Transcript: Ambassador John Bolton Interview on Iran Nuclear Deal

Ambassador John Bolton, former President George W. Bush’s ambassador to the United Nations, did a question and answer with IJReview on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran deal. The interview was conducted on July 17th. The United Nations Security Council voted unanimously in favor of a resolution endorsing the JCPOA on July 20th.

Bolton’s organization, the Foundation for American Security & Freedom, launched a national ad campaign last week against the Iran deal. The ad shows remarks from President Clinton on the nuclear deal he negotiated with North Korea in 1994 along with President Obama’s recent remarks on the Iran accord, suggesting that “we are repeating” history.

This transcript has been lightly edited. IJReview’s questions are in bold, and Bolton’s responses in regular text.

There’s been some speculation that basically if the U.N. Security Council votes on this next week and passes it, and it’s endorsing the deal, then that could be illegal under U.S. law? I wanted to ask you if you have any insight as to whether that could be possible, or what you think of that, because I know the Corker Bill was really designed specifically so Congress could review this before the deal goes through.

Well, I can tell you, I have read the agreement but now I’ve also read the draft Security Council resolution that was circulated, circulated on Wednesday, the day after the announcement of the deal. And it will be voted on, at least as of the last time I looked, and it’s been a couple of hours, but the last time I looked, it’s scheduled to be voted on on Monday morning at 9 o’ clock.

And it will be approved unanimously by the Security Council. I’d be stunned if it were any other way. So that’s going to happen. And that resolution does not itself lift the economic sanctions, but it puts the mechanism in place to do that, and it would constitute approval of the deal. I mean I think the basic problem here is much more fundamental. And that is, that really, over a period of a hundred years, the Senate has allowed its treaty power to atrophy. And studies have shown, and I don’t have the exact figures here in front of me, but my recollection is, that studies that have been done within the past ten years have basically looked at all American international agreements since the end of World War II and have found that approximately 90% of international agreements have been treated as executive agreements and that only 10%, which is what this deal signed in Vienna is, that only 10% are treaties that go through the ratification process.

Now, some of the executive agreements are what are called legislative executive agreements, where there’s House and Senate approval, that’s things like tariff agreements and things like that. But the fact is the Senate’s treaty power has atrophy. Now it’s certainly the case that in a complicated world, you sign a lot of international agreements that would clog the Senate. It wouldn’t do anything else except consider treaties. I’ve been in the government in different capacities. I’ve negotiated lots of executive agreements, hundreds probably. But the fact is that we start the debate on how to handle the Iran agreement with the Senate’s in a very adverse position, having let its treaty power atrophy for so long. And I think that’s why now as the Senate really begins to appreciate what Obama’s doing with this, that, I don’t like what he’s doing with it either, but it may not be the problem of the hundred senators who are there now, but it’s the problem a lot of their predecessors have helped create. So if you really want a fight over this, some senator has got to get up and say ‘okay, I’ve read this whole thing now. And I conclude that this agreement is of sufficient magnitude that it rises to the level of a treaty that ought to be approved by the 2/3 super majority that the Constitution provides.’”

I’m not aware of anybody who’s done that yet.

When this passes Monday theoretically, does that trump U.S. law requiring that Congress review it?

Only a liberal would say that. Because that assumes that there’s some authority in international law higher than the Constitution and I don’t agree with that.

The United Nations can pass all the resolutions it wants, it doesn’t fundamentally affect our inherent right, not only in self defense, but of the sovereignty represented by the Constitution. A Security Council resolution is not superior to the Constitution or to actions that branches of the United States government take under the Constitution.

And, no conservative ought to say anything different than what I just said because otherwise it would create a precedent for the U.N. to do god knows what else. Or other international organizations.

I think there’s a bigger question here that people haven’t focused on and that is with respect to the snapback mechanism for sanctions. The administration has claimed that if Iran violates the deal and pursues nuclear weapons, that they have found a way that the Security Council sanctions would automatically come back into place. And I for a long time didn’t believe that that could be true because I never thought that Russia and China would give up their veto power in the Security Council. But at least on my reading of the deal so far and my reading of this resolution that’s going to be approved on Monday, I think they have found a mechanism where Russia and China cannot veto the reimposition of the sanctions.

