist reporting is summed up by the old saying from Central Asia: “The dogs bark and the caravan moves on.”

 

AP:

I think to go back to the question about Fujairah. We know that Iran does have a history of using naval mines, 1987-1988. But specifically in this incident within Fujairah, what direct evidence has the U.S. seen to tie Iran to this action?

 

John Bolton:

Well, I am not going to get into the specifics. I think, in part, that is something that the ship owners and the countries involved will release at their discretion. But I think there is no doubt in anybody’s mind in Washington who is responsible for this. And I think it’s important that the leadership in Iran know that we know.

 

AP:

And I guess the question is, given that you have had a pretty hawkish view on Iran for years, and you were the one who sent this statement saying that the Lincoln and the B-52s would be heading to the region. There is sort of an open question with some in the region about like, is it more in line with what your desires have been for sort of toppling the government, is it more? Can you kind of walk me through sort of how you divide your previous statements versus, sort of, your position now?

 

John Bolton:

Yes, I haven’t said it in this region before, but now I can say it in this region. I, over the years have written and spoken a lot on about a lot of issues. It’s all out there. It’s all on the public record. I don’t back away from any of it. Those are the positions that I took as a private citizen. Right now, I am a government official. I advise the President. I am the National Security Advisor, not the National Security Decision Maker. So it’s really – it’s up to him to make those decisions.

 

Wall Street Journal:

Yes, if Iran starts stockpiling nuclear material, what might be a U.S. response?

 

John Bolton:

Sorry.

 

Wall Street Journal:

If Iran starts stockpiling nuclear material, what might be the U.S. response?

 

John Bolton:

Well, I think the Iranian decision to announce some weeks ago to break through the limits that – the core limits of the nuclear deal – in terms of the enriched uranium, stockpiles of enriched uranium, stockpiles of heavy water and uranium enriched above reactor-grade levels 3% to 5%. The JCPOA itself says 3.67%. There is no reason for them to do any of that unless that’s part of an effort to reduce the breakout time to produce nuclear weapons. That’s a very serious issue if they continue to do that.

Now, the President has made it very clear that he is happy to negotiate with Iran if they want to talk about it, as he has spoken to Kim Jong-un of North Korea. That is a possibility. The end result, however, is no deliverable nuclear weapons. That remains the policy along with the other elements that were outlined in Secretary of State Pompeo’s speech to the Heritage Foundation last year, just about one year ago, where he listed the 12 conditions that we expect the Iranians to comply with.

 

Reuters:

May I ask one more question. So you have got the U.S. looking to Iran, you have got UAE and Saudi Arabia, could you talk a bit about the differing policies of three countries? I know they are working together, but there is a slight interest in policies coming out with the three countries?

 

John Bolton:

Well, I think what we are trying to do is work with all of our friends and allies to address a common threat. I don’t think is any disagreement on the nature of the threat or the seriousness of the threat.

 

Everybody is in a little bit of a different place geographically, economically, politically, but that’s just customary alliance management. That’s what you do. You have consultations to try to align the policies and see if you can bring it together.

 

AP:

You mentioned the nuclear enrichment in Iran, if they go beyond 3.67 at that, that there is no reason to do that unless it is to reduce the breakout time to nuclear weapons. So if July 7th comes and they decide to go back up to 20% or higher, would you advocate the first strike on enrichment facility? I mean, what do you do in that situation?

 

John Bolton:

Well, the first thing you don’t do is tell them in advance what you are thinking of doing. You know, I think this has been a serious problem that the Europeans are going to have to address. And it goes with the other limits as well. The only reactor that’s really using reactor-grade enriched uranium in Iran is Bushehr.

So, absent other reactors coming online, or reactors planned, or reactors in construction, you have to ask what they need the extra low-enriched uranium for, to begin with. But, that’s part of the overall effort that the President launched when he got out of the nuclear deal to begin with – that it did not constrain Iran. This is just more graphic evidence that it hasn’t constrained their continuing desire to have nuclear weapons. It certainly hasn’t reduced their terrorist activities in the region, as we have just discussed, or their other malign behavior in the use of conventional forces.

 

Female Speaker:

Okay. Unless you want to say anything else that you feel that he is adding?

 

John Bolton:

Anything else?

 

Bloomberg:

What are the, if I may ask, what is the UAE asking the U.S. to do? I mean, on one hand, Gargash had an hour and a half long discussion with reporters, and he stressed throughout that they are not looking forward to the confrontation, this is our backyard, we don’t want this to happen here. In Saudi Arabia the next day, it was a more hawkish message. What are your allies telling you? And are there diverging views between them?

 

John Bolton:

Well, I think in any alliance there are going to be diverging views. Nobody gets up in the morning and gets a directive. I mean, this is something that I think is fairly typical. And one way you keep alliances strong and moving in the same direction is to engage in serious consultations. But in this case, there is no mistake here that we all have the same objective of keeping Iran from getting deliverable nuclear weapons.

As the concern about threats from Iran increases and some of the actions that we have seen them take are very worrying to the UAE, to Saudi Arabia, to all of our friends and allies in the broader region. That just means you have to intensify the consultations to try and keep everybody together. I feel very confident at the moment that we are all on the same page. There are a lot of other disagreements out there. You can’t solve every disagreement at the same time. But in terms of the priority and the risk of an Iran with deliverable nuclear weapons, there is no doubt that’s right at the top of everybody’s agenda.

 

Female Speaker:

Thank you all, very, very much for coming today. If you have additional questions let Nadia know, and she will get them to me.

 

John Bolton:

Okay, thank you very much. {crosstalk}