How Far Will Trump Go to Kill the Iran Nuclear Deal?
The U.S. has re-certified that Iran is complying with the 2015 nuclear deal, but President Trump has imposed new sanctions in an effort to force Iran to pull out. Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, says the move against Iran is a dangerous escalation
Aaron Maté: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. The U.S. has re-certified Iran’s compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal, which limited Iranian enrichment in exchange for eased sanctions, but Iranian compliance doesn’t mean the deal is safe. The New York Times reports President Trump did not want to admit Iran is complying and only backed down after hours of arguing with top officials. Trump apparently told his aides he will not continue to certify down the line.
Other officials say their goal is to provoke Iran into backing out of the nuclear deal. That effort appears already under way. On Tuesday the White House announced new sanctions targeting Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, and last week the White House admitted it may be violating the nuclear deal itself. This is what White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters.
Sarah Huckabee Sanders : In his discussions with more than a dozen foreign leaders, he underscored the need for nations to join together, to strip terrorists of their funding, territory and ideological support, and to stop doing business with nations that sponsor terrorism, especially Iran.
Aaron Maté: The nuclear deal bars member nations, including the U.S. from policies that hurt Iran’s trade and economic relations with other countries. Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif now says the U.S. is in violation of the deal and that Iran may be forced to back out. Trita Parsi is president of the National Iranian-American Council and author of the new book “Losing an enemy: Obama, Iran and the Triumph of Diplomacy.” Trita, welcome.
Trita Parsi : Thank you for having me.
Aaron Maté: Thank you for joining us. Let’s talk about these new developments this week. Trump at the same time as he is forced to admit that Iran is complying also announcing new sanctions against Iran. Meanwhile this report from the Times that I mentioned indicating that Trump does not plan to continue to do so, in the hopes of forcing Iran to back out.
Trita Parsi : Indeed. I think this is a bit of a wake-up call, because here we have certification by the U.S. intelligence agencies, by the International Agency for Atomic Energy, all saying that Iran is living up to the deal. Despite this, Trump wants to pull out and the New York Times article actually did a great service in reporting what happened behind the scenes in the White House because it really revealed the intent of this administration. The intent is that regardless of what Iran does or doesn’t do, they want to pull out of this deal. If they pull out of this deal, we are going to be back in the scenario as we were in 2012 and 2013, in which the Iranians likely will restart their program and we will once again talk very seriously about a potential military confrontation with Iran.
By Trump now revealing his hand, I think it should be much clearer in people’s mind of where the blame will lie if this deal collapses, because on the one hand, the Iranians are living up to the deal. The Europeans are living up to the deal. The Chinese and the Russians are as well, and the Trump administration, regardless of the deal actually working and being adhered to by Iran, wants to pull out.
Aaron Maté: Trita, you mentioned the behind the scenes window that the article provides. I want to read you just a short excerpt of that. The Times is talking about this meeting between Trump and his top officials, who are trying to convince him to acknowledge that Iran is in compliance with the deal, and the Times cites a U.S. official in the White House.
The Times says, “The official said Trump spent 55 minutes of the meeting telling his advisors he did not want to comply. Mr. Trump did not want to certify Iran’s compliance the first time around either but was talked into it on the condition his team come back with a new strategy to confront Tehran, the official said. Last week, advisors told the president the needed more time to work with allies in Congress. Trump responded that before he would go along, they had to meet certain conditions said the office, who would not outline what the conditions were.” Trita, do you have any speculation on that? On what conditions you think Trump might have imposed on his aids for going along this time?
Trita Parsi : I think what Trump is looking for are options for him to ratchet things up in the region against Iran, essentially squarely taking the Saudi side in this Saudi/Iranian rivalry that exists in the region. I think he is finding out that the deal actually is constraining to a certain extent his ability to escalate matters with Iran, as it is constraining Iran’s ability to escalate matters with the United States. That was actually part of the value of the deal.
In order to make sure that the deal doesn’t collapse the two sides would actually have to be much more adult about the remaining aspects of their relationship. That is a very great function, particularly when you have two parties that want to make sure that they find a way to resolve their problems peacefully. That is a major problem if you have a president however who actually wants to have some form of conflict and confrontation.
Aaron Maté: Trita, that clip that I played before of White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders, do you take that as an admission that the U.S. is explicitly violating the deal? Because she said, she was talking about Trump meeting with G20 leaders and she said that his message to them included urging them to stop doing business with nations that sponsor terrorism, especially Iran. Iran’s charge here is that that violates the nuclear deal itself.
