GWEN IFILL: Over the weekend, Oregon Democrat Jeff Merkley became the 31st senator to announce his support for the Iran nuclear agreement. His backing puts President Obama three votes away from winning a veto-proof majority in the Senate. That would derail any resolutions disapproving the agreement.
Tonight, we continue our series of conversations on the Iran nuclear deal. Last time, we heard from a former head of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency who supports the agreement.
Tonight, we hear from an opponent. Stephen Rademaker was an assistant secretary of state for the Bureaus of Arms Control and International Security and Nonproliferation under President George W. Bush. He’s now a principal at the Podesta Group in Washington and an adviser to the Bipartisan Policy Center.
Thank you for joining us.
In a nutshell, what is your opposition to this deal as it is written now?
STEPHEN RADEMAKER, Former U.S. Arms Control Official: I believe there are number of major flaws with the agreement.
But the single most important one is that it basically locks in that Iran will be a threshold nuclear weapons state. That means that Iran is going to be able, in very short order, to produce nuclear weapons.
GWEN IFILL: Explain to people the difference between threshold, just a little definitional question, and actually having the weapons?
STEPHEN RADEMAKER: Well, being on the threshold means a country can be very, very close to actually having a nuclear weapon, but hasn’t actually produced one. The term is often used that they can be a screwdriver’s turn away from actually putting together a nuclear weapon.
And experts have said for years, for decades that if Iran is allowed to become a threshold nuclear weapon state, that will stimulate a cascade of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East, which of course is a very dangerous region of the world. And there are other countries there that, if Iran was allowed to have that capability, they are going to want exactly that same capability.
GWEN IFILL: And so your reading of this agreement is that by doing this, we are empowering Iran, instead of weakening it?
STEPHEN RADEMAKER: Exactly.
You need to distinguish between the short-term and the long term. The president in his effort to sell this agreement has focused on the short term. And his argument, his main argument in favor of the agreement is that it will reduce Iran’s nuclear breakout time from two or three months today to a year, or I guess I should say it will extend their nuclear break — it will take longer for them to produce a nuclear weapon, to produce the material, the fissile material, the highly enriched uranium they would need for a nuclear weapon.
GWEN IFILL: Yes.
STEPHEN RADEMAKER: And that is true in the short term.
But in the long term, President Obama conceded that starting in about 13 years, the breakout time will reduce to almost zero.
GWEN IFILL: And when you testified about this to Congress, you described it as a Faustian bargain.
STEPHEN RADEMAKER: Exactly. Faust was this mythological figure who sold his soul for the — to the devil in exchange for magical powers for — I think it was 26 years.
For 26 years, he had magical powers. At the end of 26 years, the devil came to claim his soul. And I think that is a pretty good analogy to what this deal provides. For 10 years, it’s not a bad deal. After 10 years, it becomes a horrible deal and it gives Iran everything they have always wanted. After — President Obama concedes, after 13 years, the breakout time is almost zero.
GWEN IFILL: When you were a congressional aide, you were party to the conversation about the agreed framework involving North Korea. Is this different or the same, or are they apples and oranges?
STEPHEN RADEMAKER: I think they were similar, in the sense they were both Faustian bargains.
The agreed framework with North Korea was a good deal for us in the short term, and a very bad deal in the long term. The difference, however, was that, in the case of North Korea, there was a reason to believe that, when the devil came to claim our soul, when the deal — the benefits of the deal reversed and went to the other side, that there would be a very different government in North Korea.
But, remember, this was in 1994, when communist regimes were collapsing all over the world. And so it wasn’t unreasonable to believe in 1994 that, in 15 years or whenever the bargain had to be delivered to North Korea, that it would be a very different regime, that communism would be gone from North Korea, just as it was gone from Russia and all of Eastern Europe.
Of course, we know today communism is still there, so in fact would have been a bad deal. I think the difference with the Iran deal is, there’s absolutely no reason to think that in 10 or 15 years, we will have a fundamentally different regime in Iran. Quite the contrary. This agreement is going to result in the almost immediate transfer to Iran of somewhere between $100 billion and $150 dollars, which for Iran is an enormous amount of money, relative to the size of their economy and their budget.
