Will Trump walk away from the Iran nuclear deal?

Nation

JUDY WOODRUFF: Separate from North Korea, President Trump has made no secret of his disdain for the Iran nuclear agreement, which was struck by the Obama administration, five other world powers and Iran.

He's long said he wants to renegotiate the 2015 accord, and he soon faces another deadline on how to proceed.

The president denounced the agreement again Tuesday at the United Nations.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: The Iran deal was one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Every three months, the president must decide whether to recertify that Iran is in compliance with the nuclear agreement. Mr. Trump did so in April and July, and must decide again by October 15.

Yesterday, in New York, amid shouted questions from reporters, he said he's made up his mind.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I have decided.

JUDY WOODRUFF: International monitors say Iran is holding to the letter of the deal. But the Trump administration says Iran's continued ballistic missile development and its destabilizing activities in Syria, Yemen and elsewhere violate the spirit of the agreement.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with all parties to the deal last night, including Iran's foreign minister, and aired another concern afterward.

REX TILLERSON, Secretary of State: And that is the sunset clause, where one can almost set the countdown clock to when Iran can resume its nuclear weapons programs, its nuclear activities.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Trump White House is now pushing to reopen and renegotiate the accord known by the acronym JCPOA. That's a nonstarter for the Iranians.

President Hassan Rouhani yesterday in New York:

PRESIDENT HASSAN ROUHANI, Iran (through interpreter): This agreement is not something that someone can touch. Either the JCPOA will remain as is in its entirety, or it will no longer exist.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For its part, Tehran says the U.S. is violating the deal by discouraging investment in Iran. Rouhani also said that if the U.S. pulled out of the agreement, Iran could restart its uranium enrichment.

For more on this, I'm joined from New York by Rob Malley, a special assistant to President Obama. He was the lead senior White House negotiator for the agreement. He is now a vice president of the International Crisis Group. And by Stephen Rademaker, he was the head of the State Department's Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation during the George W. Bush administration.

And, welcome, gentlemen, to both of you.

Rob Malley, I'm going to start with you.

So, what do you make of the president's now suggestion once again that he may be ready not to recertify this deal?

ROB MALLEY, Former Obama Administration NSC Staff: Well, I thought the writing is on the wall, because, with the president, he could change his mind, but I think all indications from him and from members of his Cabinet are that he's determined not to certify Iran's compliance come mid-October, which is a decision which would be based on no evidence, since the Atomic Energy — International Atomic Energy Agency eight times has certified that Iran is in compliance.

The U.S. State Department has agreed that Iran is in compliance. Secretary Tillerson himself has said that, technically speaking, Iran is in compliance. And all the other signatories of the agreement say that Iran is in compliance.

So that would be a faith-based or a political decision, not an evidentiary decision, which would have very, very negative consequences not just in terms of Iran perhaps resuming its nuclear program at a much more rapid pace, but also the credibility of the United States and the word that it gives when it agrees to a deal, that credibility would be seriously undermined.

And then we just heard talk about North Korea. And it's quite extraordinary that we would not only creating a new nuclear crisis, when we don't need one, when we have one with North Korea today…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right.

ROB MALLEY: … but that we would be sending the message to the North Koreans, don't believe our diplomacy, don't believe any deal we enter with you, because we could revisit it the next month.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Stephen Rademaker, what do you make of the fact the president may just go ahead and not recertify?

STEPHEN RADEMAKER, Former George W. Bush Administration Official: Well, I think it's important first to point out that the certification that he's required to make is not just that Iran is in compliance with the deal, but also that it continues to be in the national interest of the United States to remain within the deal.

And that's a judgment that the president is supposed to make. And he's made clearly, in his opinion, it's not in the national interest to remain in the deal.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And he's talking about Iran or what he says is that Iran is violating the spirit of the agreement. Do you agree with it?

STEPHEN RADEMAKER: Well, I think, if one wants to make a case, there are things to point to that I think actually go beyond violations of the spirit of the agreement.

Iran has been testing ballistic missiles, in violation of U.N. Security Council 2231, which calls on Iran not to test ballistic missiles. T.'s a related agreement to the JCPOA.

So, that — and I think there are some other examples that could be pointed to by the president to conclude Iran is not in compliance. That said, I think it's a very risky road to go down.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you mean? Risky road in what sense?

STEPHEN RADEMAKER: Well, because it sets in process a chain of events that probably leads to the termination — or actually the reimposition of U.S. sanctions on Iran.

And it puts the United States in a position where we may be in conflict with some of our allies over how to proceed.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Yes, and I want to get to that.

