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U.S. negotiator on Iran nuclear deal says withdrawing from it made things worse

A year after the Trump administration withdrew from a 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, Iran itself warned that it will stop complying with the agreement unless it receives promised economic benefits. Judy Woodruff talks to Ambassador Wendy Sherman, who served as lead U.S. negotiator for the nuclear agreement with Iran during the Obama administration, about the impact of recent U.S. policy toward Iran.

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  • Nick Schifrin:

    We now turn to Ambassador Wendy Sherman.

    She was the lead U.S. negotiator for the nuclear agreement with Iran during the Obama administration. And she's now a senior fellow at the Belfer Center at Harvard.

    You heard me ask Brian Hook whether the U.S. intention is to provoke Iran, is to wage war, which is what we heard from the Iranian ambassador. Do you believe the U.S. intention is to provoke Iran?

  • Wendy Sherman:

    Well, I hope that the U.S. intention is not to provoke Iran, to leave the deal, or to provoke Iran into a regional conflict.

    Indeed, I think that President Rouhani very carefully threaded the needle today, not leaving the deal, but take — beginning to take steps to say, please, let's not escalate the situation.

    I wish the Trump administration were as measured in its approach. And I would say to Brian Hook that — and to the Trump administration — what have they gotten as a result of withdrawing from this deal a year ago? There is more malign behavior in the Middle East, not less. Americans are still in prison and missing in Iran. The Iranian people do not have more freedom.

    And the administration has set Iran back on a path to perhaps working to obtain nuclear weapons, exactly what we stopped from happening.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So you just said the U.S. has led Iran onto that path. But, as I asked the ambassador, why should Iran enrich more than 3.67? What's wrong with where they are right now? And why isn't that criticism valid?

  • Wendy Sherman:

    Iran is very happy to stay at 3.67 percent in its enrichment of uranium, if, indeed, the joint comprehensive plan of action, the Iran deal, stays in place.

    And those limitations are for quite some time, and it is all about…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Although, as you know, your critics say not long enough.

  • Wendy Sherman:

    Yes, I know they say it's not forever. It's at least solid for 15 years that you cannot go above a certain stockpile limit. You can't go above 3.67 percent.

    But even after that, there are limitations on what Iran can do, and there is the most extensive monitoring and inspection of Iran of any country in the world.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Iran said, as you heard the ambassador, that we will enrich beyond 3.67 if we don't get the incentives that the JCPOA, that the Iran deal, intended for Iran to get.

    The Europeans would be the ones to help deliver that. Can they deliver the incentives economically to keep Iran within this deal?

  • Wendy Sherman:

    I think it's very tough, because, as I think you know quite well, the U.S. secondary economic sanctions, which say that, if you deal with the Central Bank of Iran, you can't deal with an American bank, are incredibly powerful, because, quite frankly, virtually every company in the world would choose an American bank over the Central Bank of Iran.

    And when you marry that with the oil sanctions that — with the administration trying to go to zero exports allowed around the world, they're very powerful sanctions.

    The U.S. has to be careful in what it does, though. If we use these sanctions too much, people will begin to say that we should no longer have the dollar as the reserve currency for the world.

    The other thing I would point out, Nick, is, in my view, there are tactics here, but no strategy, and certainly no consistent strategy. If we take a look at North Korea, if we take a look at Venezuela, if we take a look at how we're dealing with the Chinese and the Uyghurs, we see a very different set of standards.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The U.S. earlier this week deployed a carrier group to the Middle East, as well as a bomber squadron, in response to intelligence, according to the officials I spoke to, in which Iran was planning to target U.S. troops and also target U.S. allies, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates.

    Doesn't that show the Iran deal didn't improve Iranian behavior?

  • Wendy Sherman:

    We never said that it would improve Iranian behavior in the region. What we did say is that we needed to get the nuclear weapon off the table, so it wouldn't deter our actions and our partners and our allies' actions in the region.

    And we could then use all of the sanctions we still had on Iran to press them to the table to deal with their malign behavior, the state sponsorship of terrorism, their human rights abuses, and their keeping Americans in prison, and not bringing back missing Americans to our home.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Very quickly. I only have a little — a few seconds left.

  • Wendy Sherman:

    Sure.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Iran's strategy seems to be waiting out the Trump administration. If a Democrat is elected in 2020, should he or she rejoin the deal and/or try and expand it?

  • Wendy Sherman:

    I think every Democratic candidate that I have heard have said that they would immediately rejoin the deal.

    But, like in any arms control negotiation, you usually have a follow-on agreement.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Wendy Sherman, lead U.S. negotiator for the Iran deal, thank you so much.

  • Wendy Sherman:

    Thank you.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And for a view from the streets of Iran, we have more online, where I talk to special correspondent Reza Sayah in Tehran.

    That's at PBS.org/NewsHour.

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