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Does Congress stand a chance at successfully changing the Iran deal?

President Trump announced that he finds Iran is not in compliance with the 2015 nuclear agreement, but stopped short of actually withdrawing the U.S. from the deal, instead giving Congress 60 days to decide whether sanctions should be reimposed. Nick Schifrin gets two views from Robert Malley of the International Crisis Group and Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Now we return to the second major decision President Trump announced today.

    He refused to certify Iran's compliance with the 2015 Iranian nuclear agreement.

    Nick Schifrin has that.

  • NICK SCHIFRIN:

    Today, President Trump followed through on his vow to renounce one of his predecessor's signature achievements.

  • PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

    Today, I am announcing our strategy confront the Iranian regime's hostile actions and to ensure that Iran never, and I mean never, acquires a nuclear weapon.

  • NICK SCHIFRIN:

    President Trump accused Iran of violating the agreement's nuclear restrictions. He didn't decertify based on that, but because he said the deal didn't do enough to curb Iranian actions.

  • PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

    We will not continue down a path whose predictable conclusion is more violence, more terror, and the very real threat of Iran's nuclear breakout.

  • NICK SCHIFRIN:

    President Trump cited longstanding criticisms. The deal doesn't restrict Iranian support of groups such as Hezbollah, which the U.S. calls a terrorist organization. The deal doesn't restrict Iranian missile testing, and the deal includes expiry dates, or sunsets, on Iranian enrichment and uranium stockpiles.

  • PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

    As key restrictions disappear, Iran can sprint toward a rapid nuclear weapons breakout.

  • NICK SCHIFRIN:

    Part of today's announcement was new sanctions on Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps for sponsoring terrorism.

    In Iran, President Hassan Rouhani defended the Revolutionary Guard and called the deal non-negotiable.

  • PRESIDENT HASSAN ROUHANI, Iran (through interpreter):

    The Iranian nation is not a nation that will yield to forceful talking and hateful speeches from a dictator. The Iranian will not surrender to any nation.

  • NICK SCHIFRIN:

    The deal's defenders called President Trump's statement misguided and dangerous.

  • House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi:

  • REP. NANCY PELOSI, D-Calif, Minority Leader:

    House Minority Leader: President Trump's refusal to recertify is a grave mistake that threatens America's security and our credibility at a very critical time.

  • NICK SCHIFRIN:

    And the E.U.'s top diplomat, Federica Mogherini, said Iran was in compliance.

  • FEDERICA MOGHERINI, Foreign Policy Chief, European Union:

    We cannot afford, the international community, as Europe, for sure, to dismantle a nuclear agreement that is working and delivering, especially now.

  • NICK SCHIFRIN:

    What happens now is up to Congress. Senator Bob Corker will lead negotiations to eliminate the deal's expiry dates, and automatically reimpose nuclear sanctions if Iran advances its nuclear program.

  • SEN. BOB CORKER, R-Tenn.:

    In the event Iran takes steps to move to a lesser place than a one-year breakout, and do certain things with intercontinental ballistic missiles, we're going to reapply our sanctions. We have provided a route to overcome deficiencies and to keep the administration in the deal.

  • NICK SCHIFRIN:

    But today Trump said, if Congress fails and allies don't get on board, he won't stay in the deal.

  • PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

    They may come back with something is very satisfactory to me. And if they don't, within a very short period of time, I will terminate the deal.

  • NICK SCHIFRIN:

    We break down that threat and the legislation before Congress with Rob Malley. He was special assistant to President Obama and the lead senior White House negotiator for the agreement. He is now a vice president of the International Crisis Group. And Mark Dubowitz is chief executive of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. He has been advising the Trump administration on Iran policy.

    Welcome to you both. Thank you very much.

    Rob Malley, let me start with you.

    A lot of people who are defending the president say, look, this is the best way to get any leverage to actually get a better deal. The president has to decertify, Congress needs to make a move, and the president needs to threaten to walk away. What's wrong with that?

