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Iran Nuclear Deal Negotiator Philip Gordon Reacts To Trump's Decision To Leave Deal

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Let's turn now to Philip Gordon, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He was on the team that negotiated the Iran nuclear deal on behalf of the Obama administration. And we have caught him on the line from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where he was watching President Trump's announcement. Philip Gordon, welcome back to the program.

PHILIP GORDON: Thanks - nice to be here.

KELLY: What is your top-line reaction to today's news?

GORDON: Well, it's that we've just taken a really big plunge into the unknown I think with big risks attached to it. I think there are lots of questions to come and questions frankly that the administration hasn't answered. We've had a deal in place that has constrained Iran's nuclear program. And as of this afternoon, that's no longer in place.

KELLY: When you say big risks, lay out briefly what you see as being the most urgent risks.

GORDON: Well, the most urgent risk is Iran resuming its nuclear program, frankly. I mean, that's what this deal was designed to stop and what the deal had stopped. The reason there was a deal in the first place is that the world was deeply concerned a few years ago that Iran was on the brink of a nuclear weapons capability with no monitoring. We didn't know what was going on, and they were advancing to the point that they would be capable of producing a nuclear weapon, which is obviously a huge challenge for us.

So after several, you know - putting together a very difficult international sanctions regime and pressure and two years of negotiations, we got them to significantly reverse that program and freeze it, allow for inspection and a commitment forever not to build a bomb. And we've just thrown that all away.

KELLY: Thrown that all away - not a choice of words I gather you would use casually.

GORDON: No. This is really a big deal, and it seems that the president has taken this leap into the dark without really a plan or even an explanation as to what's supposed to happen. Toward the end of his speech, he did raise the notion or possibility of Iran coming back to the table. But even he said, you know, that's unlikely to happen. And if he was Iranian, he probably wouldn't either. Well, that's a problem because now we have no deal in place, and the administration hasn't even really laid out a theory of the case of what is supposed to happen.

And what could happen is Iran resumes its nuclear program that had been frozen by the deal, and then we're right back to that terrible choice we were in a few years ago or potentially in of either allowing them to develop a nuclear weapons capability or bombing them to stop it.

KELLY: Is that a fait accompli, though, that Iran would resume its nuclear program? The U.S. can exit the Iran deal, but there are other parties to this deal, as you well know - Europe, China, Russia, others. Iran could stay in this deal. It could potentially continue reining in its nuclear ambitions, no?

GORDON: It could, and I don't...

KELLY: You think that's likely or unlikely?

GORDON: No, I don't think Iran is now going to suddenly rush for a nuclear weapons capability. Actually, Iran probably feels it's in a pretty strong position with the United States isolated, and they wouldn't want to squander that by doing anything that would put the spotlight on them. So I suspect they'll use the initial period just to try to divide this international coalition that had come together to pressure them in the past.

But look; over time, Iran is unlikely to carry on with all of the constraints that it signed up to, really reversing - dismantling centrifuges, shipping out low-enriched uranium - in exchange for getting nothing, not getting the economic relief that was at the heart of the deal. So I don't think Iran is going to rush for a nuclear weapons capability, but it will probably start to gradually and slowly expand its capacity as it was doing in pretty much every single year over the past two decades while we had sanctions in place and while we didn't have a deal in place. And that's what creates that sort of ticking clock towards a weapons capability that the deal froze for a very long time, which is now gone.

KELLY: There are built-in delays here. Renewed U.S. sanctions won't bite for a few months. Is there some wiggle room, some possibility that negotiations continue and that this is a smart negotiating strategy because it shows that the U.S. is willing to take a very firm line?

GORDON: Yeah. If you believe that even in the absence of international support, somehow just the threat of the U.S. acting alone will bring the Iranians, you know, to their knees or to reconsider and come back and agree to a better deal, then yes, I think that's a long shot.

You know, speaking as someone who participated in these negotiations, if we thought that it would have been possible to do everything that President Trump would like - constrain Iranian regional behavior, have inspections that could go onto Iranian military bases immediately, include ballistic missiles, have the deal lasts forever - of course that would have been terrific. But it just wasn't possible. Our allies wouldn't have supported it, and Iran wouldn't have agreed to it. And we would have had no deal at all, and that's kind of where we are now.

KELLY: What might be the impact of today's move on U.S. credibility? The U.S. entered this deal. The U.S. has now broken this deal. Will that be seen as breaking America's word?

GORDON: Well, it is breaking America's word. So, you know, that's obviously relevant for the negotiations that are about to take place with North Korea. And what's also relevant for that - you know, I think the Trump administration would say this shows how tough we are, and now we're going to potentially get a better deal with North Korea.

But even beyond, you know, suggesting to North Korea that even if they do an agreement, we might not stick with it, the problem vis-a-vis North Korea it seems to me is that it also says that a deal like this isn't, quote, unquote, "good enough." You know, North Korea is already a nuclear weapons state. And if what they're reading in this is that President Trump isn't even prepared to accept a deal that prevents a nuclear weapon and wants more from what we got out of the Iran deal, I think Kim Jong Un must be wondering if there's really any realistic prospect of dealing successfully with this administration.

KELLY: May I circle back to where we began, which is your just personal take on this? It's not surprising, given that you were one of the negotiators who set this deal in motion in the first place, that you are critical of the decision to pull out of it. You've been outlining the risks and what a gamble you see this as. Are there also opportunities here?

GORDON: I think the risks far outsee the opportunities. If the opportunity only exists in the scenario whereby Iran somehow, you know, sees the light, feels the pressure and comes back to agree to a deal that includes all of the things that President Trump outlined as on his wish list - if that were to happen, I would be the first to applaud. This would all be good for the United States. But it's highly unlikely to happen.

So one of the biggest problems with what President Trump outlined today is that he said that his main concern with the Iran nuclear deal is the so-called sunset provisions that allow certain restrictions to expire after 10 or 15 years. But by withdrawing from the deal today, he actually sunset the entire agreement immediately. So instead of a sunset in the year 2030 when Iran could expand its enrichment program, we have sunset in 2018. And that just seems to me not a very logical approach.

KELLY: Philip Gordon, White House coordinator for the Middle East under President Obama - he helped negotiate the Iran nuclear deal. Philip Gordon, thank you.

GORDON: Thank you, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.