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What Happens To The Nuclear Deal If Iran Keeps Stockpiling Uranium?

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Suppose Iran does what it says it will do. Iran has been increasing its stockpile of enriched uranium. And it says within days, Iran will exceed the amount it is allowed to have on hand under a 2015 nuclear deal. So if that happens, what remains of an agreement that Iran has kept up to now but which the United States abandoned? The U.S. withdrawal from that deal has slowly led to a confrontation. The U.S. blames Iran for an attack on oil tankers off its coast and is sending an additional 1,000 troops to the region.

We'll discuss all this with Ambassador Wendy Sherman, who's on the line. She was the leader of the U.S. negotiating team for the Iran nuclear deal during the Obama administration. Welcome back to the program.

WENDY SHERMAN: Always good to be with you, Steve. Thank you.

INSKEEP: What remains of this agreement if Iran goes ahead with its actions?

SHERMAN: Well, we will see. The inspectors still are inside of Iran, meaning that there are eyes on what they are doing with their nuclear program. They still have many parts of their program that won't be functioning yet for a number of reasons. But the fact is that they will essentially have violated the deal. They will, in essence, be withdrawing from the deal. Whether they do that slowly or all at once remains to be seen.

But I think your introductory point's the important one. The U.S. - by withdrawing and by increasing the pressure on Iran by reimposing sanctions - taking other actions - has started an escalatory cycle so that the people that I call the hard hard-liners in Iran are also joining that escalatory cycle. And it's a very dangerous moment for all of us.

INSKEEP: Suppose that some of the Iranians with whom you once negotiated called you up and asked you for advice. What would you tell them?

SHERMAN: I would tell them - for the safety and security of their country and for the world, please stay in compliance with the nuclear deal. But that's easy for me to say because the sanctions the U.S. have spun on have had an enormous impact on Iran - have really decimated a lot of their economy. And Iran's got politics. People don't think of that, but they do. And the hard hard-liners, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Quds Force, the folks who do a lot of the maligned behavior in the Middle East, are on the ascendancy.

INSKEEP: Suppose you got a call from someone in the Trump administration - and granted, you disagreed with the decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal, but that's done. Suppose you got a call and somebody asked, how should we handle the Iranians now?

SHERMAN: I'd say, Mr. Trump, if you really want to negotiate with Iran, you've got to put something on the table. You know, when he wanted to have a meeting with Kim Jong Un of North Korea, he said, well, we won't do exercises anymore with South Korea. He called them war games, which is what North Korea calls them.

And he could put something on the table and perhaps get the Iranians there. But they are a culture led by the theocracy of resistance. They went through Iran-Iraq War for 12 years. They're not going to capitulate easily to President Trump.

INSKEEP: Let me ask you about another set of players here because, we should recall, that this was not just a nuclear deal with the United States. There were European powers involved; there was Russia involved; China was involved. Iran has still been keeping the deal with them even though the U.S. withdrew. What position are those other powers in now that Iran is saying it's going to exceed at least one part of the deal?

SHERMAN: We've put our European allies - really our closest partners - in an impossible position. They've been trying to keep the deal together by creating a mechanism to, in essence, get around some of our sanctions, particularly for humanitarian aid - medicine and food. That's not working so well for a number of reasons.

And Europe, once this deal is violated, is going to have to reimpose all the sanctions. They're going to be in a very difficult position. And it is weakening the U.S.-European alliance, and they are very important partners for us economically and in terms of security.

INSKEEP: You talked about an escalatory cycle, Ambassador. I'm wondering if Iran's announcement is particularly meaningful there. I know that there's been a lot of news coverage of tankers that were apparently attacked in the Gulf of Oman. The United States has blamed Iran. We can have an argument about who exactly is responsible and how strong the intelligence is. But in the case of this announcement on the nuclear deal, there's no doubt about what Iran itself has said.

SHERMAN: Indeed. There is no doubt. It is a really - moment of great concern. I know that acting Secretary of Defense Shanahan said these thousand troops are really for defensive purposes only. But there is a lot of buzz going around that, in fact, the U.S. will take some kind of retaliatory action against those tanker attacks, believing that it was Iran that did it. And we could find ourselves at war.

INSKEEP: What are the things the United States could do to respond to these actions that falls short of war?

SHERMAN: Well, they've sent troops to send a signal that we are going to make sure that the Strait of Hormuz stays open. Thirty percent of the world's commerce goes through the strait. They could, in fact, take a cruise missile strike against particular targets of concern in the region that are controlled by Iran. I don't want to go into those specifics of what other administrations have thought about when they might face similar circumstances because we know the Pentagon, fortunately, plans for everything and any eventuality. But any kind of a strike could further exacerbate this escalatory cycle. There would be a further reaction. And as I said, we might find ourselves at war.

INSKEEP: Ambassador, thanks for your insights - appreciate it.

SHERMAN: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: Wendy Sherman led the U.S. negotiating team that completed the Iran nuclear deal. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.