JERUSALEM — The U.S. will aggressively counter Iran’s attempts to carve out an arc of influence that stretches from Tehran to Beirut via Baghdad and Damascus, visiting National Security Advisor John Bolton said Wednesday in Jerusalem.
While Iran was acting as if it has a “free hand in the region,” the power of American sanctions are already having a negative effect on the regime, Mr. Bolton told reporters at the King David Hotel in downtown Jerusalem after a series of meetings with top Israeli officials.
Ending an unusually long four-day visit that began on Sunday, the hawkish White House adviser praised by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as he wrapped up his first trip to Jerusalem in his current position and headed for talks in Ukraine and with Russian officials in Geneva.
During Mr. Bolton’s trip the Justice Department announced that two Iranians, one a dual U.S. citizen, had been arrested in California and charged in connection to spying on Israeli and Iranian dissident institutions. Combined with the arrests of other Iranian agents in Europe who planned to target a gathering of Iranian dissidents in Paris, the arrests “demonstrate as vividly as you can the threat Iran poses in Europe and the U.S. and underlines again the importance of making sure that Iran never gets nuclear weapons,” Mr. Bolton said.
The Israel visit was part of an accelerating pressure U.S. campaign against Tehran since Mr. Trump’s decision to withdraw from the 2015 nuclear deal, a withdrawal strongly backed by Mr. Netanyahu. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the formation of an “Iran Action Group” last week led by aide Brian Hook to coordinate the administrations various attempts to put pressure on Tehran.
Mr. Bolton insisted Wednesday the Trump administration was not seeking regime change in Tehran, but Washington wants to see “massive change in the regime’s behavior,” including a permanent end to Tehran’s nuclear weapons programs, ballistic missile testing, support for terrorist groups, and destabilizing moves in the region.
Mr. Bolton said that the recent economic protests show that ordinary Iranians are “fed up” with the government mismanagement and that sanctions will increase pressure on the regime.
Mr. Bolton said that the U.S. shares Israeli concerns about Iran’s role in Syria, as well as Tehran’s attempt to build up an alliance system linking Shiite allies and proxies in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. He defended recent Israeli airstrikes on suspected Iranian and Iranian-allied forces fighting in Syria in support of President Bashar Assad.
“I think that’s legitimate self-defense,” Mr. Bolton said.
Mr. Bolton was pressed on recent signs Russian President Vladimir Putin may be open to discussing Iran’s presence in Syria with the Trump administration.
“What [Mr. Putin] was saying is that Iranian interests in Syria were not coterminous with Russian interests, and that he would be content to see the Iranian forces all sent back to Iran,” Mr. Bolton said.
Washington has been increasing its diplomatic presence in Syria, recently appointing Jim Jeffrey as representative for Syria engagement and Joel Rayburn as special envoy to the war-torn country, pointing to a longterm U.S. presence in eastern Syria. But that may set up a clash with Moscow, which is backing Syrian President Bashar Assad’s drive to reclaim total control of the country after seven years of brutal civil war.
Analysts here said the extended Bolton visit to Jerusalem shows that Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Trump share similar regional strategies. Mr. Bolton, for example, was careful to sidestep commitments on a proposed comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian peace deal that the White House has long talked about but which Mr. Netanyahu has viewed with suspicion.
While Mr. Bolton was wrapping up his trip, the Associated Press reported that the Israeli government was pressing head with plans to build over 1,000 new homes in West Bank settlements that Palestinians and their supporters say are a major impediment to a final deal. The Civil Administration, the defense body that oversees civilian affairs in the West Bank, said its planning committee had approved a total of 1,015 housing units, the AP reported.
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