Trump Won’t Punish Allies for Buying Iranian Oil Despite Sanctions

National Security Advisor John Bolton said Wednesday that the Trump administration is unlikely to impose harsh punishments on American allies who continue to buy Iranian oil after new sanctions are imposed on November 5.

The November sanctions, the second round after the first set was imposed in August, directly target Iran’s oil, shipping and central bank and promises financial retribution on any person or institution that engages with Iran in these areas.

The sanctions are part of the administration’s strategy of “maximum pressure” to economically squeeze Iran and force it to a negotiating position in hopes of ending Iran’s nuclear ambitions and its terrorist acts, both directly and through proxies. Yet without readily available oil alternatives for some allies, Bolton stressed the difficulty in stopping all Iranian exports.

“We want to achieve maximum pressure but we don’t want to harm friends and allies either and we’re working our way through that,” Bolton said, addressing a Washington D.C. event hosted by a non-profit society for students focusing on foreign policy and diplomacy.

His comments highlight the delicate balance that the Trump administration currently faces in a number of different arenas where allies are engaged in adverse acts. On Tuesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called out Saudi Arabia in the Department’s plea for an end to hostilities in Yemen, a sign of growing tension following the Saudi murder conspiracy of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Bolton made his remarks during a Q&A hosted by the Alexander Hamilton Society, which was billed as a reflection on the administration’s national security strategy.

The Trump advisor, who just returned from a 10-day trip to Russia and the Caucuses, noted that some of the countries on his tour — particularly Azerbaijan and Armenia — are U.S. allies that border Iran and are unlikely to stop oil purchases by the November 4 deadline.

“The President said unmistakably our goal is maximum pressure and it would be to drive Iranian oil exports to zero,” he said. “We understand obviously a number of countries, some immediately surrounding Iran, some which I just visited last week, others have been purchasing oil, may not be able to go all the way to zero immediately.”

Despite the expected setback, Bolton said Wednesday the effect of the August sanctions have already borne fruit and that Iranian crude oil purchases have decreased in China and European businesses are “fleeing the Iranian market.”  

The recent foiling of Iranian assassination plots in Europe — in France last June and Denmark on Tuesday — is further evidence the regime has not changed its maligned behavior since the signing of the Iranian nuclear deal in 2015, Bolton said.  

“I think people understand there has to be fundamental change in the behavior of the Iranian regime to get them back to the [negotiating] table.”

National Security Advisor Bolton, who took over from former advisor H.R. McMaster in April, also touted the administration’s intent to pull out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty with Russia as the second most important policy achievement of his time at the White House.

“Getting out of the Iran nuclear deal, getting out of the INF, number three to be determined,” he said of his top areas of focus.

The INF, signed in 1987, was meant to eliminate all short- and medium-range nuclear and conventional missiles. Bolton said it was the view of both the Trump administration and the previous Obama administration that the Russians had violated the treaty for years.

No date for the U.S. withdrawal from the treaty has been set, but Bolton had earlier remarked in a press conference in Moscow that he had raised the issue with Russian President Vladimir Putin and his National Security counterparts.

President Trump and President Putin are expected to meet in Paris at the armistice day celebrations on November 11. Bolton said the meeting will likely be “brief”, with the two men discussing the INF treaty, arms control issues and Russian “behavior in the Middle East, in a whole range of other areas. It’s important we continue conversations.”

Ahead of mid-term elections in the U.S. next week and fears of Russian meddling, Bolton said that U.S. security agencies are “right now undertaking offensive cyber operations in connection with defending the integrity of our electoral process.”

“We can respond to the cyber attack with a non-cyber retaliation… Our adversaries better know that and they better understand it,” he said.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article referred to the Alexander Hamilton Society as a think-tank when it is a non-profit.

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