Can the Iranian nuclear deal survive President Trump?

Can the Iranian nuclear deal survive President Trump?

By Luke Vargas   
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“Wake” is a weekly foreign policy broadcast produced by Talk Media News and hosted by Luke Vargas from U.N. Headquarters in New York.

The following is a complete transcript of Episode 18, “The Iran Deal in the Age of Trump.”

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Luke Vargas: When the Iranian nuclear deal was signed two years ago, President Obama hailed the deal as preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, and as a victory for multilateral diplomacy. The deal is technically still in effect, but it’s under siege by President Trump, who’s reportedly eager to find evidence of Iranian non-compliance.

So, will the Iran deal survive President Trump? What happens to the U.S., to Iran if the deal implodes?

We’re taking on those questions next on Wake.

Thanks for joining us. We’re coming to you today from U.N. Headquarters in New York, and we’re looking at the Iranian nuclear deal this week and the likelihood of it holding up during the Trump administration.

Before we get to those questions, let’s rewind just two years to the story of how this deal came together. That’s the subject of a new book called “Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran and the Triumph of Diplomacy.”

It’s author, Trita Parsi is the president of the National Iranian American Council, and he joins us today via phone. Trita, thanks for being with us and welcome to Wake.

Trita Parsi: Thank you so much for having me

Luke Vargas I’ll put it to you simply: Is the Iranian nuclear deal broken or is President Trump trying to break it?

Trita Parsi: The nuclear deal is actually working exactly as it was intended to do. It is a triumph of diplomacy because it managed to make sure that two horrible outcomes were taken off the table.

the first outcome would be that Iran would get a nuclear weapon, which would be very bad. And the second outcome would be that the United States would go to war with Iran, which would be much much worse than the war in Iraq. And that, too, was taken off the table.

So it has achieved those two objectives.

But if we want to see it achieve more, to see further changes in Iran’s policies, etc., then we have to do further negotiations. Not to renegotiate the deal, but to negotiate beyond the deal.

Unfortunately, President Trump has a different perspective. He refuses to even recognize that it is working, despite the fact that’s been certified, and is actively looking for pretext to be able to get out of the deal.

Luke Vargas: Trita, what are the downsides of President Trump walking away from the deal at this point? And what are the downsides for Iran?

Trita Parsi: Well the obvious downsides for both sides is that those two horrible outcomes that I just mentioned would be put back on the table. The Iranians would restart their nuclear program and get closer to having a nuclear weapon, and the United States would very likely end up in a military confrontation with Iran.

Look at the situation that we have with North Korea right now, where there are threats of nuclear war taking place. That’s the situation we would have with Iran if there wasn’t a deal, or if this deal is killed.

Luke Vargas: Help me understand this. If Iran stands to lose so much, it would seem that they should demonstrate some goodwill toward the U.S., be it in scaling back support for Hezbollah or stopping missile tests. Why haven’t we seen that?

Trita Parsi: Well without a doubt the Iranians are doing things that the United States doesn’t’ like, and that I think are actually quite unhelpful. And the U.S. is also doing things that the Iranians don’t like. Those were not part of the negotiations. A lot of people in Washington ask, why hasn’t Iran’s behavior changed?

Well people in Tehran ask a similar question. Why hasn’t the Americans’ behavior changed after the deal? Is the United States  less supportive of Saudi Arabia as Saudi Arabia is engaging in a genocide in Yemen? Is the U.S. policy elsewhere in the region changed in any noticeable way at all? 

An undated Iranian government file photo shows the launch of a domestically-made missile.
An undated Iranian government file photo shows the launch of a domestically-made missile.

And the frank answer is no. Nor should it have. This was not supposed to change everything. It was supposed to make sure that the worst outcomes were first eliminated before one could go back to the negotiating table and address other issues.

So having the expectation that the Iranians are going to go beyond the nuclear deal while the United States itself actually hasn’t even fully lived up to the deal is a recipe for failure.

Luke Vargas: The Iranian deal came together in a very public fashion, and given that President Trump seems to be on a mission to torpedo some of President Obama’s foremost accomplishments, do you think the Iranian nuclear could could have been or should have been negotiated more quietly?

Trita Parsi: So whether it was done quietly or publicly, I don’t think would have changed what seems to be a very strong desire – some foreign diplomats have described it as an obsession – by President Trump to try to undo everything that Obama has achieved. So whether the process was quiet or public, the outcome would nevertheless have ended up being very very public, because it was such a huge achievement.

What I think could have been done in order to make it less likely for someone like Trump to come in and try to kill it, is it make sure if the negotiations had been done a little bit faster and if there was more effort and time after the deal to start building on the deal. Then I think we may have been in a situation today in which the deal would have been more established and more insulated, making it more difficult for anyone – whether it’s the Iranians, Trump or anyone else – to try to sabotage it.

