Bolton says US rejected halting Iran sanctions for rollback in Syria

Trump’s top security aide says US goal is removal of all Iranian troops from country, but cautions ‘it is far from easy to achieve’

US National Security Adviser John Bolton gives a press conference after a meeting with his Russian counterpart at the US mission in Geneva on August 23, 2018. (AFP Photo/Fabrice Coffrini)
US National Security Adviser John Bolton gives a press conference after a meeting with his Russian counterpart at the US mission in Geneva on August 23, 2018. (AFP Photo/Fabrice Coffrini)

US President Donald Trump’s national security adviser on Thursday said the White House had rejected a Russian proposal to put off sanctions on Iran’s oil sector in exchange for a rollback of Iranian forces in Syria, despite Israeli calls for an immediate withdrawal.

John Bolton’s comments to reporters came after a meeting in Geneva with his Russian counterpart, Nikolai Patrushev.

“Patrushev brought up the suggestion that the Russians made previously to Israel, France and Germany about the geographic constriction of Iranian forces in exchange for the United States suspending the imposition of the oil sanctions now set for early November,” Bolton said.

“That was a suggestion we had rejected before and rejected it again today,” he added.

Bolton did not say when the proposal was initially made nor whether Israel, France, or Germany voiced support for the offer.

Fresh US sanctions on Iran’s oil and banking sectors are set to come into force in November as part of Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal meant to limit the Iranian nuclear program. A first batch of sanctions targeting Iran’s automotive industry and trade in gold and precious metals took effect earlier this month.

“The sanctions are coming back into effect. That’s clear,” Bolton said.

An Iranian oil worker rides his bicycle near an oil refinery south of the capital, Tehran, December 22, 2014. (AP/Vahid Salemi)

When Trump announced in May he would pull the US out of the nuclear deal and reimpose sanctions, he cited Iran’s support for armed groups and military involvement in countries in the Middle East as one of the reasons.

Bolton’s meeting with his Russian counterpart was a follow-up to Trump’s summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki last month, when both leaders expressed their commitment to Israel’s security and securing its border with Syria. A White House official told Reuters last week that Trump and Putin agreed on the need to remove Iranian forces from Syria during their meeting.

“Our objective is that all Iranian forces return to Iran. Now that would be an objective that I think President Putin would share,” Bolton said, adding that he discussed a number of ways to do so with Patrushev.

Bolton cautioned, though, that “it is far from easy to achieve.”

Speaking to reporters Wednesday at the conclusion of a three-day trip to Israel, Bolton said Putin told the US that his country would like Iranian forces to withdraw from Syria but cannot force them out.

Bolton also said that the Trump administration was not seeking to oust Iran’s leadership with its re-imposition of sanctions on Tehran. “Regime change in Iran is not American policy but what we want is massive change in the regime’s behavior,” he said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, flanked by Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev, meets with the BRICS countries’ senior officials in charge of security matters, at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, on May 26, 2015. (Sergei Karpukhin/Pool Photo via AP)

In an interview published by the Reuters news agency earlier Wednesday, Bolton said that Putin had told US officials that Moscow could not compel the Iranians to cede to such a demand.

“But he also told us that his interest and Iran’s were not exactly the same. So we’re obviously going to talk to him about what role they can play,” Bolton told Reuters.

He did, however, insist that despite Putin’s hesitation, the removal of Iranian troops was a necessary step to end Syria’s bloody civil war that raged for seven years.

“We’re going see what we and others can agree in terms of resolving the conflict in Syria. But the one prerequisite there is the withdrawal of all Iranian forces back in Iran,” Bolton said.

Like Russia, Iran is one of the key military backers of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime.

This file photo provided on Friday Oct. 20, 2017 by the government-controlled Syrian Central Military Media, shows Iran’s army chief of staff Maj. Gen. Mohammad Bagheri, left, looks into binoculars as he visits and other senior officers from the Iranian military a front line in the northern province of Aleppo, Syria. (Syrian Central Military Media, via AP)

Earlier this month, Russia’s top Syria negotiator said his country had convinced the Iranian forces in Syria to withdraw to at least 85 kilometers (53 miles) from the Israeli border, despite Israel’s opposition to Iran’s military presence anywhere in the country.

Israel has called for the removal of Iran-backed forces from all of Syria and has struck Iranian targets in the country to prevent them from setting up a military beachhead that could threaten the Jewish state.

Bolton, in his press conference, called Israeli strikes on Iranian weapon convoys in Syria “a completely legitimate act of self-defense” but would not commit to similar US strikes on Iranian targets to distance their forces from the Israeli border.

While Russia has called for all non-Syrian troops to leave southern Syria, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said last month it is “absolutely unrealistic” to expect a complete Iranian pullout from the country. Iran has said its forces will only leave Syria at Assad’s request.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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