Trita Parsi : I think it’s actually quite clear that it does violate. I think the Trump administration has been in violation even prior to this, but this statement actually is such a blatant admission of what the Trump administration has been doing for quite some time behind the scenes, so that’s why this is getting a little bit more attention and urgency because, no it’s no longer about speculation about what the Trump administration may have privately told other officials. This was very public.
It was included in her press conference by her own volition. This is a violation of Article 29 of the agreement that makes it very clear that now, as a result of the lifting of sanctions, there are permissible trades and in order for the United States to live up to the agreement, and other countries, they cannot interfere with this permissible trade, just as much as Iran’s restrictions are that they cannot expand the number of centrifuge, they cannot expand the size of their stockpile or the degree to which they’re conducting enrichment. Those are some of the constraints on the Iranian side. The constraints on the American side is once you lift sanctions, you actually have to respect that decision. You cannot re-impose them. You cannot create other types of obstacles that are the equivalent of those sanctions.
Aaron Maté: Trita, let’s talk about how we got here. Your new book is called, “Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran and the Triumph of Diplomacy.” Now you’re very familiar with the nuclear deal because you served as an advisor during the talks. One of your book’s most interesting revelations is something that not very many people know, which is that it’s taken sort of as an article of faith that it was the sanctions tightened by Obama that forced Iran to negotiate. But you actually reveal something quite different.
Trita Parsi : Yeah. The love of sanctions in this town, in Washington DC really knows no boundaries, and is highly problematic because in the academic literature, sanctions are quite ridiculed in some ways actually because the success rate is so tremendously low, but it is a convenient political tool of course.
In the case of Iran, I think it’s quite understandable that the previous administration wanted to portray itself as acting from a position of strength, and I don’t think they were acting from a position of weakness, but I think they overstated the role of sanctions. Obviously from the Congressional standpoint, because sanctions was the only tool Congress had, there is a self-interest in saying that sanctions was the key to this.
But what happened in reality is actually quite fascinated. I think it’s valuable for us to know this because if we’re going to use the Iranian nuclear negotiations as a blue print for future negotiations and for future efforts to be able to deal with international problems or potential proliferation risk, we actually need to know exactly what happened and what made it work and what would not have worked.
Reality is that as the U.S. and its allies started to ratchet up sanctions, they managed to impose a tremendous amount of cost on the Iranian economy. On one single day, the Iranian currency dropped 30% once the United States adopted sanctions on its central bank for instance. It’s GDP reduced more than 15% over the course of this period. So there’s no doubt that sanctions were tremendously painful.
The other side of the story is less known however. The Iranian response to sanctions was to ratchet up its nuclear program. If the American calculation was that through sanctions, it would change Iran’s cost/benefit analysis and make it realize that actually it was not worthwhile pursuing this nuclear program, the Iranian calculation was, well Iran is just going to double down on the activity that the United States doesn’t like in order to convince the United States that the sanctions path will not lead to a smaller nuclear program. It will lead to a bigger nuclear program.
You had these two competing clocks. The U.S. pursuing its sanctions and hoping that it would be able to cripple the Iranian economy and the Iranians pursuing and doubling down on their nuclear program, hoping to present the United States with a fait accompli.
In July 2012 they met secretly in Oman. Both sides kind of went there to see if the other side was ready to really adopt a different attitude, perhaps even capitulate when it came to the pressure. The United States wanted to see if the Iranians were ready to cave to the sanctions pressure. The Iranians came to the talks wanting to see if the United States was willing to finally accept that ultimately once a solution had been found, Iran would keep enrichment on its soil. Neither side was ready for any form of capitulation, not even giving an inch to the other side.
The meeting was largely seen as a failure. Six months later, the President of the United States had realized that things were moving in the wrong direction, that the Iranian nuclear clock was ticking much faster than the sanctions clock. The sanctions pressure, while increasing, had also been met with increased Iranian capability of getting around those sanctions, while the Iranian nuclear program did not face similar types of constraints.
At this point, the president realized that unless something changed, it was far more likely that Iran would reach nuclear weapons capability before the United States could bring down the Iranian economy to its knees. An alternative was needed and it is at that point, the president decides to go back to the negotiating table in Oman and for the first time, offer the Iranians in very, very carefully couched language that the U.S. would accept Iran’s redline, which is accepting enrichment on Iranian soil if the Iranians accepted significant constraints on their program.