GWEN IFILL: But let’s talk about the economic problem here, because part of the argument is — part of the stick and the carrot involved in this deal was that the sanctions would eventually be lifted, that Iran would be able basically to feed their people again.
And you’re saying that’s exactly the incentive, perverse incentive, that would empower Iran, part of the empowering.
STEPHEN RADEMAKER: Well, I’m saying Iran will be empowered because of the restrictions on nuclear activities will go away. That’s why they’re going to be empowered in the security sense.
In an economic sense, yes, they will be empowered economically as a result of the — in the first instance, they get a huge cash transfer, because there’s money, pursuant to the U.S. sanctions, that is being segregated — it was being held in foreign banks.
GWEN IFILL: Right.
STEPHEN RADEMAKER: They will get that money.
Then they will get increased trade, increased ability to export their oil, increased foreign investment in their economy. So, over the longer term, there will be many other economic benefits.
And I’m not saying it would be a bad bargain to trade that for meaningful long-term permanent restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program. The problem I have is, we have traded those benefits to Iran in exchange for very short-term — imagine, if 13 years ago, 15 years ago, President Bush had cut a deal with Iran that said, OK, for 15 years, you behave, but at the end of 15 years, you can pretty much do whatever you want. You can be a screwdriver’s turn away from having a nuclear weapon.
Had President Bush cut that deal 15 years ago, we’d be cursing him today.
GWEN IFILL: So, do you also think that this deal in some way, because of those economic incentives, because — are propping up the current regime, that they do not provide a disincentive for this regime or for the political environment to change?
STEPHEN RADEMAKER: I think ending U.S. sanctions, and delivering these significant economic benefits to the Iranian regime, will tend to support the regime, which is why I said this is not at all like North Korea, where there was a reason in 1994 to believe that the tide of history was running against communist regimes in Asia.
STEPHEN RADEMAKER: There’s no reason to think — there’s no objective reason, looking at the situation in the Middle East, to think that the Iranian regime is going to be in big trouble after this deal.
GWEN IFILL: So, as we reported, the president seems to be rolling up support one by one by one. He’s now at 31. And there’s some distinctions about whether he — where he needs to get to make sure that he wins this deal in Congress.
What — assuming this passes for a moment, assuming that you can’t quite make your case strongly enough to members of Congress before the vote happens, what can be done, if anything, to make this a less harmful deal in your — through your perspective?
STEPHEN RADEMAKER: Well, I don’t think I’m alone is saying the biggest problem is with what is referred to as the sunset clause, the fact that, beginning in 10 years and in the years thereafter, the restrictions go away.
Everyone who studies this who is sort of an expert on the subject says that, yes, that’s the biggest weakness. And there was a group of experts convened by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy that included many of President Obama’s former advisers on Iran, his nuclear nonproliferation experts.
And they agreed that this was a big problem. And they said the United States should unilaterally tell the Iranians that, notwithstanding what is in this deal, as a matter of our national policy, we’re not going to allow them to produce fissile material in the quantity that they could use to produce a weapon.
GWEN IFILL: If the U.S. could just say that and have it happen, wouldn’t that have happened?
STEPHEN RADEMAKER: You know, I have had this conversation with some of these — these are very — former national security advisers, very senior people who signed on to this policy statement.
GWEN IFILL: Right.
STEPHEN RADEMAKER: And I think the signers should be held to it.
And I think, if we’re trying to make the best of a very, very bad deal, which is what I think we may be forced to do if the votes are not there in Congress to disapprove this, then the advice we got from this group is probably pretty good. We ought to tell the Iranians that, notwithstanding what you think you won in the negotiation, you will be in a world of hurt if you try to produce a nuclear weapon.
GWEN IFILL: OK.
Stephen Rademaker of the Bipartisan Policy Center, among other things, thank you very much.
STEPHEN RADEMAKER: My pleasure. Thank you.