But, Rob Malley, you just — on the basic point of whether Iran is in compliance or not, you have a different view?

ROB MALLEY: It's not a matter of a view.

Everyone who has looked at it — and I'm not just talking about foreign countries, the French, Germans, the Brits, the European Union, the Atomic Energy that does the monitoring, but the United States, the State Department, has certified several times that Iran is in compliance.

And Secretary Tillerson said it himself. So, I don't think it's a matter of debate. Iran is in compliance. The deal is working. And the deal has worked in ways that has put us far further from the risk of a nuclear-armed Iran than we were when the deal was first entered into.

So we are in a better position, and Iran is living up to the deal. Now, on this question of the spirit and the technical adherence to the deal, I think when it comes to an issue as serious as a nuclear deal that is supposed to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear bomb, we should deal with technical facts, not with spirits. I don't know what these spirits mean.

The other issues, ballistic missiles, Iran's support for terrorism, those are divorced from the JCPOA. They should be dealt with. They can be dealt with sanctions and other means. But they have nothing to do with the JCPOA. And that was very clear to us. It was very clear to the Iranians and to all the other negotiators.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you want to respond?

STEPHEN RADEMAKER: Well, we haven't seen the president's certification, so we don't know what he will say.

AS I pointed out, part of the certification is that it's in the U.S. national interest. And that's not an international judgment that's to be made. It's not a State Department judgment. It's a judgment by the president. So, I mean, that certainly would be one basis upon which he could withhold a certification.

I do think Iran has engaged in a variety of activities since previous presidential certifications that the president could point to as more than just violations of the spirit. He could claim they are violations of the letter.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Stephen Rademaker, let's come back to that point I think you were getting at a moment ago that, if this happened, what would it mean for the deal? Would the whole deal collapse? There are other countries who have signed on to this. What would happen?

STEPHEN RADEMAKER: Well, it's a little bit unclear.

Secretary — or — I'm sorry — Ambassador Nikki Haley gave a speech recently in which she outlined this — procedurally what will happen. And in the first instance, all that happens, if the president fails to certify, is that a process is triggered where Congress gets to consider whether to pass legislation to reimpose sanctions.

We don't know whether Congress will pass that legislation or not. So, but, in the first sense, what this does is, it puts Congress on the hook to consider whether it wants to reimpose sanctions.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What would you think would happen, Rob Malley? I know you don't want it to happen, but if the president says, we're not — I'm not recertifying this, what happens to the deal?

ROB MALLEY: So, first, I think it is important. We do agree that not certifying would be a mistake for all the reasons that Stephen just mentioned earlier.

If the president doesn't certify, and it is true that then the ball is in Congress' court. Congress has 60 days then to pass expedited sanctions legislation, which would reimpose all of the sanctions that had been lifted. That would be a clear-cut violation of the deal and that would really isolate the United States and really let Iran off the hook to do what it deems it wants to do because Iran — or the U.S. would have been in violation, in breach of the deal.

Congress could also decide to pass other sanctions to try to pressure Iran to try to change the deal. Who knows what they will do. But the problem, we then would be on a pathway where the world would believe, as they already do, most of them, that the U.S. is determined to scuttle the deal, to torpedo the deal.

That creates a crisis in our relations with Europe. It creates a crisis with Iran, where Iran again could feel entitled to rush to its atomic, its nuclear program.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right.

And let me just quickly, finally, ask you, Stephen Rademaker. Under what scenario does the U.S. come out of this, if the president decertifies, with a better deal with Iran and its nuclear program?

STEPHEN RADEMAKER: I think that will be a real diplomatic challenge.

But, you know, he's made clear that he has problems with the deal. I think a lot of people — a majority of the U.S. Congress disagreed with this deal. That was clear from the votes that were cast at the time.

So I think the president is struggling with the question of how does he reopen the matter and try to get a better deal for the United States. He's got quite a difficult road ahead of him. Congress perhaps can find a way to be helpful, if it considers legislation that imposes additional sanctions that pressure.

It would be conceivable, for example, for Congress to adopt new sanctions that are consistent with the JCPOA, but still pressure Iran.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right.

STEPHEN RADEMAKER: And maybe that would provide some leverage to bring about further agreements with Iran that would address some of the U.S. concerns.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we will see what happens. Again, the president is saying he has made a decision, but he is not disclosing what it is. I know we're going to continue to follow it.

Stephen Rademaker, Rob Malley, thank you both.

ROB MALLEY: Thank you.

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