Trump signals he might pull out of the Iran nuclear deal. What’s at stake?

Two years since the Iran nuclear agreement was signed, President Trump may be on the way to pulling the U.S. out of the deal. The president indicated in an interview he's willing to overrule the State Department and not certify Iran’s compliance. John Yang talks to Robert Malley, a former White House negotiator for the Iran nuclear talks, and Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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    It has been just over two years since the Iran nuclear agreement was signed under the Obama administration. But President Trump may very well be on the way toward pulling the United States out of the deal.

    John Yang has that.


    Candidate Donald Trump ran against the agreement, but President Trump has twice followed the State Department's advice, and certified that Iran is complying with it.

    But now, in a Wall Street Journal interview published today, Mr. Trump indicates he's willing to overrule the State Department when the next certification is due in October.


    We have given them the benefit of every doubt. We're doing very detailed studies. And, personally, I have great respect for my people. If it was up to me, I would have had them noncompliant 180 days ago.


    Do you expect them to be declared noncompliant next time?


    Personally, I do.


    What would it mean if Mr. Trump said Iran is not complying? What's at stake here?

    We get two views. First, Rob Malley is here in the studio. As 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 joining us from Toronto is Mark Dubowitz. He 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.

    Rob, let me start with you.

    What's your response to what the president said? I should point out that, in that interview, he went on to say that he thinks Iran is taking advantage of this country. He said: "They have taken advantage of a president named Barack Obama who didn't know what the hell he was doing."

  • ROBERT MALLEY, International Crisis Group:

    I'll respond to that, but let's get the facts straight.

    We have now, since President Trump has been in office, twice, they — the administration certified that Iran was in compliance of the deal. Twice, the administration waived the sanctions, which is a way of indicating that it's mutually reciprocal. This is the administration's response to the fact that Iran is doing its share, we do our share.

    Twice, the agency, the international agency that's responsible for deciding whether — decides on compliance — whether Iran is in compliance with its nuclear restrictions, the International Atomic Energy Agency, twice since Trump has been in office, it has said that Iran is living up to its deal.

    And, twice, the joint commission, which is a commission formed by all of the member countries that negotiated the deal, including the United States, twice, including recently, they have said that Iran is in compliance.

    So maybe the president has information that he hasn't shared with anyone else. But, at this point, it's clear that for almost every objective observer, every objective observer — the subjective observers may have another view — but every objective observer has said Iran is in compliance.

    So, I don't know where he comes up with saying that he knows, but others don't know. Even his Cabinet disagrees, apparently, but he knows that Iran is not in compliance.

    So, that really would be breaking our own obligations under the deal, but also breaking with our allies, which would put us in a very difficult position.


    Mark Dubowitz, you are advising the administration. I presume you wouldn't want to talk about that advice, make that advice public.

    But what should the president should do? What do you think the president should do when this next certification comes up?

    MARK DUBOWITZ, Foundation for the Defense of Democracies: So, the president should make it very clear that Iran is not in compliance with the deal.

    It's been very clear. And Secretary Tillerson's letter to Congress again made it very clear that there are incremental violations of the deal. The president actually didn't certify that Iran is in full compliance with the deal. He merely said that Iran meets certain conditions that were laid by Congress, which didn't require full compliance.

    So, my advice to the president would be state the facts, which is, Iran is incrementally violating the deal, but unless there's a material breach of the JCPOA, the nuclear deal, don't go to the joint commission, don't snap back the U.N. sanctions, but use that noncompliance as a predicate to roll out a much more comprehensive Iran policy that deals with all forms of Iranian malign behavior, not only nuclear misbehavior, but Iran's malign behavior across multiple fronts.

    That's a full, comprehensive policy, and it gets us away from this myopic focus on the nuclear deal, which I think paralyzed U.S.-Iran policy under President Obama.


    Rob Malley, myopic focus on the nuclear deal? Or should there be consideration of things, a broader consideration, as he says?


    There should, there has been, and there will continue to be.

    I mean, what the Obama administration, what President Obama did was take one issue, which was a critical issue, not only our national security experts, but Israeli and other experts said, if Iran were to rush to a bomb, we would be in a very difficult situation.

    Let's look at the case of North Korea. We wouldn't want to see a North Korea in the Persian Gulf. So, that was a priority at that point wasn't not to give up on the other issues. Let's at least make sure that Iran is not in a position to get a bomb.

    At the same time, let's push back on their regional activities, let's see what we can do about their ballistic missiles, but the deal itself — and deliberately — was about this issue. It wasn't a case of myopia. It was a case of, we're going to deal with the issue. We solved it, at least for the time being. And let's work on the other issues at the same time.

    There is nothing in the nuclear deal that would prevent us from taking action against Iran if it engaged in terrorism, ballistic missiles, human rights violations. The question at the heart of what the president said is whether we are going to continue to honor our part of the deal, to make sure that Iran also honors its part and doesn't rush to a nuclear bomb, so that we don't have what we now in North Korea.

