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How will Iran navigate new pressures after U.S. quits nuclear deal?

Iranian lawmakers expressed outright fury over the U.S. decision to walk away from the 2015 nuclear agreement. Iran's supreme leader was no more measured, lashing out at President Trump and accusing him of lying. William Brangham gets analysis on what’s happening inside Iran from Vali Nasr of Johns Hopkins University and Robin Wright of the United States Institute of Peace.

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  • William Brangham:

    Now back to the ongoing fallout to President Trump's decision to break the U.S. commitment to the Iran nuclear deal, and withdraw from the pact.

    Worldwide reaction continued today, including protests within Iran.

    Iranian lawmakers had one reaction today, outright fury, to the U.S.' decision to walk away from the 2015 nuclear agreement. Inside Parliament, they chanted the usual refrain, "Death to America," and burned an image of an American flag.

    Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was no more measured. He lashed out at President Trump, accusing him of lying in yesterday's announcement.

  • Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (through translator):

    This man will die, and his body will turn into ashes and food for worms and ants, but the Islamic Republic will continue to stand.

  • William Brangham:

    At the White House, President Trump insisted that new sanctions were coming, and offered this warning to the Iranian regime:

  • President Donald Trump:

    I would advise Iran not to start their nuclear program. I would advise them very strongly. If they do, there will be very severe consequence.

  • William Brangham:

    In London and other world capitals today, talk centered on keeping the nuclear deal alive without the U.S. Members of parliament challenged British Prime Minister Theresa May about her efforts to keep the U.S. in the deal.

  • Ian Blackford:

    Did she speak in the strongest terms on the lunacy of the actions that the president of the United States has taken?

  • Theresa May:

    I have been very clear in a number of conversations with the president of the United States about the belief of the United Kingdom that the JCPOA, the nuclear deal with Iran, should stay.

  • William Brangham:

    German Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed her disappointment, and said Germany would try to keep the deal together.

  • Angela Merkel (through translator):

    We will remain committed to the agreement and will do everything in our power to ensure that Iran also meets its obligations in the future.

  • William Brangham:

    From Paris, French President Emmanuel Macron called Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to express his view that both of their countries should keep honoring the agreement. But Khamenei said today he didn't trust the U.K., Germany or France.

    In Beijing, a Foreign Ministry spokesman said China, which also signed onto the 2015 pact, would be sticking with it as well.

    Meantime, American officials ramped up the economic pressure against Iran and against those who do business there. The new U.S. ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, tweeted that German companies doing business in Iran should wind down operations immediately.

    And rival manufacturers Boeing and Airbus could be two of the biggest companies hurt by the decision. The Trump administration has indicated that the two manufacturers may lose their licenses to sell Iran commercial airliners.

    Now two views on what is happening, and could happen, inside Iran.

    Vali Nasr is the dean of the John Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies. He served as the State Department's counselor during the Obama administration. Robin Wright is a staff writer for "The New Yorker," and author of two books on Iran. She's also a distinguished scholar at the United States Institute of Peace.

    Welcome to you both.

    Vali Nasr, to you first.

    We have seen the denunciations from the president and the supreme leader of Iran to the president's move. What do you think Iran is going to do next?

  • Vali Nasr:

    I think, in the immediate future, they're going to give Europeans, Chinese, and the Russians time to see whether they can preserve elements of the deal that is enough economic activity with Iran that would justify Iran staying with the deal.

    That might take about 30 to 45 days. If that doesn't work out, then I think there will be domestic pressure on Iran to essentially part ways with the deal.

    But I think, at the same time, Iran would have to — look for ways to convince Washington that it's not as weak and vulnerable as the administration may have concluded that it is. And that's actually much tougher for them to do.

  • William Brangham:

    Robin Wright, obviously, President Rouhani is in a very tough spot here. He was elected, in no small part, to deliver on this, to sign a nuclear deal, to open up relations with the West, and to reap the benefits of this deal.

    What happens with him now?

  • Robin Wright:

    Well, one of the big questions about Iran and its reactions is the context in which it plays out, because Iran is at a critical juncture.

    They have aging leadership. The actuarial charts would tell you the supreme leader will at some point transit out of the world.

  • William Brangham:

    Leave this world.

  • Robin Wright:

    And there will be a new one. The Iranians have to select a new one. Iran has term limits on the presidency, and so they will go to the polls, and President Rouhani will not run again.

    The big question, of course, is, does this aid the hard-liners who are a minority, but disproportionately powerful? And will this give them the leverage to re-exert themselves and say, you see, we were right all along, you can't do business with the United States, they're still the great Satan, and so we should stand up to them, and vote for us instead?