An archived White House graphic from the Obama Administration

Luke Vargas: Trita, listen to President Trump and his senior officials and they say the lesson from the nuclear deal process was that sanctions brought Iran to the negotiating table, and that this deal is a bad one, so the U.S. should cancel it, sanction Iran again and get them back to the negotiating table. Is that the proper lesson to be learned from the Iranian nuclear deal?

Trita Parsi: I absolutely don’t think so, and I describe in the book and I document very clearly in the book what actually was happening behind the scenes, and it’s a very different image and picture that emerges.

And I have to say also that the Obama Administration itself is partly at fault, because they never wanted to really talk about what was happening in the background, so they kind of leaned on the argument that look, we succeeded because we were so tough and we were so strong and because of the sanctions.

Luke Vargas: So describe to us – what is the story there behind the scenes?

Trina Parsi: Essentially what happened is there were three competing clocks.

You have the Iranian nuclear clock in which they were aggressively going forward with the nuclear program, the more they were sanctioned the more aggressively they moved forward with the nuclear program.

You have the sanctions clock that was trying to cripple Iran’s economy.

And you have the wild card of an Israeli clock in which Israel might have taken military action – which the United States was very very much against because it would have led to a disastrous war.

The sanctions clock was truly hurting Iranians. I mean, their economy contracted roughly 25 percent. Their currency dropped altogether 50 percent as a result of financial sanctions. But as much as the Iranians were hurt, they were not broken, and they responded as I mentioned earlier on, by doubling down on the nuclear program..

In January of 2012, then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta had said that Iran’s breakout time was 12 months, meaning if the Iranians decided to build a nuclear weapon it would take them one year. By January of 2013, a year later, their breakout time had shrunk to eight to 12 weeks as a result of the Iranians going forward so fast with their program, while at the same time the pain of the sanctions were starting to wane.

And President Obama realized that unless he changed something, it was far more likely that the United States would either have to acquiesce to an Iranian nuclear weapons option or go to war with Iran. Those two outcomes were far more likely than Iran’s economy collapsing altogether, because the Iranian nuclear clock was actually ticking faster. And as a result he went back to the negotiating table in secret talks in Oman in 2013 and for the first time the United States accepted Iran’s red line, which was that Iran would not make any compromises unless the United States first accepted that Iran would continue to have enriched capacity on its own soil.

That’s where the breakthrough came. It did not come as a result of the sanctions. The sanctions clock was ticking slower than the Iranian clock, and I think it’s very important to understand this.

Those who are saying, hey we should have just kept up with the sanctions another six or twelve months actually don’t recognize that the likelihood of the U.S. ending up in a war was higher than the likelihood of the Iranians capitulating.

Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif on January 14, 2015, in Geneva, Switzerland. Courtesy: State Department
Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif on January 14, 2015, in Geneva, Switzerland. Courtesy: State Department

Luke Vargas: Trita, one outgrowth of the nuclear deal was a relationship between John Kerry and Iran’s foreign minister that served as a way of deconflicting conflicts between the U.S. and Iran. Do any such relationships exist between American and Iranian officials now?

Trina Parsi: I’m really happy you ask that question, because unfortunately, despite the fact that the Trump Administration has now been in office now for more than seven months, there has been no efforts made to actually have that relationship that existed between Zarif and Kerry to translate over to a relationship between Tillerson and Zarif.

And I think that it’s really a failure on the part of the Trump Administration and the responsibility they have for the security of the American people. You always have to exhaust all diplomatic avenues before you even consider other measures, such as pressure and postnatally warfare.

We have a channel that was set up, it just needs to be revived. And I find it very troublesome that it hasn’t, because we do know how important it is to be able to talk to the Iranians, precisely because we have differences with Iran, precisely because there are challenges that they’re posing, it’s even more important to have channels of communication.

And unfortunately the Trump Administration has not lifted a finger to resurrect those, and I find that very worrisome.

Luke Vargas: Trita Parsi is the president of the National Iranian American Council and author of the new book “Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran and the Triumph of Diplomacy.” Trita Parsi, thanks for being with us.

Trina Parsi: Thank you so much for having me.

Luke Vargas: We’ll be right back.


Luke Vargas: Welcome back to “Wake,” where we explore how events overseas affect our shores. I’m your host Luke Vargas at United Nations headquarters in New York City.

This week we’re looking at the future of the Iranian nuclear deal in the Trump era.

We’ve brought together two Iran experts to help understand what’s going on.

Suzanne Maloney is the Deputy Director of the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution. Before that she held a range of positions assisting the State Department and others in the U.S. government in setting Iran policy. Suzanne, thanks for being with us. Welcome to Wake.