In other words, that they have found a way around the Russian and the Chinese vetoes. Now that may sound like a good thing, I think that’s a terrible thing. Because in some other circumstance in the future, somebody’s gonna say, why don’t we employ that same mechanism to avoid the American veto. And I think that’s a huge mistake. Now you say well why would the Obama administration jeopardize America’s veto by setting this precedent and the answer is because the international left has never liked the veto power of the five permanent members of the council. And they particularly don’t like the American veto power. So Obama may well have created a win win situation for himself here. He avoids the Russian and Chinese veto in the context of this deal and weakens the American veto by setting this precedent.

Now when you say there’s a mechanism to getting around the Chinese and Russian veto power, do you know what that mechanism is?

Sure, it’s spelled out in the Vienna agreement. It’s if one of the parties to the agreement believes it has evidence of a violation, it brings it to a commission that the agreement sets up that’s comprised of the people who signed the agreement and their various mechanisms of required consultations and possible advisory panels and so on and so forth that are intended to resolve whether or not there is a violation. And then if the party that has the evidence isn’t satisfied, they can go to the Security Council. And this is what the resolution says, if one of the parties of the agreement believes there is a violation and brings it to the attention of the council, then within 30 days of that period, the council must, must vote on whether to extend the lifting of the sanctions. You with me? They have to vote to extend the lifting of the sanctions.

And if that resolution doesn’t pass then the sanctions come back into effect. So in other words, it looks like, and in fact it does work out, that we can in effect force the sanctions back into effect if we believe Iran is in violation. And the Russians and the Chinese can’t veto that.

So what you’re saying is even though that sounds like a good thing to those who are maybe critical of the deal, or even just worried Iran would cheat, it sets a dangerous precedent for the veto power?

Right, for our veto power. Exactly. And this is why it’s important to understand the theology of the left, which has never liked the veto power. Weakening the American veto power to the left is an entirely good thing and that’s what they’ve done.

I think you know Obama has alluded to it or even said so himself, that the only other option to not having this deal is war, and I want to ask you what you think about that.

Well, he’s created the wrong straw man. The fact is Iran is going to get nuclear weapons under this deal.

You know, if Iran complies with every provision in the deal, it means that it won’t get nuclear weapons for ten years, but then, once the deal wraps up, it is basically free to do it. I don’t think they’re going to wait ten years, I think they’re going to violate the deal. And I think they’re already violating the deal, as they’ve violated every other commitment they’ve made on the nuclear issue since the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

So deal or no deal, the most likely outcome is that Iran gets nuclear weapons. And I think for quite some number of years, 8, 9, maybe more, there’ve been only two possible outcomes. Number 1, Iran gets nuclear weapons or number 2, somebody takes preemptive military action to prevent that from happening. It’s not going to be the United States under Obama, that’s for sure. That’s why the spotlight is on Israel.

But people are kidding themselves if they think the sanctions slowed down the nuclear weapons program. Obama’s own director of national intelligence has testified several times, in public, that the nuclear program has not been negatively affected by the sanctions. Of course Iran wants to be free of the sanctions, who wouldn’t? But they’re not prepared to give up the nuclear program, and they didn’t. They’ve made insignificant temporary, easily reversible concessions on the nuclear program that they can turn around on once the sanctions are lifted and they’re off to the races.

Do you think that the fatwa exists that is always talked about, that Iran doesn’t support or believe, the theology doesn’t support or believe in nuclear weapons?

You’re talking about the so-called fatwa? Yeah, well, they should ask Pakistan which has somewhere between 60 and 200 nuclear weapons and is a Muslim state. So much for that fatwa, the other thing is I don’t know of anybody who’s ever seen the document.

That’s why I asked what you thought of it because no, no one has ever seen it to my knowledge, or at least, nobody, there is no proof of it in writing—

So I would say in that case it’s worth the paper it’s printed on.

Okay, my other question is there’s the argument from those who are supporting the deal that it would be worse not to have it because there’d be no way of even slowing it down. And I know you already said that they’re going to get nuclear weapons under this deal anyway so my question is, what would you say to the people who do say that having the deal is better than not having it at all?

Well, it’s not going to slow them down. What they wanted is freedom from the economic sanctions. They’re going to get that. But there’s nothing in this deal that really slows them down in any material respect. You know, to believe that, you’d have to believe the United States has 100% knowledge today of every nuclear activity Iran has engaged in and two, that we will have 100% knowledge going forward if they violate the deal. And neither of those things is true.