In the 12 to 15 years of this crisis, this was the first time the United States had signaled that it was ready to accept enrichment. This is what opened up the negotiations. This all actually happened during Ahmadinejad’s presidency. Rouhani had not even been elected president of the United States yet. That happens three months later.
What this shows is that if we were to go with the line that hawks in Washington are arguing for right now, which is that if we just had a little bit more pressure, a little bit longer, we would have gotten a better deal, reality is if Obama had pursued sanctions for longer instead of pivoting to diplomacy, it was far more likely that the United States would have ended up in a war than that the United States would have gotten a better deal.
Aaron Maté: Trita, just to clarify something, during this period that we’re discussing, it’s not as if Iran actually had a nuclear weapons program, right? That’s what Iran says and that’s also the conclusion of U.S. intelligence agencies. The nuclear talk you’re talking about refers to them being able to enrich at a level that would allow them to develop a nuclear weapon, right?
Trita Parsi : The Iranians according to the U.S. intelligence agency and according to the IAE did not have a military program at the time, but it had engaged in activities that were suspicious and potential violations of the NPT prior to 2003. Much of this was to actually get to the bottom of this and rebuild confidence that Iran would not be going in this direction in the future.
The issue was that enrichment technology can be used, both for energy purposes but also for military purposes. The desired position of the Bush administration was to make sure that Iran had no enrichment at all and that way, from their perspective, there was no risk that the Iranians would be able to proliferate because they simply wouldn’t have the technology.
The NPT, in the reading of Iran and in the reading of the vast majorities of countries in the world, grants Iran a sovereign right to enrich Uranium as long as it is for peaceful purposes. The Iranians were absolutely adamant that they would never compromise on that position. They would never agree to any type of a deal that would take that sovereign right away from them.
This is part of the reason why the Obama administration eventually came to the position of accepting this. They had originally planned to accept it at the end of the negotiation. They ended up using that card in the beginning of negotiations to actually get the talks going.
Aaron Maté: Okay, Trita, so here’s my question after listening to this history. To what extent I wonder did Obama’s policies actually pave the way of what we’re seeing today under Trump? The reason I ask that is because even though of course Obama admirably pursued diplomacy, if it was based partly on the cynical calculation that Iran would be able to enrich faster than its economy would collapse, then the deal then is based on this calculation that we can’t punish them soon enough. What I’m wondering is, if Obama had pursued a more open policy of engagement and negotiation, and actually negotiated on issues beyond the nuclear issue, whether we’d be seeing what we’re seeing today with Trump?
Trita Parsi : Well it’s interesting because the consensus amongst all of the parties negotiating was that the only way to resolve this was to only focus on the nuclear issue. From the American perspective, if you were to bring in other issues into the mix, which was the position the Iranians took earlier on actually, then the unity of the P5+1 would break. The P5+1 could be united around some nuclear objectives but Russia and the United States have a very different view when it comes to what group is a terrorist group and what group is not.
China and the United States have a very different view about the concept of human rights. If you expand it, the Iranians would be getting so many more opportunities to play various P5+1 members against each there. If the focus was solely on the nuclear issue, it could be a united front, which the U.S. believed would be absolutely essential in order to make sure that the Iranians compromised.
What is fascinating in all of this is that the Israelis and the Saudis also pushed to only have the nuclear issue be addressed. From the Saudi perspective this was done because they were so distrustful of the United States, they did not want the United States and Iran to discuss regional policies and regional issues without the Saudis being in the room.
From the Israeli perspective there was a desire to focus only on the nuclear issue because they believed the nuclear issue was unresolvable. It was seen as an existential threat, and as a result they will never reach a deal, which was the Israeli preference. They did not want to see a deal, so the best thing would be to focus on the one issue that was the most difficult to resolve, but they all miscalculated.
Aaron Maté: Right. Then compare that to the longstanding Iranian position, as I understand it, which has included openness to discussing every issue, including I think what you alluded to, which is its support for Hezbollah.
Trita Parsi : It’s interesting because prior to Rouhani being elected, the Iranians did send proposals in which they wanted to talk about everything from global warming to other things in a P5+1 context. Once Rouhani got elected, the instructions were actually the opposite. The Supreme Leader of Iran accepted a direct dialog with the United States on the nuclear issue and in fact yet accepted it a little bit early on in secret negotiations, but his request or his red line was that it should not go beyond the nuclear issue.
