Guest Host: Steve Roberts

President Barack Obama leaves the East Room following a July 15 press conference on the nuclear deal with Iran at the White House in Washington, D.C.

President Barack Obama leaves the East Room following a July 15 press conference on the nuclear deal with Iran at the White House in Washington, D.C.

This week marked the beginning of the 60 days Congress has to review the Iran deal announced last week. A number of lawmakers have vowed to fight what they say is a flawed and dangerous agreement. Also angering some members of Congress and international allies who oppose the deal: The United Nations Security Council approved a resolution that lays out the steps for lifting U.N. sanctions against Iran. Amid calls from Israel for Congress to reject the deal, and concerns from Saudi Arabia, the White House has sent Defense Secretary Ash Carter to the Middle East to ease fears. Back at home, the President continues to make his case to a skeptical Congress and to the American people. We look at what it will take to sell the Iran deal at home and abroad.


  • Ambassador Nicholas Burns Professor of diplomacy and international politics, Harvard Kennedy School of Government; foreign affairs columnist for the Boston Globe; former under secretary of state (2005-08) and former U.S. Ambassador to NATO (2001-05)
  • Carol Lee White House correspondent, The Wall Street Journal
  • Ambassador Dennis Ross Counselor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy; former Middle East special coordinator, former special assistant to the president and National Security Council senior director for the central region.


  • 10:06:54

    MR. STEVE ROBERTSThanks for joining us. I'm Steve Roberts of the George Washington University sitting in today for Diane Rehm while she's away on vacation. A week after its announcement, the Iran nuclear deal is with Congress for review. As debate is beginning, the UN has laid out steps for lifting its sanctions on Iran, but congressional lawmakers and some key U.S. allies, like Israel and Saudi Arabia, remain critical and the Obama administration is now working hard to sell the deal to all parties.

  • 10:07:19

    MR. STEVE ROBERTSJoining me to talk about how reaction to the agreement is unfolding and how the White House is making its case, Ambassador Nicholas Burns of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, Carol E. Lee covers the White House for The Wall Street Journal and has been writing about this subject and Ambassador Dennis Ross of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. I should also mention that Ambassador Burns spent many years in the state department and oversaw American policy toward Iran for a long time.

  • 10:07:46

    MR. STEVE ROBERTSAnd Ambassador Ross was the former special assistant to the president for the Middle East. So we have some real experts here and we're delighted to have you. Good morning.

  • 10:07:54

    AMB. NICHOLAS BURNSGood morning.

  • 10:07:54

    AMB. DENNIS ROSSThank you.

  • 10:07:54

    MS. CAROL LEEThank you.

  • 10:07:55

    ROBERTSYou can join us, too, on this topic, which I'm sure many of you are concerned about. As always, 1-800-433-8850 is our number. Send us an email at Post on Facebook or on Twitter. Carol Lee, from the Wall Street Journal, just give us a quick update on what this 60 day period -- we've just started it, triggered this week, what's the time frame, what does it mean?

  • 10:08:21

    LEEIt means in the next 60 days, the Congress will review the deal, debate the deal and then, at the end of the 60-day period, they have the option of whether or not to vote on the deal. They can approve it or disapprove it. Everyone expects that they will take a vote on the deal and the president has said that he will veto any resolution to reject the deal. At which point, then, Congress has to go back and try to amass a veto-proof majority to override his veto.

  • 10:08:50

    LEEAnd at that point, it's looking increasingly likely that the White House will just have to hold off, get some Democrats to hold off on overriding his veto. And if that happens, then the implementation of the deal will go into effect.

  • 10:09:05

    ROBERTSAnd yesterday, the UN resolution, unanimous Security Council. What was the significance of that vote, Carol?

  • 10:09:15

    LEEThat's basically lays the groundwork for the sanctions -- to lifting the sanctions to another phase of implementing the deal and what it did politically in Washington was upset some of the members of Congress who are saying that the U.S. -- that the White House is trying to run and go around them by passing this UN resolution before Congress has had its 60 days to review it, review the deal.

  • 10:09:43

    LEEThe White House's response to that is that the UN resolution does not take effect for 90 days so that gives Congress its 60 days to go ahead.

  • 10:09:52

    ROBERTSNow, Ambassador Burns, as Carol said, John Boehner, speaker of the House, yesterday said this is a bad start to a bad deal is the way he described the United Nations' action. Give us a rundown on the crux of the arguments against this deal. Where are the opponents coming from?

  • 10:10:13

    BURNSI think the opponents are saying that Iran got the better of this negotiation if you -- that's not what I believe. I actually believe it's a sensible deal and I support it. However, I also think it's problematic and here's where the opponents are. What we get from this deal, and it's substantial, is that Iran's nuclear program will effectively be put into a frozen state for the next 10 years so they won't have a route to a nuclear weapon.

  • 10:10:38

    BURNSThey won't be able to enrich uranium at a high enough level to produce fissile material for a nuclear weapon. They won't be able to go through the plutonium route. Right now, the administration says Iran may be two to three months away from having the capacity to produce a nuclear weapon. With President Obama's deal, they'll be knocked back to about a year away so there's substantial benefits.