    North Korea, we have a country that has a nuclear bomb, and we have no visibility on what they're doing. In Iran, we have a country that doesn't have a nuclear bomb, and we have almost maximum visibility as a result of the deal in every aspect of their nuclear program.


    Mark Dubowitz, what about that, the idea that it's better to know what is going on, to work within this agreement and know what Iran is doing?


    Well, I'm glad Rob brought up the fatally flawed North Korea nuclear agreement, because the Iran nuclear agreement is similarly fatally flawed.

    It contains within it sunset provisions, where the restrictions of Iran's nuclear program actually go away over time, and Iran can emerge, by actually faithfully complying with the deal, with an industrial sized nuclear program, with near zero nuclear breakout capability, with a much easier covert sneak-out capability with an ICBM, with a powerful economy fortified against our ability to use sanctions, and with increased regional hegemony.

    So, Rob is right. The deal temporarily pushed the Iranians further in terms of breakout, but over the medium term, Iran is going to emerge with everything it wants by faithfully complying with the deal.

    So, we don't want another fatally flawed nuclear agreement like we had with North Korea. What we need to start dealing with is this flawed agreement. And I think the president has already made it very clear that he thinks this is a terrible deal, he thinks it's a fatally flawed deal.

    And I think my advice to him is don't certify compliance and begin to lay the predicate for a massive pressure campaign and get the Iranians back to the table to negotiate a nuclear deal number two that addresses some of these fatally flawed elements of the deal, and, by the way, give us inspection rights into military sites, which, right now, we have in theory, but, in practice, the Iranians aren't letting us into their military sites, where they're likely to engage in nuclear weaponization activities like they have in the past.

    So, we better rectify this fatally flawed deal, or the Iranians are going to a nuke, ICBMs, and they're going to have the ability to dominate like nothing we have seen before.


    Rob Malley, what would be the consequences? What is at stake here? What would be the consequences if the president did say Iran is not living up to this deal?


    Well, first, I have to say, I'm a little bit confused about argument that Mark was making.

    Is the argument that the deal is fatally flawed and, therefore, we shouldn't accept it, we should walk away, we should renegotiate it, which would be one path? Very dangerous. And I won't get into that.

    Or is his view, the deal is OK for now, but in 12, 13, 14, 15 years, as some provisions are going to expire, and so we should think of whether we can negotiate what happens afterwards, but in which case we're going to give something to Iranians in return. Nobody is going to — the Iranians are not going to accept to negotiate more restrictions in exchange for nothing.

    So, I think we need to clarify. Right now, we're in a much better position than we were at the time President Obama took office, because we have these restrictions. And according to every inspection that has been done, every report by the IAEA, Iran is in compliance.

    Now, if tomorrow, the president were to decide to announce that Iran is not in compliance, first of all, I think we would have a little bit of deja vu in terms of Iraq. I think most people in the international community would believe that we're just fabricating evidence, because we haven't shared it, because, right now, we're the only ones who are claiming that Iran is not in — or we would be the only ones claiming that.

    That would not put us in a strong position. If we were to do that, and that is it, and continue to honor the deal, it would be a hiccup. It would once again signal to the world that we have a rather erratic administration.

    If he were then to impose sanctions, to reimpose the sanctions that were lifted, reimpose sanctions on Iran's nuclear program, then we would be in breach. And either Iran would itself say we're not only bound by our own commitments, and we have a possibility of Iran trying to acquire a nuclear bomb, or we would be isolated in the international community, because the Europeans, the Russians, the Chinese, everyone would say, it's on you. It's not on Iran.

    Why would we want that?


    Mark Dubowitz, let me — I want you to respond.

    What would happen? What practically would happen if the president said they weren't complying? And then what should the next step be?


    Well, actually, practically speaking, what Rob's not telling you is that, if the president says they're not complying, but he doesn't say that they're in material breach, then actually nothing happens.

    Then we don't go to the joint commission. We don't snap back U.N. and U.S. sanctions. We merely say Iran is engaging in incremental violations. And we know that the Iranians violate incrementally, not egregiously, even though, over time, the sum total of the incremental violations is always egregious.

    What Rob's not telling you is that he knows and we know that the Iranians have been incrementally violating this deal. They have exceeded heavy water caps. Heavy water is the essential ingredient you need for a plutonium bomb.

    They're testing more advanced centrifuges than they are permitted under the nuclear agreement. They have been illicitly procuring nuclear and ballistic missile technology in Germany, according to German intelligence services.

    And they have exceeded their enrichment cap. So, the fact of the matter is, there are violations. They're not material breaches. They're incremental violations. The president should state that, certify that, and say Iran is not in full compliance.

    Now, the second step is to say whether it's a material breach. And it's. It's not a material breach. And he should move ahead with the maximum pressure campaign.


    Mark Dubowitz, I'm sorry. We're out of time.

    Mark Dubowitz, Rob Malley, we're going to have to leave it there. Thank you, gentlemen.


    Thank you.


    Thanks so much.

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