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Larry Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Secretary of State Collin Powell, says he is optimistic that the nuclear negotiations with Iran are 95 percent complete, but what does lifting sanctions really mean?

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SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: This is The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore. Welcome to this edition of the Larry Wilkerson report.

As the November 24 deadline approaches for the Iran and the P5+1 nuclear development energy negotiations, various well-informed speculations are developing about the state of the negotiations, as well as what will happen if a deal is signed. But one thing is for sure: the circumstances and the tone of the negotiations have changed. The new Iranian president Hassan Rouhani and the U.S. war against the IS in the region has certainly contributed to these factors.

Now joining us from Williamsburg, Virginia, to discuss all of this is Larry Wilkerson. Larry is the former chief of staff for the U.S. secretary of state Colin Powell, currently an adjunct professor of government at the College of William & Mary.

Thanks so much for joining us, Larry.


PERIES: So, Larry, what is the state of the negotiations?

WILKERSON: I’m guardedly optimistic about the negotiations. They are probably about 95 percent done. The 5 percent that remains has quite a bit that might be difficult in it, I will admit that. The three principal parts of it that are going to be difficult are the number of centrifuges that Iran will be allowed to keep and operate. Second, what exactly does lifting sanctions mean? Of course, this is the Iranian perspective. And then, lastly, how long will this last? Will it last five years, ten years, 15, or 20?

Just today I found out that what I thought was the principal issue, number of centrifuges, has probably been at least tentatively worked out and that now the issue is lifting of sanctions. That is to say, Iran is very concerned that we want a action-for-action series of lifting. In other words, they would have to do something, and we’d have to see that they were complying with that something and continuing it before we would lift or suspend sanctions. And they want more or less a wholesale lifting/suspension of the sanctions.

PERIES: And here you’re talking about the economic sanctions against Iran, mainly that they have been squeezed in terms of banking relationships with the West and in terms of their oil revenues, and because of the sanctions, yes?

WILKERSON: Right. We’re talking about E.U., P5+1, basically, we’re talking about U.S. unilateral, and we’re UN sanctions that relate to, principally, Iran’s economic and commercial affairs.

PERIES: Right. And there were some rumors–and maybe you know better–that the Department of the Treasury had actually done an assessment and done a report for the president’s office about the state of the sanctions and what kinds of holdings the U.S. has. And yet it has decided not to make this report public. But if–I guess the question is whether the president has the powers to lift these sanctions without getting the approval of the Congress.

WILKERSON: Well, I think the contention is just as you’ve described it, but I would go further and say that the president can lift some of the sanctions, he can suspend others, and that if he does it without the congress’s participation–I won’t say blessing, but participation, at least, that’s probably going to be putting him in a weaker position than if he did it with their participation.

That said, I don’t see how he’s going to get, because of obstinates from men like Bob Menendez, a Democrat, but in charge of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Lindsey Graham, John McCain–I can name a number of people on the other side of the aisle, from my party, the Republican Party, who are going to try to stop him from doing this in any way that they can. So I don’t blame him for looking closely at what he can do unilaterally, so to speak, that is, as the president. And he can, I think, legally lift some and suspend others.

The question becomes the question that Harry Truman confronted when he tried to deal with the steel industry in the United States after World War II and tried to do it by executive fiat, more or less, and the Supreme Court ruled in the Youngstown Tube case that the president couldn’t do that. And that’s not necessarily what I think would happen here were it to get that far, but here’s what Justice Jackson in writing an opinion that sided with the Supreme Court majority said–and I think he’s absolutely right, and these are words for all times. When the President acts in concert with Congress, whether that’s through a resolution or legislation or just their acquiescence in what he’s doing, the president’s power is multiplied a number of times. When the president acts without the Congress in any way, fashion, or form, the president is put in a very weak position. So I think those words, as I said, are for all times, and I would beware of doing anything and hoping it last and is sustainable exclusively myself were I the president. So I’d try to work out something whereby congressional participation at a minimum is achieved.

PERIES: And, Larry, is there a possibility that the Republicans will look the other way, given that the Iranians are almost required in the fight against the IAS in the region?

WILKERSON: That’s a good question. I think it’s one my party is disregarding almost entirely right now because of its passion to do anything that will improve their chances in the short-term, in the midterm elections, particularly in taking the Senate back, and also in the long term in terms of wounding this president in any way that they can, even to the point where they would sacrifice the national interests of the United States to do so. That’s shameful. It’s reprehensible. It’s disgusting. But I think that’s the truth.

And I hope, though, that there will be enough on both sides of the political aisle who will see that this agreement is not a bad agreement, as it’s being called on the Republican side of the aisle, and maybe even by several Democrats. It is a good agreement. In fact, what it’s done so far is more or less it’s frozen Iran’s program, the whole nuclear program. And if it goes through, as I’m hearing it’s being negotiated, with those three areas still left to be looked at–but achievable, I think–if it goes through, then we have accomplished what we wanted to accomplish. That is to say, we have done the most we could possibly do to look at this situation, to put in place those kinds of checks that will make sure that situation doesn’t develop in an untoward way, and to do it over time and to do it with reliable entities. And that’s a whole lot better than dropping bombs and starting yet another war in Southwest Asia.