  • 10:10:58

    BURNSBut the opponents say that here's the problem. After 10 to 15 years, when the deal begins to elapse, that frozen state -- the frozen program's going to thaw and there's going to be a super structure there. So Iran will, theoretically, have a...

  • 10:11:10

    ROBERTSWhich has not been rolled back. It's basically been frozen or moth-balled.

  • 10:11:13

    BURNSExactly right. Frozen or moth-balled. So theoretically, a malevolent Iranian government intent on becoming a nuclear threshold, states are going just to the edge of getting a nuclear weapon, could ramp up the plutonium and the uranium apparatus so that they're close to a nuclear weapon. I think that's the big problem with the deal. The opponents have also said -- and I testified before the House foreign affairs committee for nearly four hours last week so I heard this in spades, especially from Republican members.

  • 10:11:42

    BURNSThey say, look, the inspections regime won't be tough enough and we won't be able to re-impose sanctions quickly enough to make a difference. So I think that's where the administration has to answer questions in this very important review period ahead.

  • 10:11:54

    ROBERTSAmbassador Ross, what do you think is the most cogent or the most compelling argument the opponents make against this?

  • 10:12:01

    ROSSI think there's sort of two key arguments that are probably the most important. One picks up on what Nick was saying, which is that basically in year 15, there are no limits on the Iranian program whatsoever. They can produce highly enriched uranium. They can produce weapons-grade uranium, which means there would be zero breakout time starting after year 15. And because the infrastructure itself has basically been frozen, they start from what is a pretty strong base.

  • 10:12:30

    ROSSMoreover, between years 10 and 15, they replace all the primitive centrifuges, the IR-1s with five advanced models that they have available. And really starting as of year 13, they're in a position where even though there's a cap on how much low enriched uranium they can produce that stays at that gap of 300 kilograms until year 15, starting in year 13, really, they're in a position where they are operating all of these advanced centrifuges.

  • 10:12:57

    ROSSSo when the year 15 period is met and in the sense the cap ends, they're able to produce dramatically more than they were before. And, again, they can purify to highly enriched uranium, which means you really have almost no breakout time.

  • 10:13:11

    ROBERTSNow, you also have written that one of the critical points here is deterrence, its ongoing deterrence, and that as part of the negotiations, but also a part of the administration's ability to sell this deal is to convince people that force is still on the table and that if the nightmare scenario happens and the fears are justified and Iran moves toward a nuclear weapon at some point, that this long-standing policy of the United States and of Israel, its ally, of not taking force off the table has to be there. Talk about that issue, please.

  • 10:13:52

    ROSSWell, in a sense, we're looking at Iran having a threshold status with close to no breakout time so the gap between moving from threshold to weapons is really very small. And it seems, to me at least, that if you don't want Iran to be able to present the world with a fait accompli and say, look, we've got it now. Okay, we said we weren't going to do it, but we see threats around us, therefore we have it and you can't do anything about it.

  • 10:14:18

    ROSSI want them to know, starting now, that there's a baseline that this administration has adopted and it's going to -- and they seek congressional endorsement for it, that we simply will not permit Iran to become a nuclear weapon state and I want every successive administration to be bound by that. I want the Iranians to get used to the idea. I want the world to get used to the idea that if we see them moving towards a weapon, that will trigger the use of force. That's the way you get deterrence, I think.

  • 10:14:44

    ROBERTSDo you think that has to, pardon me, do you think that has to be codified in a congressional resolution and would you urge the administration, as part of this campaign, to do something like that to strengthen its hand?

  • 10:14:55

    ROSSI think it would strengthen his hand and I think, whether it's codified in the resolution or something -- there's a congressional resolution that endorses this principle, somehow I think this has to be established sooner rather than later. And, again, it's not something, by the way, that this president will have to act on, but he creates a standard that the world gets used to. And I think if we want deterrence, that's necessary.

  • 10:15:18

    ROBERTSNow, Carol Lee, you've been covering the president's campaign to sell this deal and he has argued repeatedly that you have to look at, to quote Ambassador Burns, you have to deal with the real world and that the option of zero capabilities, rolling back, as we discussed, was not on the table, that Iran would never agree to a deal like this. And basically, he's arguing this is not a perfect deal, but the best deal we can get.

  • 10:15:46

    ROBERTSWhat is he saying, how is that argument selling?

  • 10:15:49

    LEEWell, you're absolutely right. That is their argument and you saw Vice President Joe Biden go to the Hill last week and, you know, this is a White House that does not like to air its internal differences, except when it's convenient and it was convenient last week for the Vice President to tell House Democrats that he was very skeptical of this deal and now he's behind it because while it's not perfect, it's the best that they could do.

  • 10:16:14

    LEESo the president's making the case that over -- the core of their argument is that they are in a better position now to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon than they have been at any time in the past. And frankly, that's a tough sell and so his other argument that he makes increasingly and he did last week in his press conference very forcefully is that what is the alternative. And in their view, their argument is that the alternative is military action.

