Dennis Ross Comments On Whether The Iran Nuclear Deal Is Working
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Here we are, less than two weeks before a deadline for President Trump. By May 12, he can extend Iran's relief from sanctions as part of an agreement that limits Iran's nuclear program, or the president can decline to take that step and take a risk that the multinational deal unravels. In the past few days, the new secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, has met with European leaders and then traveled to Jerusalem and then to Amman, all the while talking about Iran.
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MIKE POMPEO: It is indeed the greatest sponsor of terrorism in the world, and we are determined to make sure it never possesses a nuclear weapon. The Iran deal in its current form does not provide that assurance.
INSKEEP: The president has talked of changing it or getting rid of it. Let's talk this over with Dennis Ross, who has been a Middle East envoy to presidents of both parties.
Ambassador, welcome back to the program.
DENNIS ROSS: Nice to be with you. Thank you.
INSKEEP: Basic question to start with - is the nuclear deal working, as far as the agreement itself goes?
ROSS: Look, there's no question that the deal itself is fulfilling what it promised to do, which is to scale back Iranian enrichment - nuclear enrichment - to reduce the number of centrifuges, to limit the amount of enriched nuclear material that was on hand to less than one bomb source from what was about eight to 10 bomb source. So from that standpoint, it's certainly working. The Iranians have been complaining that they have not been getting the full economic benefits from it. But to be fair, part of that is the Iranian mismanagement of their economy, and also the lack of transparency in terms of their banking and whether or not it serves as a basis for funding terrorism.
INSKEEP: One of many complaints about the deal is that it doesn't cover, in any way, Iran's other activities, whatever Iran may do in Syria or whatever Iran may do in Yemen. What does - what leverage does the United States have to pressure Iran on those subjects?
ROSS: Well, it has the ability, in effect, to be the equivalent of what the Iranians are doing. The Iranians continue to say that the deal doesn't cover what they do in the region, therefore, they're free to do what they want in the region. Well, the answer to that is, well, then so are we. You want to behave in a way in the region that adds to instability, we have the right, therefore, also to raise the cost to you of doing it, including sanctions on those kinds of behaviors. Now, the agreement - the JCPOA, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action - does make it clear that we can't simply redesignate those that we had designated before, and we had lifted those designations. But still, we have the right to be able to raise the cost to the Iranians as they act in the region in a way that destabilizes it.
INSKEEP: Wait a minute. Are you saying that the U.S. could go after Iran more strongly without pulling out of this deal?
ROSS: That's correct. That's absolutely correct. Look, the Iranians in this case can't have it both ways. They can't say that the deal doesn't affect what they can do in the region and then at the same time say that the U.S. has no right to respond to it.
INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about the Iranian point of view here for a moment. The Iranian supreme leader gave a speech today in which he said the United States is trying to foment other nations, like Saudi Arabia, to rise up against Iran, so to speak. We also heard last week on the program from Mohammad Javad Zarif, who's the foreign minister of Iran, and he warned that it would be a grave mistake to try to renegotiate this deal in any way. Let's listen.
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MOHAMMAD JAVAD ZARIF: Anybody who participates in the negotiation of this deal would tell you that opening this package would be tantamount to opening a Pandora's box, and we'll never be able to close it.
INSKEEP: What would the risk be, if any, for the United States if President Trump did decide to pull out of this nuclear deal?
ROSS: Well, I think there're several kinds of risks. One that's implicit in what you were just - in what Zarif was saying is that the Iranians will simply go back to doing what they were doing. At the time they had almost 20,000 centrifuges. At the time they had five advanced models of centrifuges that were much more efficient in terms of what they could produce.
INSKEEP: And they're explicitly saying, if this deal goes away, that's exactly what we may well do, is go back to enriching uranium in a way that really worries you.
ROSS: Well, there's no doubt that they could quickly be moving back to having almost a zero breakout time to producing fissile material. It's also - I think it's in their interest to say that because they want to convince the Europeans, in particular, that if we pull out of the deal, they're going to be back on the march towards a nuclear weapon. And then that moves you more towards a military response if there's no other diplomatic answer. So that's certainly what they want to convince us and everyone else is going to be the case. Part of that, no doubt, is to convince the Europeans to convince us to stay in the deal. And you've seen the visits of two European leaders now here to see President Trump. One of them left the meeting suggesting that the president was still going to pull out, but that there might still be a possibility to produce some kind of larger deal.
INSKEEP: Well, I'm still - yeah - trying to figure out the position of the Europeans here. They are trying to stay in this deal. I suppose it's possible the U.S. pulls out of the nuclear deal, the Europeans stay in, the Iranians stay in, and there's still some kind of a deal. But that does raise a question. Can the United States force the Europeans - does the United States have the power to force the Europeans to choose, either you're with us or you're with Iran?
ROSS: Well, there is a possibility that we - if we reimpose the sanction on the Iranian Central Bank and anybody who gets their oil from Iran has to pay through the Central Bank, in effect, if you're doing business with the Iranian Central Bank, you can't do business with ours. So we're a much bigger market by definition. And so that could be something that could be done. The problem is, A, it creates a kind of trade war, B, the Europeans could do what they did in the 1990s when they passed blocking legislation that gave companies in Europe a legal reason not to stop doing business with the Iranians. And that is a kind of new trade war that could be in the offing. That's certainly something that the Europeans would want to avoid.
ROSS: No doubt, I think the administration should want to avoid it, as well.
INSKEEP: Complicated situation. We'll continue this discussion. Ambassador Dennis Ross, thanks as always.
ROSS: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.