  • ROBERT MALLEY, International Crisis Group:

    It's not going to work. That's what's wrong with it. We have a deal now that's working.

    And everyone who's looked at it says it's working. In fact, what's quite striking is that the president, who probably would be desperate to say that Iran is not in compliance, had to say that he was in — that they are in compliance, and that's what he doesn't like.

    So the deal is working. And if now go and tell the Iranians, by the way, either agree to change the deal, or we're walking away, or you tell the Europeans, either you agree to renegotiate the deal or we're out, is that leverage, or is that threatening to violate the deal, which is going to convince them that there is no business to be done with this administration?

    Because it's basically telling them, either you help me violate the deal or I'm going to violate it on my own. I think their preference would be to tell them, to tell the president, go ahead, violate it on your own. We're not going to be accomplices.

  • NICK SCHIFRIN:

    So, Mark Dubowitz, leverage or inevitable violation?

    MARK DUBOWITZ, Foundation for the Defense of Democracies: No, it's leverage.

    And the deal is working. I actually agree with Rob. It's working for the Iranians. And it's working for the Iranians because they're getting hundreds of billions of dollars in sanctions relief that the Revolutionary Guards is using to fund its destructive activities abroad, its internal repression at home.

    And the deal is working for the Iranians because it was never about Iranian compliance. It was all about Iranian violations with respect to the deal and a patient pathway to nuclear weapons and ICBMs.

    I mean, we are obsessed with Iranian violations. They are obsessed with compliance. They are obsessed with waiting for restrictions to go away over time and to emerge in 10 years time with an industrial-sized nuclear program, with near zero nuclear breakout, with ICBMs, with advanced centrifuges they can hide under mountains, a trillion-dollar economy immunized against our ability to use sanctions, and regional hegemony.

    That sounds like the deal is working.

  • NICK SCHIFRIN:

    So, Robert Malley, is the deal just handing all these things to Iran?

  • ROBERT MALLEY:

    Let's remember where we were back in 2014-15.

    The threat that Prime Minister Netanyahu, our own leaders, Republican and Democrats, were saying was that the existential request we faced was Iran requiring enough fissile material to build a nuclear bomb. That was what everyone was saying what we had to address.

    President Obama addressed it. It's working. We now have at least 10 to 15 years where Iran would be at least a year away from being able to acquire that fissile material. And then other restrictions will last longer than that.

    And what Mark is not saying is, OK, so, you threaten to walk away if Iran doesn't renegotiate the deal, which they won't do that. I could almost guarantee that. So, then we walk away. And then all these restrictions that they're currently living under disappear.

    And we're going to face only an Iran with ballistic missiles and all the other activities that Mark objects to, but also with the freedom to go ahead and accumulate enriched uranium at levels that currently they can't do, and without the inspections that are unprecedented. And Mark didn't mention that.

  • NICK SCHIFRIN:

    So, Mark Dubowitz, so Senator Corker has — we're saying that he has perhaps a solution to some of these problems.

    And he's going to lay out legislation that would have automatic snap-back sanctions if Iran dips below one-year breakout to a nuclear weapon, and he says effectively rid the deal of the sunset clauses and penalize Iran for its intercontinental ballistic missile program.

    Can that work?

  • MARK DUBOWITZ:

    Well, I think Rob deserves a lot of credit for actually getting Iran to one-year breakout. So that's a good move. And I think we should be grateful.

  • NICK SCHIFRIN:

    Because it was only about a month before.

  • MARK DUBOWITZ:

    Yes. No, they got them to one-year breakout.

    The problem is, as Barack Obama himself has said, that after year 10 and 11 and 12, breakout time actually falls to weeks and then days. So, that of course was the problem with the deal.

    And I think what Bob Corker is saying is, that's unacceptable as a matter of national security, that the Iranians are going to get near zero nuclear breakout. And they will be a turn of the screw away from having dozens of nuclear weapons.

