| A Few Minutes With |

The Source Is in Tehran

 A few minutes with John Bolton: “Until Iran pays a price, there’s no chance for security in the region”

Photo: AP Images

John Bolton has long been an outspoken conservative voice in American foreign policy, going all the way back to the Reagan administration. He served as the US ambassador to the United Nations during the administration of President George W. Bush, and was later the national security advisor to President Donald Trump.
Bolton has never been shy about expressing his antipathy for the Islamic Republic of Iran. His forthright opposition to the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, aka the “Iran nuclear deal”) negotiated by the Obama administration in 2015 eventually pushed Trump to withdraw from the agreement.
Bolton remains strident in calling for regime change in Tehran, and advocates direct military action against the ayatollahs — whether that action is taken by the US, or by Israel.
“A lot of people don’t like that conclusion,” he tells Mishpacha. “But I think it follows inexorably from the strategic logic we face.”
Bolton sat with Mishpacha for a conversation that ranged from how President Biden’s foreign policy is faring to how Israel advocates can better make their case.


What do you think about President Biden’s role in Israel’s war on Hamas? Prime Minister Netanyahu ceded a lot of decision-making to the Americans in the war. Is Biden’s vision for the region sound?

First of all, I think there’s an increasing split between the war cabinet in Jerusalem and the White House, notwithstanding Netanyahu’s political difficulties. This is my impression from the outside. Israel remains united in achieving the objective of eliminating Hamas as a military and political force. And if you don’t eliminate it, it’s going to come back to haunt you later.

What happened on October 7 is a terrible tragedy. It’s a tragedy that Hamas still holds over 120 hostages, and the security situation in the West Bank remains very difficult. But if Israel doesn’t carry through on its word with respect to Hamas, Iran will take that as a signal that it can apply pressure through the other terrorist groups.

And it’s amazing to me that after all this time, the White House answer to the current instability in the region is the two-state solution. I mean, this solution isn’t going to work. I think the two-state idea has been dead for a long time. But in the midst of this conflagration across the Middle East, to say we’re going to resolve the entire Arab-Israeli problem with the two-state solution just makes it even harder to get there.

The fact is that what happened with the Abraham Accords reflects the tectonic strategic shift in the region. The Gulf Arabs realized that they had a closer strategic alignment with Israel than they did with anybody else. They both saw Iran as the principal problem. That isn’t going to change.

And what’s happening now with Hamas is not an Arab-Israeli war. It’s not a war of the Palestinians against Israel. It’s a war of Iran against Israel.

We already see Iran’s direct involvement in everything going on around the Middle East — with Hamas, Hezbollah, the Houthis… Should Israel cut off the head of the snake? In other words, attack Iran directly?

I don’t think there’s any question. What is playing out now, and has been since October 7, is the Iranian “Ring of Fire” strategy around Israel developed by Qassem Soleimani, the former head of the Quds Force. We can say pretty clearly that whether it’s Hamas, or the Houthis, or Hezbollah, or the militia groups in Iraq and Syria — they are proxies for Iran.

Right now, Hamas is paying a pretty significant price. The Houthis haven’t paid much of a price at all, the Shia militia groups in Iraq haven’t paid much of a price, Hezbollah hasn’t paid any price. So even the proxies are not being deterred. And ultimately, I think, until Iran itself begins to pay a price, there’s no chance for security in the region. People don’t like that, they say it would escalate the war, make it a wider war.

A wider war is what started on October 7. People have to understand that.

It sounds like you’re saying that Israel has no other option but to attack Iran directly.

Look, I think the whole Middle East will not get peace and security until the regime changes in Tehran. I think that’s the bottom line. And I think that as long as Iran still aspires to nuclear weapons, we’re all in danger. And there’s no indication they’ve changed that. So you know, you can either deal with the symptoms of the problem, or you can deal with the problem, as Alexander Haig used to say. Go to the source, and the source is in Tehran.

Just take it from the US point of view: The Houthis have closed traffic in the Red Sea. The militias in Iraq have made over 150 attacks against American positions there. And so far, we’ve struck the Houthis, but we haven’t stopped them from attacking us in the Red Sea. We’ve had some small attacks in response to the militias in Syria, and Iraq. But their attacks [on us] continue.