  • 10:16:44

    LEEAnd they say that knowing that, you have an American public that is not in support of another war in the Middle East.

  • 10:16:52

    ROBERTSAnd Nick Burns, you said you were on the Hill for four hours. How well is that argument selling, as you sensed it from the questioning you and the conversations you had?

  • 10:17:02

    BURNSI think the administration needs to keep making that argument. I thought President Obama did himself a lot of good in his press conference last week because he was able to say this is not ideal, this agreement. There are a lot of problems with it, but it's the best alternative in the real world that was available to us. And if you look at the argument that some Democrats opposed to the president are making and most of the Republicans, here's the argument.

  • 10:17:25

    BURNSWe should've walked away from the negotiations at some point in the last four or five months. We should've continued to sanction Iran to the hilt and held out for a better deal. As someone who worked on this issue in the George W. Bush administration, if that option had been available and it could've been effective, I would've agreed with it. But I don’t think it was available.

  • 10:17:45

    BURNSIf we'd walked away and really left the negotiations, what I think would've happened is that this carefully built international coalition that we've lead for the last 10 years, created, by the way, in the Bush administration, would've dissolved. The sanctions would've frayed and Iran would've been left with no restrictions on its nuclear program. So I think President Obama's got to say that's a worse deal for the United States.

  • 10:18:06

    ROBERTSAmbassador Nick Burns. We'll be back with your calls and your comments in just a minute so stay with us.

  • ROBERTSWelcome back. I'm Steve Roberts from George Washington University. And today our topic is the selling of the Iran nuclear agreement. Three experts with me, Ambassador Nick Burns, now teaches at Harvard, spent many years at the State Department dealing with Middle East issues. Carol Lee covers the White House for The Wall Street Journal. Ambassador Dennis Ross, now with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and he, too, long-time veteran of administration policy on the Middle East. You can join our conversation. We have some lines open. Give us a call, 1-800-433-8850. Or send us an email,

  • 10:20:37

    ROBERTSDennis Ross, as Nick Burns was outlining, the argument the administration is making, it's kind of a hard argument to make. It's an argument for compromise, for imperfection, for dealing with the real world. And in this environment, they don't have an easy time making that sale.

  • 10:20:57

    ROSSWell, they don't have an easy time making the sale also because of who Iran is. The American public knows well who Iran is. There's profound distrust of Iran. And the administration itself has to acknowledge, in the words of Secretary Kerry, all the nefarious activities that Iran is responsible for in the region. So you're...

  • 10:21:15

    ROBERTSGoing back 35 years.

  • 10:21:16


  • 10:21:17

    ROBERTSAnd this is hardly a new issue, yeah.

  • 10:21:19

    ROSSAbsolutely. So, you know, when you're saying it's not a perfect deal, you also have to realize who you're talking about. It's not a perfect deal with Iran. And so the administration is basically saying, "Look, this is the best deal we could produce with Iran and it's better than the alternative." And that's the essence of their argument. I think, when they say it's better than the alternative, I actually think there's an argument that is worth making from that standpoint, although I'm not sure that the alternative is war.

  • 10:21:45

    ROSSI mean, the fact is, there's a deal that we were one of six negotiating with the Iranians. So in that deal itself, the EU, the European Union commits in the deal itself, on their own, to lifting sanctions once the Iranians have met the core obligations of the deal from their end. And that will take roughly six months. It doesn't say the EU will carry out its responsibilities only after the U.S. Congress has decided. So, in effect, you can see a scenario where the Congress blocks it and the EU says, "Look, we're obligated by this. The Iranians announced to the world, we agreed to it. We'll implement our obligations."

  • 10:22:24

    ROBERTSWell, it's not just that they're obligated. There is an economic incentive for these European countries to ease these sanctions. I mean, already, Germany and France are talking about economic missions to -- and it -- the echo is sort of the problem they had with economic sanctions with Russia over Ukraine. That the European countries have a lot of business that they want to do with these countries.

  • 10:22:45

    ROSSThere's no doubt about that. And that's -- but that sort of gets to the point that for those who say you can block the deal and everything will be okay, they have to explain why the sanctions won't simply collapse under those circumstances. In which case, one of the arguments against the deal -- and it's -- it is not -- it's not really a reason not to do the deal but it is a reason to guard against one of its consequences, Iran does get a windfall. Because after about six months, when the sanctions get lifted, they have about $150 billion in frozen accounts that they will have access to.

  • 10:23:16


  • 10:23:18

    ROSSBut as the sanctions collapse, they have access to that as well.

  • 10:23:21

    ROBERTSAnd Nick Burns, among the arguments the administration -- you've talked about this -- has to make is that the inspections regime, is your phrase that I've read from your testimony, a clear line of sight. That one of the key issues here is convincing enough members of Congress that the Iranians who, as Ambassador Ross says, you have to assume they're not a particularly trustworthy partner. They haven't proved that for 35 years. How do you make the case that the inspection regime is good enough to accomplish what this deal is aimed at doing?