You had a convergence there in which both the Iranians and the U.S. and then ironically the critics of the deal and those who wanted to see the deal and the diplomacy fail, all agreeing that they should only be focused on the nuclear issue.
Aaron Maté: Okay, finally Trita, returning to today, you mentioned the role of Israel and Saudi Arabia in the nuclear talks. I wonder if you can comment on their machinations behind the scenes when it comes to how Trump is dealing with Iran? I know that Israel recently came out for example against the Russia/U.S. ceasefire in southwestern Syria and Netanyahu openly said that he opposed it because it empowers Iran. The role of these two countries today in Trump’s current policy?
Trita Parsi : Sure. I think it’s important to understand that from the perspective of Israel and Saudi Arabia, as well as some others, the nuclear issue was actually not the root cause of any of these issues. The nuclear issue was a symptom and the symbolic issue that was focused on when he came to a much bigger issue which is the balance of power in the region and the regional order.
The Israelis and the Saudis, since 2003, have been quite upset with the United States because the United States destroyed an order that existed in the region that the U.S. itself had helped set up, that was highly beneficial to the Israelis and to the Saudis. But by going into Iraq and by failing so miserably and then lacking the strength and capacity to reestablish a new order in the region, a new balance, the region essentially has been orderless since then.
The nuclear issue is deeply related to this because what the Saudis and the Israelis want is an order similar to what existed prior to 2003 in which the United States is committing itself to the security of Israel and Saudi Arabia and committing itself to ensuring that Iran is isolated and excluded from the political and economic structures of the region.
By striking a nuclear deal, regardless of the details of that deal, the United States essentially accepted that Iran is a major power in the region, a power that needs to be dealt with diplomatically, that cannot be isolated and won’t be isolated any longer as a result of Article 29 that we discussed earlier on. This was the real problem from the Israeli and the Saudi side. The Saudis hardly had a single conversation with Obama administration discussing details of the nuclear deal. They were just opposed to the idea that the U.S. actually would strike a deal, any deal with the Iranians.
From the Israeli perspective, it was very similar. They were afraid that any deal would end up becoming the beginning step of a broader rapprochement, a process of losing Iran as an enemy, which the Israelis feared would significantly diminish Israel’s strategic position in the Middle East. That’s why they were so vehemently opposed to the deal and that’s why they’re in such a celebratory mood right now, mindful of the direction that the Trump administration is going in.
Aaron Maté: Okay Trita, so one last question, continuing on this point. The nuclear deal recently turned two years old. I remember in the aftermath of it, there was talk that with this issue behind them now, perhaps Iran and the U.S. could cooperate on wider issues, especially helping broker a ceasefire in Syria, and also maybe even fighting the Islamic state together. If you could imagine a parallel universe where that might still be possible today, what would the impact of that be? If the U.S. and Iran could work together, how would that change things?
Trita Parsi : Well, I don’t think we have to go too far to be able to imagine that. This actually would have been very possible today if there had been a different political outcome in the United States or if the Obama administration had had a little bit more time. Because while ending the enmity between the United States and Iran was not the primary goal of this nuclear negotiation, it was definitely an aspect, and element that attracted the Obama administration, thinking if we can strike this deal, perhaps we can start the process of not only losing Iran as an enemy. We’re not talking about the United States and Iran becoming partners and friends, but stop being such lethal enemies, but also more importantly, if Iran can be included in the region, if it could, if we could have an inclusive security dialog in the region, that would open up the path to be able to resolve the issues in Yemen, in Syria, Iraq, dealing with ISIS, et cetera.
The fact that the United States was so vehement about excluding Iran from many of these processes actually in and of itself exasperated those problems in the past. There was this opportunity to be able to lose an enemy and to have an opportunity for an all-inclusive regional dialog. That opportunity essentially has been closed, not just by the election of Donald Trump but particularly with him going to Saudi Arabia, sitting in Riyadh and then calling for Iran’s all out isolation. That was a reversion back to the policy that existed prior to the nuclear deal. He closed that window and instead he opened up the window for the United States and Iran to once again find themselves on a path towards a military confrontation.
Aaron Maté: Trita Parsi, President of the National Iranian-American Council and author of the new book, “Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran and Triumph of Diplomacy.” Trita, thank you.
Trita Parsi : Thank you so much for having me.
Aaron Maté: Thank you for joining us on The Real News.