Okay, as for the Additional Protocol, I know in the April agreement it said that it was permanent that Iran had to adhere to it for the IAEA. And under the Vienna agreement it says that they’re adhering to it provisionally, and from—-

They’ve said that for 12 years.

They haven’t adhered to it provisionally. And other than the next 4 or 5 months, when they want, you know, they’re going to be little Miss Goody Two-Shoes in order to get the sanctions lifted, they’re not going to adhere to it then.

Do you think, I know the reason why it says provisionally, what I’m told in the deal, is so the Supreme Leader can ratify it. Well, essentially so their government can ratify it, and really it’s up to the Supreme Leader because it’s an autocratic state. What if he kills the deal? Do you think that’s possible?

I don’t see why he should kill the deal, it’s a wonderful deal from Iran’s point of view.

Okay, because I know he came out and said, and he warned the Iranians that they can’t trust us. I’m just wondering that if something goes wrong, if there is any possibility that they could be the ones to back out?

Well, they have, it’s written in the deal, that if the sanctions come back in whole or in part, Iran will treat that as a material breach of the deal and it will free them from any obligations under the deal to perform. So, yeah, if the deal collapses, they’re going to blame us for imposing sanctions again. If Congress is successful and keeps the American sanctions in place, it would give Iran the right to back out of the deal and blame us.

Now under the agreement, don’t the U.S. sanctions stay in place anyway?

You know, the deal says the administration will do the best it can to get Congressional approval to lift the sanctions and that the administration itself will lift the sanctions, that it can do administratively. So there’s a little ambiguity there. But, you know, the problem is, that most of the sanctions that have been put in place since the taking of the hostages in 1979 have been directed both against Iran’s terrorist activities and its nuclear weapons program.

So, just in my personal opinion, I wouldn’t lift any of these sanctions. If Iran didn’t have a nuclear weapons program, it would still be central banker of international terrorism. And they still should remain under sanctions. That’s why I’d vote in favor of the resolution of disapproval. It can’t stop the deal, it can’t stop the rest of the world from lifting sanctions, but it would keep American sanctions in place.

So that leads me kind of into my next question. I know under this deal, once it’s implemented, the U.N. sanctions will be lifted, and the idea under the deal, is that the U.S. keeps its own sanctions, like you said for terrorism and human rights abuses. But beyond those stipulations, how will they discern between the different sanctions? For example, there are members of the Qods force, like the head of it, Qasem Suleimani, who are designated under multiple sanctions lists.

Well, as I read the deal, he’s off all the sanctions list. That’s what it says.

But I was under the understanding, that he is still under U.S. sanctions for terrorism. Or is that not true?

Well, you know, I’ll go back and read it again. But I think the point is to get him out from under all the sanctions.

That’s why Congress is so upset that they’ve gone beyond nuclear-related sanctions.

You were talking about the Congressional approval, now, I haven’t gotten through the whole deal yet, but from what I understand, there is nothing in the deal that says Congress has to approve it. Now is that true, or were you saying that it does say that there is the Congressional approval element?

I believe there’s some sanctions that the President may not have clear waiver authority on or in any event, he needs to block Congress from eliminating the waiver authority he already has, which is what the Corker-Menendez Bill would do. And everybody knows it’s out there and it’s coming and that’s what he has to exercise his best efforts to prevent. That is to say to sustain the waiver powers that he already has, and then to exercise those waivers, the effect of which is to lift the sanctions.

And I’m just curious, did you see Wendy Sherman’s statement yesterday about waiting for the U.S. Congress?

Yeah, look, these people couldn’t care less about Congress. That’s why if somebody really wants to stand up on their hind legs, they ought to say we think this thing is a treaty and it requires two-thirds Senate approval.

Okay, so you’re saying that would really be an effective route for senators on the Hill for them to try to designate it as a treaty so that they can get their say?

Well, you know, if this can go through as an executive agreement, it’s another brick in the wall of the Senate’s recession from receding from its treaty approval power.

You said that if it goes through as an executive order?

Executive agreement.

I have one final question for you. I know, you know, your ad focused on the North Korea- Iran comparison between President Clinton’s remarks and now President Obama’s this week. Is there anything you want to add to that, as far as, you know this is obviously a little different just because with North Korea we ordered that they dismantle it and now we’re—-

Yeah, this deal is worse. It’s history repeating itself except it’s worse this time.

What do you think?

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