  • 10:24:01

    BURNSWhen Secretary Kerry and Secretary Moniz present this agreement -- they're both testifying next week on the Hill -- I think they're going to be able to say, these are the toughest inspection conditions placed on Iran ever. And particularly for the facilities that we know about -- the Natanz uranium enrichment plant, the Arak heavy-water reactor facility -- we will have IAEA, International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors 24/7 in those plants. I think the line of sight will be very good. We'll very likely be able to see if they're cheating. And by the way, I believe they will cheat at some point in the next 10 months, because that's their past behavior.

  • 10:24:38

    BURNSThe problem will be if we uncover secret facilities, which is entirely possible, sometime in the next 10 or 15 years, then you get into this jockeying process called "managed inspections." We bring a complaint to the IAEA. The Iranians deny it. They could take up to 24 days to adjudicate. We'll still have line of sight. Whether it's clear or blurry is going to be in question. So I think the administration needs to keep repeating that some of what's being said by the detractors about the inspection regime I think is off base. These are tough inspections. But it's a very tough thing to actually keep the world with you and to re-impose sanctions, which is a critical part of it.

  • 10:25:18

    ROBERTSWell, that's the other question I was going ask. This phrase we've heard, snap-back sanctions. In addition to convincing the Congress and the public that there is this line of sight and a tough inspection regime, it also has to make the argument that there are consequences for cheating...

  • 10:25:34


  • 10:25:34

    ROBERTS...that are in place and that are effective.

  • 10:25:36

    BURNSRight. And I worked on the first three U.N. Security Council sanctions resolutions for the U.S. 2006 to '08, and I can tell you, I don't think the Chinese are going to be with us. I think they're all about the bottom line, China Inc. I think the Russians could be difficult. The French will be tough. Some of the other Europeans, we're not so sure. So going back to Dennis' point, as we implement this agreement over the next 10 years, we have to be tough minded. We have to insist that the Iranians adhere to the letter of that agreement. And we have to establish strategic deterrence in the region.

  • 10:26:05

    BURNSSo as we implement the nuclear deal, we have to contain their power in places like Yemen and Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. Because they're making a major push for power into the heart of the Sunni world. So we need to go back to Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan and say to the Iranians, not just, "You'll never get a nuclear weapon. The Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz are vital to American interests and we'll protect it." We have to have a tough push-back against them.

  • 10:26:31

    ROBERTSNow, Carol, you cover the White House.

  • 10:26:33


  • 10:26:33

    ROBERTSAnd a part of the -- as these gentlemen have outlined -- part of the question is the credibility of this president to be -- not only to talk tough but to convince people that in fact he is willing to take the measures that these gentlemen have outlined. Talk about the thinking in the White House and how they're crafting their arguments and how they view this problem in front of the president.

  • 10:26:56

    LEEWell, you're absolutely right that he has a significant challenge in convincing our allies and the American public and members of Congress that he is willing to be tough and use force when it's necessary. He's had to rearticulate this over and over again, his decision to pull back at the last minute in Syria really damaged his credibility on that and still carries weight when he talks to American allies. And so what you see them -- the White House doing now is they've sent Defense Secretary Carter to the region. He's in Israel. He'll go to Saudi Arabia. And that is designed to send a message that the U.S. will be there for Israel and will be there for our Gulf allies if Iran's behavior is threatening to them, which all of them fear.

  • 10:27:48

    LEEAnd Secretary Kerry will follow up with that on the trip to Doha early next month, meeting with the Gulf Cooperation Council members and to send the same message. And the president tried to get out in front of this a little bit with the GCC nations when he had his summit at Camp David in May.

  • 10:28:06

    ROBERTSGCC, the Gulf...

  • 10:28:07

    LEEThe Gulf Cooperation Council, yeah, the six nations. And he's trying to -- what you hear the White House saying now is that they're looking to try to expedite the transfer of arms to these nations and to speed up some of the provisions that they agreed to at Camp David. But this is going to be an ongoing thing. And it's something, when you hear -- when you talk about the president having to present a credible threat of military force, you know, it's not clear to me that that's going to be a message that he can actually deliver -- that this president can deliver because the people are so skeptical. And he's said, he's reluctant to use military force. And his whole doctrine is based in diplomacy, not military action.

  • 10:28:52

    ROBERTSAnd the history of the Obama -- this is the man who ran for president on reducing America's military presence in the Middle East. So that has stamped his whole approach to a lot of these issues.

  • 10:29:02

    LEEThat's right. And he has done that. He's - I mean, there's a lot of accusations in the region that he's pulled back too far, that he tried to overcorrect for failures that he thought that President Bush had made in terms of using and deploying the American military. And so now, you know, he's faced with a situation where some of his credibility on these issues has been damaged.

  • 10:29:26

    ROBERTSNow let me ask you another question, Carol.

