Will the Iran nuclear agreement work?

To evaluate the significance and effectiveness of the Iran nuclear agreement, Judy Woodruff gets reaction from former CIA Director James Woolsey, Dennis Ross, a former Middle East peace envoy, former National Security Advisor Sandy Berger and retired Gen. Michael Hayden, also a former CIA director.

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    So, how effective is this deal at preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon?

    We hear from four people with extensive U.S. foreign policy experience.

    Sandy Berger was national security advisor to President Bill Clinton. Retired General Michael Hayden was director of the CIA during the George W. Bush administration. Dennis Ross served in Republican and Democratic administrations as a Middle East peace envoy. And Jim Woolsey was director of the CIA during the Clinton administration.

    And we welcome you all to the program.

    Let me just start by asking you all, what do you make of this deal? Does this prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon?

    Jim Woolsey, to you first.

  • JAMES WOOLSEY, Former CIA Director:

    I don't believe it does. I think there is no elastic, essentially, in the snap-back sanctions. They will — they really depend upon Russian and Chinese cooperation.

    And I think that…


    What do you mean they depend on Russian and Chinese cooperation?


    In order to take action based upon something that we perceive the Iranians have done, unless the Iranians agree and say, 'oh, yes, we did that,' you have a situation where we have to try to force discipline on the system, and we're not going to have Russian and Chinese support, mostly, in order to do that.


    How strong is that agreement, Sandy Berger, and do you see that weakness?

  • SANDY BERGER, Former U.S. National Security Advisor:

    I think the agreement is a strong agreement.

    I think it prevents Iran from developing a nuclear weapon for at least 10, probably 15 years. I don't think it depends on trust. I think it's verifiable. If they cheat, we can go to the U.N. I think Jim is wrong about the way of reimposing the sanctions. The way the agreement is written, Russia, China and Iran cannot stop us from reimposing the sanctions.

    If the — if us and — if we or our allies believe Iran is cheating, and we go to the U.N., we cannot be blocked by Russia, China and Iran alone or in combination. That's a pretty strong provision. And I think it's essential to the fabric of this agreement. We're not relying upon anything other than our own judgment as to whether or not they're cheating on this agreement.


    General Hayden, how do you see this?

    GEN. MICHAEL HAYDEN (RET.), Former CIA Director: Well, actually a combination of the two views you just heard.

    I think it does do some really good things for a period of about a decade, but it does legitimate an industrial-strength Iranian nuclear program. As we get to the sunset years, even assuming success across the board for the agreement, as we get to the sunset years, Iran is very well-positioned to break out if they choose to do so.


    Dennis Ross, why isn't that a concern, that it does wind Iran down for a period of years, but when that period is over, Iran can build back up again?

    DENNIS ROSS, Former Middle East peace envoy: Well, I think it is a period. I think it is a source of concern.

    I think the key here is, for 15 years, you really are basically deferring what they can do when it comes to a nuclear weapon. But come year 15, they are a threshold nuclear state. And unless we establish a very clear deterrent, so that they understand if they move from threshold to weapons status, that the price is going to be unbearable, meaning not just sanctions, but the use of force, that's the only way to ensure that they don't become a nuclear weapons state.


    And do you think that deterrent is clear and strong?


    Not right now.

    I think we have to make — I think language has to be much more blunt. I think we have to be clear it's not just all options are on the table, but we will not permit Iran to become a nuclear weapons state and we will take whatever steps are necessary, including the use of force, to ensure that.


    Sandy Berger, you're shaking your head.


    Yes. No, I agree.

    The president has said we will not permit Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. That is a commitment of the United States. It doesn't expire. It's not vitiated by this agreement. He should reiterate that and make it very, very clear.

    But the agreement itself restricts Iran for 15 years. But the verification provisions go on much longer. So we will have transparency under this system for a very long time. And if the president reiterates that view that we're not going to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, we will have a lot of access to what they're doing.


    why doesn't that give you confidence, Jim Woolsey?


    Well, in the first place, Russia and China are members of the Security Council, and one can do little under this agreement without having the Security Council's support.

    And I think that the real problem is that, by paying tens upon tens of billions of dollars to Iran in the near term, which we will do as a result of the sanctions being lifted, we're creating a situation in which Iran is the leading terrorist country in the world, has a lot more resources available to it to buy what they want via Hamas and the other terrorist organizations they front.


    And Gwen asked National Security Adviser Susan Rice about that.

    Michael Hayden, is that a concern to you?


    It's absolutely a concern.

    So, assuming a good agreement, let's say it works for that 10-year period, we have got the sunset problem. But also, Judy, look at what we have just done. We have legitimated a program until this morning that was illegal, that was in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions.

    We have brought Iran back into the family of nations. It's now no longer a renegade state. The sanctions end, they become rich, and none of those other activities about which we are very concerned Iran has been conducting, none of those have stopped.




    Well, I would say two things.

    First of all, Iran is a nuclear threshold state. They have been a nuclear threshold state since they started building centrifuges in the middle of the Bush administration. The question is, what are we going to do about it? Are we going to roll it back or let them have this program and go forward?

    So I think that's where we are at this point. I absolutely agree this agreement does not solve the Iranian problem in the region. Iran is a country that is destabilizing the region, a country that we have to be concerned with. I don't see this agreement as solving that problem. I think this agreement is useful, not in spite of that, but because of that, because all those conflicts, all that ambition would be more dangerous if Iran were emboldened because they had a nuclear weapon.