    So he wants to lock in as a matter of statute, as a statement of U.S. law and policy, that Iran should never have less than one-year breakout. I'm sure Rob agrees Iran should never have less than one-year breakout, and that we have got to find a way, a bipartisan way, to deal with these sunset provisions, so that they don't emerge with a massive nuclear program and the ability to develop multiple nuclear weapons, affix them to ICBMs, and threaten the United States.

  • NICK SCHIFRIN:

    So, Robert Malley, is that realistic? Can Senator Bob Corker and the Senate unilaterally essentially change some of the aspects of this deal? Isn't that a violation of the deal?

  • ROBERT MALLEY:

    Sure, they could try. Again, they won't succeed.

    I think there's a way to go about this, and there's a way not to go about it. The way not to go about it is to tell the Iranians today, by the way, we're unilaterally going to rewrite the deal.

    This deal, which part of the compromise was that, after a period of time, some of the restrictions would be lifted, although Iran would never be allowed to build a nuclear bomb. It still would have to submit to intrusive inspections. Those would last forever.

    But some of the constraints would be lifted over time. That was part of a deal. And if we go tell the Iranians that part of the deal which we negotiated for months, we're taking it away, by the way. You're not going to have any freedom to do — to lift any of these constraints over time, they will say, what's in it for us? What did we negotiate for?

    The right way to do is to say, let's implement this deal now. Why create an artificial crisis, when today we have Iran, as Mark acknowledges, at a one-year breakout timeline?

    Let's keep it. If, in four, five, six years, the deal is being implemented, we could sit down with the Iranians. And the Europeans might be prepared. They have said they would be prepared to do it, to sit with them and say, the deal is the deal, but there are some things we want now, we would like to have more, which is, we would like some of these things to be extended there.

    There may be things the Iranians want. You negotiate it. But if you try to impose it unilaterally, you are encouraging the Iranians to do the same. They could unilaterally decide they want to change parts of the deal. And the deal will collapse. And we will be alone in that. We will be alone.

  • NICK SCHIFRIN:

    And, Mark Dubowitz, that is one other criticism, that this is going to isolate the U.S.

    And, you know, critics say, well, if we're going to try and change the deal now, our word is worth less and so, therefore, people like North Korea won't negotiate in the future.

  • MARK DUBOWITZ:

    So, what the president said in his speech as well is that part of the strategy is not just to work legislatively with Senator Bob Corker, but to work with the Europeans.

    And President Emmanuel Macron has come out three occasions publicly saying, please keep the nuclear deal, Donald Trump. Don't walk away from this deal. And if you don't walk away from this deal, we are prepared to address the sunset provisions, these the 2025 post-scenarios that Rob and I agree are very problematic, agree with the missile program.

    We have got to deal with the missile program. We don't want Iran to have ICBMs. And we have got to deal with Iran's destructive regional behavior.

    So, the Europeans are already showing a willingness to shift the debate from where they were before, was keep it, and other were saying nix it, to where we are today, which is fix it or nix it.

  • ROBERT MALLEY:

    The Iranians will not agree. What is it in for them?

    Why would they sit down and say, we're OK with changing the terms of the deal, the terms that you want to change in the deal, and you're threatening to walk away from the deal that currently exists?

    Why would they even sit down with us?

  • MARK DUBOWITZ:

    It happened multiple times in the Cold War with the Soviet Union when they had nuclear-tipped missiles aimed at American cities.

    We walked away from deals. We renegotiated deals. We renegotiated follow-on agreements. It happened with the Soviet Union, and even though everyone said the Soviets were not prepared to negotiate, and Ronald Reagan showed them that that wasn't the case.

  • NICK SCHIFRIN:

    All right, we're going to have to leave it there.

  • ROBERT MALLEY:

    Playing with fire.

  • NICK SCHIFRIN:

    We're going to have to leave it there.

    Mark Dubowitz, Robert Malley, thank you very much.

  • ROBERT MALLEY:

    Thank you.

  • MARK DUBOWITZ:

    Thanks so much.

    Thanks, Rob.

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