  • 10:29:28


  • 10:29:28

    ROBERTSAnd I want the others to weigh-in on this too. This is also political season. And we're only weeks away from the first Republican debate. And you have several Republican senators running for president. So inevitably, this debate gets connected to presidential politics. And yesterday, Marco Rubio, to take one example, a young senator from Florida, was particularly outspoken in saying this -- talking about this as "Capitulation Monday." So talk about the -- how Republican presidential politics could also intrude in this debate.

  • 10:30:05

    LEEWell, it's a big -- it basically helps shape the debate and what the public is talking about. And like you said, there's a number of senators who are running to replace President Obama. Senator Rubio has said that he would not follow through with the deal, that he would undo parts of it. That's going to be part of the debate. And the question, I think, for a lot of these candidates is that if you do that, then what? And the first debate, next month, will be a platform for where they can outline that. But for the Obama administration, the key was Secretary Clinton. And you saw her come out and say that she was largely supportive of the deal.

  • 10:30:48

    LEEAnd that was critical to the president for a number of reasons. One, because she has a lot of sway with Democrats on Capitol Hill. And two, because it, for him, puts the issue in partisan terms. And again, that's where you unite the Democrats against the -- what could wind up being a united Republican opposition in Congress. And the president only needs 34 Democratic senators in the Senate to block an override of his veto and 146 in the House.

  • 10:31:17

    ROBERTSBut, Ambassador Burns, you were up there on the Hill four hours, as you mentioned. Do you see any possibility of any Republican support for this agreement?

  • 10:31:26

    BURNSWell, let's see where we are after the 60-day review period. Let's see what kind of case the president can make. When I was there, it was literally hours after the deal had been announced and there were a lot of questions. I didn't hear any Republican support. I also had met with a group of members earlier that morning just to talk about the deal informally. And the president needs to work on the Democratic Party.

  • 10:31:47

    ROBERTSNot just Republicans, Democratic Party too?

  • 10:31:49

    BURNSRight. Senator Schumer, who is going to be the minority leader at some point -- the senior Democrat in a year or two -- he hasn't spoken about whether he'll support this. So I think part of what the White House has to do is secure their base. As Carol has just pointed out, the numbers are clear as to what they need to achieve. They haven't done that yet. I kind of think perhaps the administration didn't realize how tough, vocal and persistent the opposition would be. And I'm in favor of the agreement. I think it's a tough call, by the way, but I'm in favor of it.

  • 10:32:19

    BURNSBut they have -- they need to make this case. And I think the president needs to make it. It can't just be Secretary Kerry and Secretary Moniz. They're the negotiators. They're vital. But the president has to carry this argument over the next 60 days.

  • 10:32:31

    ROBERTSAnd one of the key factors here, Ambassador Ross -- and you've been deeply involved in relations with Israel for a long time -- Senator Schumer is a -- is Jewish. He is from New York. And Israel has been an implacable opponent of this deal, despite Ash Carter's -- as Carol mentioned -- going to Israel. Prime Minister Netanyahu totally opposed to this deal and very outspoken. And that is going to have some weight with liberal Democrats, including some of the Jewish senators.

  • 10:33:04

    ROSSI think it will. I think it's not just Prime Minister Netanyahu's opposition, it's the fact that this is generally a position that is adopted by most Israelis. There are polls that show about 80 percent of the Israelis are against the deal. We've seen that the main opposition figure is also -- Mr. Herzog has come out raising real questions about the deal as well. I think one of the things the president has to do -- and I do agree, that it's the president will have to be involved, it isn't just the negotiators, Secretary Kerry and Secretary Moniz -- I think the president has to be involved. And he has to address what are the big concerns that are being raised.

  • 10:33:38

    ROSSI think there is this big concern about what happens with Iran being left as a threshold state, being legitimized as a nuclear threshold state. There is this concern about what happens when they get access to all this money and suddenly they become -- if they were constrained -- if they weren't constrained by sanctions in terms of their activities when they were, you know, during the sanctions period, what happens when sanctions are relieved and they can do much more? And also this question of, will we, when we talk -- when the president talks about verification, that's great. But the fact is when we fine them in violation and it's not a massive material breach, but it's a lesser one, what are we going to do?

  • 10:34:17

    ROBERTSWhat happens? I'm Steve Roberts and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." This brings up another question and a good segue, because the fact is that negotiations with Iran, Ambassador Burns, over their nuclear capability is only one dimension of our relations with Iran. We haven't really talked much about the fact that they are also a state that has been a prime supporter of groups around the Middle East that we've defined as terrorist groups, whether it's Hamas in Gaza Strip, Hezbollah in Lebanon, now the Houthis in Yemen...

  • 10:34:52


  • 10:34:53

    ROBERTS...some of the Shiite militias in Iraq. And the president has said, you know, it's better to talk after 35 years of enmity. But he's also warned, this is not going to be a honeymoon. This is not Nixon going to China and opening relations. But talk about the other dimension of relations with Iran and how that fits into these negotiations. Because this is only part of a much larger picture.

