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The deals and rhetoric behind the U.S. relationship with Iran

December 1, 2016 at 6:20 PM EST
In his new book, “The Iran Wars: Spy Games, Bank Battles and the Secret Deals that Reshaped the Middle East,” The Wall Street Journal's Jay Solomon discusses the U.S. power struggle with Iran, including the Obama administration’s nuclear deal and controversial cash delivery and whether Iran complicated the American stance on Assad. Solomon sits down with Margaret Warner to discuss his work.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The United States and Iran have been at odds for 37 years, a standoff that continues even as President Obama signed on to a deal this past summer that sharply limits Iran’s nuclear development.

Just today, as we reported, the U.S. Senate voted to extend sanctions against Tehran.

Margaret Warner recently sat down with Wall Street Journal reporter Jay Solomon to discuss his book, “The Iran Wars: Spy Games, Bank Battles, and the Secret Deals That Reshaped the Middle East.”

It’s the latest addition to the “NewsHour” Bookshelf.

MARGARET WARNER: Jay Solomon, welcome.

JAY SOLOMON, Author, “The Iran Wars”: Great to be here.

MARGARET WARNER: What struck me about this book was your portrayal of President Obama as obsessed with Iran and with getting a nuclear deal really from the beginning. Where did that come from?

JAY SOLOMON: So, I really think, when he came in, he saw the need to stop, kind of defuse the Iran weapons program, and the need to kind of avert another U.S. war as converging.

We didn’t know at the time that he was sending secret letters to the supreme leader…

MARGARET WARNER: Yes.

JAY SOLOMON: … that he was really kind of setting up a diplomatic track and was just hoping the Iranians would bite. So, it really was a campaign issue that became a driving vision for him in his first year.

MARGARET WARNER: So, President Obama got his nuclear deal, but he did pay a really big diplomatic price, didn’t he, on many fronts.

JAY SOLOMON: When I was doing the research, it really did kind of dominate so many different factions of his policy.

The negotiations with the Iranians started in secret, which — basically behind the backs of the Israelis and Arabs, which really has continued to this day to serve as a big source of tension with the Obama administration.

Of course, they say there was no connection whatsoever between our Syria policy and the decision not to use airstrikes and our Iran policy. But we have seen kind of since 2013, when Obama backed away from airstrikes, almost kind of the U.S. moving increasingly towards a policy that’s in alignment in some ways with both the Russians and Iranians.

And President Obama has sent messages to the supreme leader in letters and through the Pentagon that, basically, we’re not targeting Assad.

MARGARET WARNER: In fact, Iranian officials had let the White House know that that could completely screw up the talks.

JAY SOLOMON: Yes, the diplomats who were involved were saying, even if we wanted to keep this diplomatic track open, if you start bombing the Assad regime, which really provides Iran strategic depth in the Middle East and its closest Arab ally, it will be difficult for us to continue.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, we have this latest controversy with what has turned out to be $1.7 billion that the U.S. in cash has paid to Iran in the last few months.

It’s about a completely separate negotiation at The Hague, but is it or is it not connected to this nuclear deal?

JAY SOLOMON: Well, I think it all did kind of converge.

On January 16, the agreement was basically implemented. And the next day, we had a prisoner swap and the payment of this money. So I do think it was tied to the nuclear negotiations in this way. But I think you have seen a real cycle of the Obama administration trying to put kind of past conflicts behind that were brewing with the Iranians.

But it’s also raised a lot of questions, because, if you give that much money in cash to the Iranian government, there is a real fear this money went to the elite military unit the Revolutionary Guard. It’s very hard for them to move money around the Middle East to fund Hezbollah and Lebanon, the Assad regime.

If you give them that much cash, you can move that cash to these types of regimes. And I think that’s part of the reason why this cash payment has become so controversial and is a political now.

MARGARET WARNER: And, of course, it can’t be traced.

You spent a lot of time talking to not only American officials, but Iranian officials, and getting to know them well. After these two years, do you think that any sort of trust developed in these negotiations that will survive it?

JAY SOLOMON: I do think it’s significant that there was so much engagement between John Kerry and the Iranian foreign minister, Javad Zarif.

I think the problem is, Iran is really in many ways a dual system. The U.S. was talking with very Western-oriented, English-speaking diplomats in the Foreign Ministry, but we know that the policies are really driven by the supreme leader and the Revolutionary Guards.

And there is still very much no contact whatsoever between the U.S. side and the kind of hard-line camp that really runs the country. So, history will show whether there was a narrowing. But I think the kind of rhetoric coming out of the supreme leader has not softened whatsoever.

And that raises questions whether this is kind of another transactional part or it really does lead to some approach normal — at rapprochement on some level.

MARGARET WARNER: So, future presidents will have to deal with it, no doubt.

Jay Solomon, author of “The Iran Wars: Spy Games, Bank Battles, and the Secret Deals That Reshaped the Middle East,” thank you.

JAY SOLOMON: Thank you so much.

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