Why? Because from Iran’s point of view, these groups are expendable. And until Iran itself feels some pain, the attacks will continue.

With Israel, meanwhile, America is exerting pressure to allow more humanitarian aid into Gaza and simultaneously to wind up the war on Hamas. Does the Biden administration not understand how those goals go against Israel’s interests?

No, I don’t think they understand that. And I think, you know, one lesson learned for Israel here, and for the United States, is how effective the Iranian pro-Palestinian PR campaign around the world has been. People have been able to portray this somehow as Israel being the aggressor, rather than Hamas. They’re not appreciating that it’s Hamas that is brutally and cynically exposing the residents of Gaza to what’s happening militarily, to use them as human shields. And that when assistance comes in and gets diverted by Hamas, that is what’s hurting the Gazans, not Israeli resistance to the aid coming in.

You know, American humanitarian aid began in World War I, with Herbert Hoover’s campaign for relief in Belgium. And one of the basic principles was, “We don’t allow the parties to the conflict to distribute the aid, we do it ourselves.” And number two, “We make sure that none of the aid is diverted to any of the combatants.” That’s basic to American aid principles, going back literally a century. And yet the Biden administration doesn’t seem to understand that in the context of Gaza.

A lot of voices in America are condemning Israel for recklessly killing civilians in Gaza — a charge that the US somehow avoided in its war in Afghanistan. Is there a double standard at work here?

I think there is. I mean, number one, the distinction of a civilian versus a terrorist is hard to see. In real life, the terrorists don’t wear uniforms, they don’t carry badges. And a lot of people support Hamas and its terrorist activities without necessarily carrying a gun. So who’s Hamas and who’s a civilian is a judgment call.

When Israel hits a military target, it has to make a proportionality judgment — that the military value of the target outweighs potential collateral damage, including civilian casualties. I know from my own experience that the Israeli military makes those decisions all the time, following the same standards the American military does. If somebody’s got evidence that Israel violated those standards, let’s hear it.

But nobody’s come up with that. They’ve simply said there are a lot of people dying. You know, the Palestinian health ministry, run by Hamas, comes up with statistics. They also said it was an Israeli rocket that hit that hospital in the early days of the war and killed 500 people, when really it was a failed Hamas missile and it probably killed around 100. So, you know, credibility here is open to question.

But the real responsibility for civilian casualties lies with Hamas, which itself violates the law of war by exposing civilians to danger, unnecessarily. It’s not Israel that’s tried to lump terrorist and civilians together. It’s Hamas.

Israel garnered world sympathy in the immediate aftermath of October 7, and everyone seemed to understand Israel’s strategic imperative in Gaza. But now that sympathy has seemingly given way to a fear that Israel is going too far in trying to root out Hamas. Has the world forgotten the horrors of October 7?

Well, I think that’s right. In Jewish communities outside of Israel, and for many people across the West, what happened on October 7 was the beginning of a second Holocaust. And it’s entirely legitimate for Israel, as the target, to respond in self-defense. And not just to respond up to the level of casualties that Israel suffered on October 7, but to eliminate the threat. You don’t have to live with the terrorist threat. And for people not to be willing to acknowledge that, really, is a way of undercutting Israel’s right to exist. It’s a de-legitimizing approach to say you can defend yourselves, but only a little bit.

The evidence of what happened on October 7 was so shocking that nobody could believe that somehow the Gazans and Hamas would be able to establish moral equivalency. But don’t forget, the UNRWA operatives in Gaza are overwhelmingly Palestinian, and the UN itself has obviously been a source of anti-Israel feeling for a long time. Many of the NGOs that work in Gaza have have succumbed to what the State Department calls “clientitis” — they think they represent the Gazans themselves.

There’s no rest in the struggle. Certainly the mullahs in Tehran are not resting, and to try and overcome the presumption against Israel, which is what you’re facing, you have to rebut it with facts. And then, having done it once, you need to do it again and again. That may not be fair, but it’s the reality we face.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 997)

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