  • 10:35:19

    BURNSThat's right. And I think it's important for the president and Secretary Kerry to convey in very clear terms to the American people how muddy and gray this is going to be. On the one hand, we're going to implement this nuclear agreement with the Iranians over the next decade or so. On the other hand, we're going to have to confront them in the Middle East. Because, as you said, Steve, you know, think of what they've just done in the last year. They've become kingmaker in Damascus as the principal supporter for President Assad and his abhorrent regime. They're now the most influential country -- not us, which pains me to say -- in Iraq, where we spent so much blood and so much treasure.

  • 10:35:56

    BURNSThey are running guns to Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. And they're instigating a civil war in Yemen by supporting the Houthi rebels. This is an assault. It's major power play against the Sunni countries that are our partners. And so the administration has to do two things...

  • 10:36:13

    ROBERTSPrimarily Saudi Arabia.

  • 10:36:15

    BURNSSaudi Arabia and Kuwait and Oman and Bahrain and Jordan...

  • 10:36:19


  • 10:36:20

    BURNS...Turkey, not an Arab country but a Muslim country. So the administration has to kind of balance these competing priorities, make the tough decision to take the deal to stop them for 10 years or more on the nuclear front and yet push back against them and be the leader of that coalition. This gets back to what Carol and Dennis and I have been talking about. The president needs credibility to do that and persistence to do that. He needs to be vocal about it. I think it will win him some support on Capitol Hill and with the public if he can say, "I'm going to be tough on the other parts of this relationship, where we need to be tough."

  • 10:36:52

    ROBERTSQuickly, Carol, do you think the White House understands this? And are they ready to talk tough on these issues that Nick Burns is talking about?

  • 10:36:59

    LEEI think they understand that the president has a very significant challenge. This is probably one of the harder sells that -- if not the hardest sell that he's going to have to make during his time in office. So the question is whether or not people are going to believe it.

  • 10:37:14

    ROBERTSAnd what's the read so far within the White House? Do they think they're making progress?

  • 10:37:19

    LEEWell, so far, you haven't seen any -- the House Democrats have kept their -- and Senate Democrats have kept their powder dry largely. There is some skepticism but it's looking, as of right now, that it could break along party lines. And to the White House, that's about as good as it's going to get.

  • 10:37:35

    ROBERTSThat's Carol Lee of The Wall Street Journal. I'm Steve Roberts sitting in for Diane. We'll back with your calls. Stay with us.

  • 10:40:00

    ROBERTSWelcome back. I'm Steve Roberts, sitting in today for Diane Rehm. Our subject this hour, the agreement with Iran, to cut back its nuclear capabilities and prospects, and I have three experts with me to talk about it. Ambassador Nicholas Burns now teaches at the Harvard Kennedy School, spent years in the State Department dealing with these issues. Carol Lee covers the White House for the Wall Street Journal. Ambassador Dennis Ross now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, also a veteran of State Department on Middle East issues for many, many years.

  • 10:40:33

    ROBERTSLet me read some emails from some of our listeners and get your reaction. This comes from Greg. With the election year approaching and along with so much party posturing, please speculate on the political ramifications for either party about whether this gets through Congress the first time. Carol, what do you think?

  • 10:40:53

    LEEWell, I think as we were talking about earlier, a number of Republicans who are in the Senate are running for -- in the presidential race, and there's a lot of pressure for them politically to oppose this deal, and they have. And so that's where the presidential race and the debate on the Hill intersect. It also puts the issue on the -- makes it a national discussion because they're going to be talking about this on the campaign trail.

  • 10:41:21

    ROBERTSAnd the debates, which start on August 6...

  • 10:41:23

    LEEThat's right.

  • 10:41:23

    ROBERTSWhich presumably this will be an issue.

  • 10:41:23

    LEEYeah, for sure, and that's all going to be happening as Congress is debating this and as the deal is being implemented and as perhaps Iran is cheating. And so it's -- it's just going to be a big political debate mess.

  • 10:41:37

    ROBERTSAnd it also sets up, in some ways with the Republican candidates, almost a compete to see who can be more critical. I mean, as we mentioned, Senator Rubio has already put out a marker, and others are going to be feeling the heat.

  • 10:41:51

    LEEThey are, and they're also going to be trying to put the heat on Secretary Clinton because of her statement that was arguably supportive of the deal because her role -- of her role in the Obama administration, because one of her top aides was key to starting the secret talks with Iran, the direct talks between the U.S. and Iran. So it'll play both ways.

  • 10:42:14

    ROBERTSLet me read this from Irene , South Bend, Indiana. She emails us. How important will the next president the American people elect be to the success of the Iran deal and whether he or she is a person of peace who will work to reduce hostilities in the Middle East or a war hog who will think first of military force as an all-purpose solution? Dennis?

  • 10:42:35

    ROSSWell, you know, I'm not sure there's anyone who's going to be president who's going to want to be seen as someone who thinks of force as the first option. But I do think whoever is president is going to have to reinforce this point we were discussing earlier, which is deterrence. If you don't want Iran to become a nuclear weapon state later on, given the fact that they're legitimized as a nuclear threshold state, you have to reinforce deterrence, and that means what you do in terms of declaratory policy, it means what you do in terms of ensuring that when there are violations, even if they're small violations, you make certain that Iran pays a price so they get used to the idea that what we say we mean.