  • William Brangham:

    Certainly, that is one of the arguments that the hard-liners always made, that you can't trust the Americans. And in some ways, President Trump has fulfilled that prophecy that they made.

  • Vali Nasr:


    I think President Rouhani and his team and his faction in Iran made a bet on the nuclear deal, that it is possible to engage the West and perhaps change Iran's economy and even political structures through an engagement with the West, and you can trust United States and the European countries to work with you.

    I think, at least, in Iran, the perception is that he's proven wrong, that the Iranians paid a huge cost in terms of liquidating its main leverage, which was the nuclear program, and he has very little to show for it. Its economy is weaker now than in fact when the nuclear negotiation started, and, actually, it can't — doesn't have much to go back to the table with.

    I think, at the same time, though, the hard-liners do need President Rouhani at this moment, because the economy is weak. They were riots in Iran. And I think he is in a better position to keep the Iranian public right-sided.

    He is also the face that Iran needs in terms of engaging Europeans, Russians, and the Chinese. On the other hand, I would say that it is the hard-liners that hold all the cards regionally, in Syria, in Iraq, in Yemen, in Afghanistan. And that's actually now the only place where Iran has actually something that it could use in order to get some degree of U.S., you know, respect for Iranian power and…

  • William Brangham:

    A lever in their favor.

  • Vali Nasr:

    A lever, exactly. And that's in the hands of the hard-liners.

  • William Brangham:

    President Trump believes that he can renegotiate this deal. He thinks that Iran, as Vali has just been saying, that they are economically weak, and that these new sanctions that he wants to impose will bit and bring them back to the table.

    How realistic is that?

  • Robin Wright:

    Very unrealistic.

    The prospects of Iran going back to the table are almost nil. At the moment, they feel they have the rest of the world on their side. They also have — we believe, have developed a nuclear capacity, that they weren't going to build a bomb itself and test it because they knew there would be some kind of regional response, international response, and they have gotten militarily to where they want to be.

    So, the incentive for them is to actually stay in the deal and to bee seen to be complying. If they walk away from the deal, then, suddenly, the whole world will be reimposing sanctions, and that will cost even more to them.

    So, at the moment, if they play their cards right, they can resist at least short-term. The question is, how does this play out domestically? And that still is — they will a very severe economic price for what President Trump has done.

  • William Brangham:

    What about the other argument that President Trump made all along, which was the parts that were not in the deal, Iranian's development of ballistic missiles, their actions elsewhere in the region?

    The president wants those to be addressed. Is there any realistic sense that the Iranians would change their behavior, would stop research on ballistic missiles to satisfy the president?

  • Vali Nasr:

    I don't think so. I think it actually doesn't make sense for them to do that, largely because that's the only levers they have.

    But, also, if you went back to 2015, when the deal was signed, the most important issue with Iran was the nuclear program, then followed by ballistic missiles, followed by Hezbollah. You could have a list. The top of the list was the nuclear issue.

    President Obama removed that top of the list, so we could focus on item two, three, four. Now we have put back — the nuclear issue back on top of the list. In fact, any pressure we bring on Iran is going to have to deal with the nuclear program, with the sunset clause, with all the things that President Trump complained about.

    And I think, in effect, ballistic missiles, terrorism, Hezbollah, regional behavior is going to be pushed further down the line. And at the same time, you know, once the nuclear deal was signed, the United States gave huge amount of arms to Iran's neighbors.

    That created, if you will, a military deficit between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which actually was the reason why they doubled down on ballistic missiles. And I do think that Iran does feel vulnerability with Israel in Syria. It does feel vulnerability with Saudi Arabia, and that that kind of sense of insecurity is not going to help them give these things up.

  • William Brangham:

    Robin Wright, do you feel that there are pressures on Rouhani and the supreme leader to go full nuclear, to say, we are done with this fully, to kick the inspectors out, and to restart the program?

    Do you really think the international condemnation and potential military action that would follow means that that's really not going to happen, that they're not going to restart their program?

  • Robin Wright:

    Well, there not much incentive to restart their program right now, unless it's a response to what President Trump has done.

    And they have threatened that, if the U.S. withdrew, they had the option of withdrawing. There are a lot of options along the way. I would think that , if Iranians were gaming it — and they're very good gamers — that they would be looking more at a response in the region, whether it's what they do in Syria, what they do in Iraq, that they look for those areas where the United States and Iran have rival interests, and that that's where you see, because the hard-liners are more powerful there, whether it's the Revolutionary Guards, the kind of militant wings of the regime, will make some kind of response.

    That's, I think, where much more likely than immediately restarting the nuclear program.

  • William Brangham:

    Robin Wright, Vali Nasr, thank you both very much.

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