Suzanne Maloney: Thanks so much.

Also with us is Kelsey Davenport, Director of Nonproliferation Policy at the Arms Control Association, where she researches Iran’s missile programs and other nuclear security issues. Kelsey, thank you for joining us.

Kelsey Davenport: Thank you for having me.

Luke Vargas: Kelsey, before we get to the wisdom of President Trump’s Iran policy, tell us about what Iran has been up to on the nuclear enrichment front and the missile testing front since the nuclear deal went into place.

Kelsey Davenport: Well since the agreement was fully implemented in January of 2016, Iran has met its commitments under the nuclear agreement. It’s rolled back its uranium enrichment program, it’s restricted the number of centrifuges it’s using to enrich uranium, it’s modified its heavy water reactor at Arak so it cannot produce plutonium for nuclear weapons, and most importantly it’s been subjected to more intrusive inspections from the International Atomic Energy Administration, which is how we know that Iran is meeting its commitments.

There have been a few hiccups along the way. Iran has twice exceeded the limits of its heavy water, which is not a proliferation risk, but certainly Iran needed to stay below that limit to meet its commitments under the deal.

There have been some other technical issues that have been worked out over the course, but overall Iran is complying with the agreement, as demonstrated by international inspectors and other countries that are party to the deal.

The ballistic missile situation is a little bit more complicated. Ballistic missiles aren’t covered in the nuclear deal, but there are limits on what Iran can do with its ballistic missiles in the U.N. Security Council resolution which endorsed the nuclear deal.

Iran’s ballistic missile testing is not clearly defined under that Security Council resolution. Iran is only called upon to refrain from testing missiles that are designed to be nuclear-capable. Though Iran argues that its ballistic missile tests are fine because the missiles are not designed to carry nuclear weapons.

The U.S. and others have said that these tests are a violation of the spirit of the resolution or inconsistent with the resolution, and I think they have a point there, that these tests are problematic.

So that’s sort of the lay of the line, where Iran stands vis-a-vis its nuclear and ballistic missile commitments.

An archived White House graphic from the Obama Administration

Luke Vargas: Suzanne, in addition to the missile testing behavior Kelsey just mentioned, Iran is still supporting President Assad in Syria, still helping Hezbollah militants in Lebanon. If this kind of behavior was going to cause such a problem, why weren’t those issues included in the nuclear deal?

Suzanne Maloney: Well the history of the nuclear crisis dates back quite a while and in fact, the negotiations were constructed quite deliberately to be framed solely on the nuclear issue, primarily as a means of ensuring that there could be some viable outcome as well as providing a platform for bringing in the rest of the world’s major powers, who were of course negotiating with Iran prior to the willingness of the United States to engage in most negotiations.

So from the outset this was always a sort of nuclear-only deal, however I think there were expectations certainly cultivated, to some extent subtly, by the Obama administration that this might lead to a broader, if not rapprochement, at least some broader dialogue on the other issues of concern, and we’ve seen very little progress on any of those other issues.

And the nuclear negotiation coincided with what I think has been an expansion and an intensification of Iran’s regional engagement in conflicts, so understandably there is a heightened concern about Iran’s regional activities and I think a sense of frustration and disappointment that really spans the political spectrum in Washington that there has been very little traction made in trying to address the non-nuclear concerns about Iran’s foreign policy.

Luke Vargas: Suzanne, I think President Trump has really pushed back against having certain decisions sort of dictated to him by precedent – that is, he doesn’t want to comply with a deal, any deal, that he didn’t sign himself. Could Trump still address Iran’s destabilizing behavior while still adhering to the nuclear deal? Can the current agreement accommodate him?

Suzanne Maloney: Yeah I think it can absolutely be accommodated. We can never control for Iran’s reaction, so if one sees a more assertive American posture toward Iran on either missiles or regional activities, or another issue is the domestic situation and treatment of both Iranians and dual nationals, including several Americans who’ve been imprisoned for months or even a year in one case.

These things can be done, but the difficulty is the Obama administration, particularly in the aftermath of the deal, was very determined to insulate it from the possibility of pressure and was concerned about the likelihood that fallout from other U.S. policies might prompt the Iranians to withdraw their own support. So it’s a very delicate balance to achieve – the ability to continue implementing the nuclear deal while applying pressure in other arenas.

I think it can be done, but this administration hasn’t demonstrated an enormous amount of dexterity, and obviously the diplomatic capabilities of the administration are still not yet fully up to speed, and so I think there is real reason for concern that efforts to try to go after Iranian resupplies to some of its proxy militias around the region could have an unintended escalatory effect that could impact the durability of the nuclear deal.