  • 10:43:15

    ROSSIt also means that where Iran presses in the region, Nick was raising this earlier, we have to be prepared to create a counter to that. Now that actually is a way to ensure you don't face a war. The whole idea here is not to face a war, but the less you are prepared to compete with the Iranians or confront the Iranians, you also face something else. You -- we will find some of our friends in the region will go their own way. We're already seeing that. You look at what's happening in Syria right now, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar are backing groups in Syria now that, were Assad to fall, this is not what we want to see replace Assad.

  • 10:43:54

    BURNSAnd one of the interesting dimensions here, of course, when you were talking about 15 years, you're not really just talking about the next president, you're talking about several presidents.

  • 10:44:00

    ROSSThat's right, that's right.

  • 10:44:00

    BURNSI mean, you have to have a view of history here.

  • 10:44:04

    ROSSRight, but you're also -- these presidents will have a responsibility. I do think here is something that's interesting. A lot depends over the next, over the remainder of this term. How do the Iranians actually implement this deal? You know, there's no price for any Republican to be the most extreme on this because of the way Iran is perceived. Now, if the Iranians are actually implementing the deal, and there isn't a lot of ambiguity about that, you know, it's fine during the campaign, let's say a Republican is elected.

  • 10:44:34

    ROSSIf the deal has actually been implemented, in effect it becomes very hard for someone who comes in and says, gee, I'm going to turn that around, the rest of the world is embracing. The first thing they're going to do as president is to basically challenge the rest of the world on this? Probably unlikely. However, if Iran's behavior in the region is really bad, and if it's cheating along the margins, and there's ambiguity about this, then it looks very different.

  • 10:44:58

    ROBERTSRight. Nick Burns, let me read this from Tara in Ashville, which follows up on Dennis' comments. If most of the rest of the world is on board with this agreement, are the Republicans not worried that their resistance will make them appear out of touch with the rest of the world and, more importantly, slow on foreign relations in front of an election?

  • 10:45:20

    BURNSWell, I think that the United States is the leader. We've been the leader of this alliance that was negotiating with Iran, its coalition, and we're the leader in the Middle East. So I think that I'd start there. We need to look for strong American leadership over the next two or three presidencies to make sure that Iran implements the deal. I think there is an argument that the Republicans have to be worried about, and that is they may be seen to be out of touch if, as Dennis says, this deal works well. It all comes back to whether or not we can combine diplomacy and toughness, diplomacy and the threat of force, as Dennis was talking about, to be...

  • 10:45:57

    ROSSToughness as the best way to avoid having to use the force.

  • 10:45:59

    BURNSThat's exactly right, and I think of the only takeaways from my own career, working for Democratic and Republican administrations, is we succeeded best when it was clear that we had strategic -- that we had credibility, that our diplomacy was helped when our military was strongest and our president had the credibility in the eyes of the rest of the world.

  • 10:46:17

    ROBERTSInteresting point. Let's turn to some of our callers, and we have Gordon from Norfolk, Virginia. Gordon, welcome, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 10:46:26

    GORDONThank you for taking my call. I have a feeling that a lot of the Republican resistance and opposition is based on an Israeli-centric world view of the Middle East, perhaps centered in Judeo-Christian eschatology, and that there's also a foreign policy end goal of regime change in Iran and that the current deal undermines both of those ideological positions. Thanks.

  • 10:46:53

    ROBERTSThanks. Carol?

  • 10:46:53

    LEEWell, I think it -- the caller raises Israel, and Israel has sway on both sides of the aisle, there are -- with Democrats and Republicans, which is why you've seen a number of Democrats not come out in favor of the deal, even though they may ultimately vote for it. So I -- the influence of Israel on American foreign policy, on these issues, is well-known, but it crosses party lines. It's not necessarily something that's only driving the Republicans.

  • 10:47:25

    ROSSCan I...

  • 10:47:27

    ROBERTSDennis, yes because I should mention that Dennis Ross probably knows more about Israel than any living American. So give us your take on the caller's point.

  • 10:47:37

    ROSSYou know, I think there's a tendency to exaggerate that this is Israel focused.

  • 10:47:42

    ROBERTSYour expertise?

  • 10:47:43

    ROSSYeah, no, that, too. I think that one should not exaggerate that this is just Israeli-driven. I mean, if you look at the region, the region is against this deal, Arabs and Israelis alike are against this deal because they think that Iran is going to become even more aggressive in the aftermath of it. that's one of the reasons I think -- one of the reasons that Secretary Carter is in Israel, one of the reasons he's on his way to Saudi Arabia is because he knows that the Saudis and the Israelis on this issue share a very common view towards the deal and towards the Iranians.

  • 10:48:19

    ROSSAnd so I think it would be -- I think we should bear in mind how the region looks at this. This is not just how the Israelis look at it.

  • 10:48:26

    ROBERTSLet's turn to Sean in Toronto. Welcome, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show," Sean.