PERIES: Larry, in your introductory comment, you said you are wondering how long this agreement might last if it is to be signed. What are your thoughts on that?

WILKERSON: I think we’ve–in the latest report by the Iran Project, signed by Brent Scowcroft, Zig Brzezinski, Ambassador Ryan Crocker, Ambassador Tom Pickering, a host of others, and me, infinitesimal me, we’ve pointed out country by country and for the region how we think this ought to come down, how it ought to be executed, and what it will mean for the different assets in the region and the different people in the region, different countries in the region. And so I would recommend that report to you.

And I’d also say, in direct answer to your question, and like to see a period that’s long enough for other things to develop–that is to say, not just what you mentioned, taking care of the forces of the Islamic State, stabilizing Iraq, stabilizing Afghanistan, stabilizing Lebanon, getting refugees out of Lebanon, and out of Jordan in particular, and back into their home countries and so forth. All these things are problems, challenges that we all confront that will be made easier to deal with–not easy, but easier to deal with–if we have Iran in as a willing, participating party recognized as having common interest in stability in these areas with us and with rest of the West, and with other partners in the region, too.

So this needs to take, I think, five to ten years, and it needs to, in that interim period, establish more trust between us Tehran, closer relations, more cooperation, and, generally speaking, more stability, more prosperity, more prospects in general for the countries in the region.

PERIES: And, finally, Larry, it’s clear that this agreement would certainly allow Iran to come to a more geopolitical stature in the world and be at the table negotiating with the Americans. However, the fundamental issue here in terms of this agreement is that does this give Iran the possibility of developing more energy needs that they have besides the Bushehr reactor and the Russians providing them enriched uranium for that reactor? Going forward, they want to develop a lot more than just one reactor. Does this allow for that to happen, which is critical if this agreement is going to last ten years at least, as you say?

WILKERSON: I think it’s possible that we all can get what we want. I think this can be a win-win situation. Iran clearly has an interest in diversifying its sources of energy. Not only that, but it also has an interest in having a safe, secure–and the only way you can ensure that 100 percent or 99 percent is to have it be indigenous–system that will produce medical isotopes and so forth for their health care program. So there are a number of reasons why Iran, just like any other state in the world that wants to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty and live up to its dictates, can have a peaceful nuclear program. The checks, the extraordinary checks, the cameras everywhere, the inspectors everywhere, the unannounced inspections, and so forth, it will be probably the most intrusive regime the IAEA and the world community has ever set up in a country that we need to have. That’s what we’re talking about, how long does that have to last. It lasts until the P5+1 trusts Iran and sees that it has been faithfully living up to all of its requirements and all the sanctions are lifted and Iran is a regional stakeholder and ultimately a global stakeholder of note, a responsible state, probably means backing off support for terrorism and the ways it has supported Hezbollah, for example, in the past. It probably means a better human rights situation in Iran in general.

But I would point out to the audience and to you that Iran is the most stable country in Southwest Asia right now. And Iran has more democratic elements in its theocracy than some would say the United States has in its oligarchy. So I’d be a little slow to register these harsh criticisms of the Persians that have been registered in the past.

Granted, their human rights record, as we see it, is not the best of the world, and granted they need more democratic elements, and granted they need a little less corruption and so forth and so on, and they definitely need to stop supporting organizations like Hezbollah. But if you look around the region and you look at Saudi Arabia and you look at Egypt and you look at other countries with whom the United States has very close relations, in many respects they don’t measure up to Iran. So it’s time for the United States to do a little truth-telling of soul-searching too.

PERIES: Great, Larry. We’ll be back to you, I’m sure, before around the time the agreement is signed, around November 24.

WILKERSON: Let’s hope that we don’t have to extend, and let’s hope that if we do extend, we extend only for some technical talks to wrap up some of these three points that I’ve made and that we really have an agreement and everybody knows we have agreement. I’d like to see it go through before the 24th, but it may not make that deadline. Just remember, if it goes on and on and on, as it goes on and on, the sanctions regime will become increasingly difficult to hold together.

PERIES: Sure enough. Thank you so much for joining us, Larry.

WILKERSON: Thanks for having me.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Government and Public Policy

Lawrence Wilkerson's last positions in government were as Secretary of State Colin Powell's Chief of Staff (2002-05), Associate Director of the State Department's Policy Planning staff under the directorship of Ambassador Richard N. Haass, and member of that staff responsible for East Asia and the Pacific, political-military and legislative affairs (2001-02). Before serving at the State Department, Wilkerson served 31 years in the U.S. Army. During that time, he was a member of the faculty of the U.S. Naval War College (1987 to 1989), Special Assistant to General Powell when he was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (1989-93), and Director and Deputy Director of the U.S. Marine Corps War College at Quantico, Virginia (1993-97). Wilkerson retired from active service in 1997 as a colonel, and began work as an advisor to General Powell. He has also taught national security affairs in the Honors Program at the George Washington University. He is currently working on a book about the first George W. Bush administration.