Negotiators announce the Iranian nuclear deal in Vienna, Austria in July 2015. Courtesy: Dragan Tatic / Bundesministerium für Europa, Integration und Äusseres
Negotiators announce the Iranian nuclear deal in Vienna, Austria in July 2015. Courtesy: Dragan Tatic / Bundesministerium für Europa, Integration und Äusseres

Luke Vargas: Kelsey, the U.S. isn’t the only country watching Iran’s behavior. Are some of our negotiating partners from the nuclear deal looking at these missile tests, looking at Iran’s funding of terror groups with concern also? And what are they doing about it?

Kelsey Davenport: Well, when looking at what Washington’s negotiating partners are saying about the deal, it’s important to differentiate between responses to IRan’s ballistic missiles and responses to the nuclear agreement.

On the ballistic missile front, Washington’s E.U. partners – the U.K., France, Germany – have all expressed concern about Iran’s continued ballistic missile testing, and Germany has raised concerns about Iran’s continued procurement of items for its ballistic missile program outside of U.N. channels, which would be a violation of the U.N. Security Council resolution.

So certainly there are concerns about ballistic missiles outside of the United States. But on the nuclear side, Washington’s P5+1 partners are united in thinking that Iran is meeting its commitments under the deal, and they have encouraged the United States to live up to its end of the bargain as well, to remain in the deal, and for all parties to fully implement the agreement.

You know, that was a clear outcome of the last meeting of the Joint Commission, a body set up to oversee the deal that’s comprised of all the countries that negotiated the agreement and the E.U. The statement that came out was very clear in encouraging all parties to remain in compliance with the agreement.

Luke Vargas: Suzanne, some experts have been saying European nations may play the role of savior in preserving the nuclear deal. That didn’t work for climate change, but could it work in this case?

Suzanne Maloney: European countries want to see an American engagement with the problem of Iran writ large that is sustained, they don’t want to be dealing with a kind of rogue Washington and simply reinforcing their own trade relations with Europe.

And so the best response from the Europeans at this stage is to try and work with the Trump administration to identify ways to improve upon the elements of the deal that were seen as potentially less optimal than they ought to have been – whether it’s sunset clauses or some of the other aspects of the deal that are of greatest concern to those who criticize the deal – but also look toward finding ways to apply pressure on Iran in order to make progress on some of these other areas of concern.

I mean, look, Iran is a major party to the Syrian civil war and to the vicious violence against the Syrian people that is perpetrated by Bashar Assad. The Europeans are going to have to find the wherewithal to be as tough on Iran in response to that behavior as they were with respect to the nuclear deal if we’re going to see any kind of a stable outcome in the region, irrespective of whether the deal holds are not.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani addresses the Iranian parliament on August 15, 2017.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani addresses the Iranian parliament on August 15, 2017.

Luke Vargas: Finally, Kelsey. What’s going on in Iran as they watch Trump seem to be willing the Iranian nuclear deal to unravel. Would they welcome it if the U.S. broke off the nuclear deal?

Kelsey Davenport: If the nuclear agreement falls apart I certainly think that Iran wants to be able to blame the United States and point the finger at Washington for being the culprit. And if Trump does fail to recertify Iran’s compliance without clear evidence, than I think Iran will have a great case for saying that is the United States’ fault.

But I think the reason lesson of North Korea and looking back at negotiations with North Korea is that if agreements are not implemented, if parties don’t stay committed, if they don’t continue to try and work through disputes or disagreements as they come up within the context of an agreement, then those agreements can fall apart. And that’s what happened with North Korea, and now we have North Korea with more than a dozen nuclear warheads and missiles that are capable of reaching the United States.

We have to keep the agreement in place, try and resolve these conflicts and look for ways to engage with Iran on other areas to prevent that outcome.

Luke Vargas: Suzanne, what clues are we getting from inside Iran about how are responding to Trump’s apparent desire to see this deal fall apart?

Suzanne Maloney: Well Iran has a very dangerous road to walk over the next six months to a year. They’ve got to find a way to improve the economy, manage domestic tensions and pressure for greater reform that the government is unlikely to make real progress on. At the same time as they try to extricate themselves from multiple conflicts in the region and manage an increasingly fractious relationship with Washington.

That’s a very difficult bill to try to advance, and I think that we’re going to see, we’re going to have to keep our eyes on Iran and expect greater insecurity across the region as a result of the multiple pressures that Iran is under at the present.

Luke Vargas: Suzanne Maloney is the Deputy Director of the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution. Suzanne, thanks so much for being with us.

Suzanne Maloney: Thank you.

Luke Vargas: And Kelsey Davenport, Director of Nonproliferation Policy at the Arms Control Association, thank you.

Kelsey Davenport: Thank you.

Luke Vargas: I’m Luke Vargas, signing off, join us again next week on Wake.

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