    Well, Dennis Ross, as someone who has worked on that — those conflicts in the region, how do you see that aspect of it?


    Look, there is no question that they will get, with sanctions relief, they will get to what amounts to a windfall. True, it is their money, but you have close to $150 billion that are in frozen assets, frozen accounts right now.

    They don't get it for about six months. What Susan Rice said is right. They have to implement the major obligations, the major nuclear obligations in the deal. And it will take about six months to do that. I think the key here at this point is for the Iranians to understand two things. One, we need to reestablish deterrence not only at the level of them not moving from threshold to nuclear weapons state status, but also we have to raise the cost to them of what they do in the region.

    We have to be prepared to compete with them. They have to realize that if we see them giving a lot more money to Hezbollah, a lot more money to Hamas, to the Houthis or to Asaib Ahl-Haq in Iraq, they are going to see much greater competition from us.

    We should be talking to the Europeans now about targeted sanctions if we see that. And we should be doing contingency planning with the Israelis and with the Arabs to deal with increased activity by the Iranians throughout the region.


    And I saw the president in a phone call today with Prime Minister Netanyahu trying to reassure him on some of these points.

    Jim Woolsey, I want to come to this other question of inspections. The president said — it was noticeable the president said 24/7 access. But then, later, we see it's something called managed access. How comfortable are you with whatever inspection arrangement there is?


    Not at all.

    If we point out a violation or the need for an inspection, you have two weeks, and then it goes to a committee, and then the committee looks at it for a while, and then — this has all been very elaborately constructed in such a way as to give Iran a lot of leeway in order to deal with this, and they do not have to have, ultimately, a huge industrial structure that they can't hide.

    They can hide the relevant parts of being able to make a few weapons in a relatively small space and can move them.


    Where do you come down on this, General Hayden?


    Pretty much where Jim is.

    The inspections are the pass-fail aspect of the agreement. And we cannot do it through American espionage or national technical means. The only way we get a verifiable agreement is that the IAEA gets to go where they want to go.

    And, Judy, fundamentally, I think that's a technical question that this international group should have the freedom to move. The solution set here moves this into a political process. And I'm just fearful that that will make it much more difficult to verify.


    How do you respond?


    Look, I think the agreement is quite clear. I think the administration has done a good job here.

    If the Iranians don't let us into a particular site, there is a process of several weeks. If we're not satisfied, we and our allies can go to the Security Council and have the sanctions reimposed. If Russia is screaming, if China is screaming and if Iran is screaming, they cannot block that. So, I think that's really crystal clear.

    Let me just make one other point on the sanctions point. We don't own these sanctions. They're not ours. They're international sanctions. They include the Indians and the South Koreans and the Japanese and a lot of countries that aren't terribly threatened by Iran.

    They opposed these sanctions, because they wanted to bring Iran to the table, and they believed we would negotiate seriously. If we don't now follow through on that, the sanctions regime will unravel, Iran will get its money without any nuclear controls.


    And that raises the question about what happens if this falls apart. For the critics who are saying this is the wrong deal, what's the alternative, Dennis Ross?


    Well, I think there is a burden on the critics to explain that, because I think the point that Sandy just made is right.

    There is a reality here. You have the international community basically embracing this agreement. Certainly, the members of 5-plus-one have embraced this agreement. The Iranians will say they're going to implement the agreement. I actually think, if this were to be blocked, the Iranians would come out and say, we will implement it.

    And the European Union — if you read the agreement, the European Union, commits, there are separate paragraphs where the European Union commit, if the Iranians do their part in terms of meeting these major obligations, the E.U. is then committed to lifting the sanctions.

    So, I am concerned that you wouldn't be able to sustain that. And so if the critics are really convinced that the best way to deal with this is to block the sanctions, they have to explain why the outcome isn't going to be sanctions collapse, the Iranians get the windfall, they're really not restricted.

    In a sense, both — from my standpoint, the administration has some issues it has to address, including how you deal with the suspect sites. It's an — we have 24/7 access to facilities like Natanz. It comes — when it comes to suspect sites, that becomes more problematic, and then you're talking about what could be a 30- to 35-day period before you actually get access.


    And you're saying the critics also have a question to answer.

    Jim Woolsey, what is the answer? Why wouldn't the sanctions regime collapse, Iran just moves toward complete nuclear program that it wants?


    Well, I think it will come very close to doing that anyway.

    We have to realize what we have got here and what we're dealing with. It's not a state — I once led a set of negotiations and participated in three with the Soviets. And with the Soviets, it was a different situation. They were far from lovely folks to deal with.

    But with Iran, we're dealing with a leadership of the country that are theocratic, totalitarian, genocidal imperialists. And each of those words I think can definitely be supported. They have a word, taquia, which essentially means lying to infidels. It's recommended.

    And we are not dealing with a normal sort of autocratic state that we have to be careful how we deal with.


    But my question is, if this doesn't work, what's the alternative?

    Isn't the alternative, Michael Hayden, Iran has a clear path to do what it wants?


    It depends. It depends on American leadership. It depends on how clearly we state our reasons that this is not a good enough deal.

    And good enough might be as good as it gets. But, Judy, if you push that logic too far, you don't have a plan B, you could actually back yourself into a position where any deal is better than no deal. And I don't think that's a sustainable position.


    Gentlemen, we're going to leave it there. It's just day one of debating this nuclear agreement.

    We thank you all for being here, Jim Woolsey, Michael Hayden, Sandy Berger, and Dennis Ross. Thank you.

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