  • 10:48:31

    SEANThanks a lot. I just wanted to maybe put a different perspective onto this. I feel like this whole discussion of whether the deal is a good deal or a bad deal is actually kind of -- kind of silly. The supreme leader of Iran has issued a fatwa, which is like an Islamic edict. He is -- I don't know, he derives his authority through a theory called (unintelligible) which is basically the Islamic scholars have the last word on what is legal and what is not legal.

  • 10:49:02

    SEANAs far as he's concerned, the proliferation, the stockpiling, the pursuit of nuclear weapons or any weapon of mass destruction is prohibited in Islam and particularly Shiite Islam, which Iran is 98 percent Shiite. The idea that they are going after a nuclear weapon, to be quite honest, is absurd, and that's why I think this whole discussion is rather silly.

  • 10:49:24

    SEANThe other thing is, say that Iran is...

  • 10:49:25

    ROBERTSOkay, thank you.

  • 10:49:26

    SEANAn irresponsible country. In the past 150 to 200 years, Iran has never invaded another country, where the United States has invaded more than any other country in the world. They United States also has over 600 bases in foreign countries, military bases. That's kind of weird. That's never happened in history ever. To...

  • 10:49:45

    ROBERTSOkay, Sean, we appreciate your call very much. Nick Burns, reaction?

  • 10:49:49

    BURNSThe supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, gave a speech in Tehran Saturday morning, this past Saturday morning, at the end of - during the Eid, the end of Ramadan, and he repeated this fatwa. He said there is a religious prohibition against obtaining a nuclear weapon. I don't think we should believe it. The only way we can judge Iran is on its behavior, not its words, and look what they've done. This is one of the largest oil and gas producers in the world. They have risked international opprobrium and sanctions to build a secret uranium enrichment facility, two that been unearthed, the Arak Heavy Water Facility, the plutonium route to a bomb.

  • 10:50:21

    BURNSThey've done everything by their actions to convince at least me that they're trying to develop a nuclear weapon. They want that weapon for a strategic purpose. They want to become the most powerful state in the Middle East. So I very respectfully disagree with Sean.

  • 10:50:36

    ROBERTSNow one of the other dimension here that I found quite fascinating in reading Carol's stories and others about this, is that they're -- really you have to understand that there are two, in effect, two governments in Iran.

  • 10:50:50

    BURNSThat's right.

  • 10:50:50

    ROBERTSNot just one, that you have these Westernized negotiators, educated in the United States in some cases, who did negotiate this deal, but then back in Tehran you have the religious leaders, and you have the Revolutionary Guard, the elite military organization, which has been behind all of the military adventures you've been talking about, Nick Burns. So how does that fit into a calculation, and how do you deal with Iran understanding that it's not just one voice, but there's more than one?

  • 10:51:19

    BURNSWell, this is why we've got to watch their behavior, and I think the most interesting and probably the most pivotal part of the outcome here over the next 10 to 15 years will be which one of those Iranian governments, I agree with Carol, will be in the ascendency because Secretary Kerry was negotiating with these very sophisticated, U.S.-educated, European-educated reformers, and yet the power is with the supreme leader and the Revolutionary Guard around him.

  • 10:51:40

    BURNSAnd so I look for a continued struggle between these two camps in Iran about whether they should implement this deal fully or whether they should try to cheat or whether they're -- are they currently running a secret facility that we don't know about? We've got be realistic when we look at this.

  • 10:51:56

    ROSSAnd one thing I would just add to that is given the Revolutionary Guard's opposition to the deal, and for good reasons from their standpoint, the sanctions regime actually has benefitted them, they have come to dominate most of the Iranian economy because of it, they're able to exploit it, now the supreme leader in all likelihood is going to compensate them. He likes to be above the fray. I mean, he likes to be -- he lets the interplay of these forces take place, but he likes to be above the fray.

  • 10:52:21

    ROSSNow the likelihood is that he then compensates the Revolutionary Guard in the aftermath of the deal, which is why I expect the Revolutionary Guard to try to become more aggressive. And apropos of what Nick had to say, we've been negotiating with Zarif and basically Rouhani. It's Ghassem Soleimani of the Al-Quds Forces, of the Revolutionary Guards, he's the one who shapes their policy in the region. And so he is in a sense going to be determining, in many respects, what they're going to be doing in the region.

  • 10:52:51

    ROBERTSAnd Carol, when Ashton Carter, the secretary of defense, is out there in the region, what's his brief in terms of dealing with the kinds of issues the ambassadors have been talking about?

  • 10:53:02

    LEEWell, first of all, he's not in Israel in particular to try to change any minds. The White House is resigned to the fact that the Israeli prime minister is going to see the deal the way he sees it, and they'll get through this next 60 days and then perhaps have later discussions about whether or not the U.S. can increase its military aid to Israel. So that's happening there.

  • 10:53:24

    LEEBut it's more he's there to listen, to absorb some of the criticism in person, as a very senior official.

  • 10:53:29

    ROSSVery much as a lightning rod, yeah.

  • 10:53:30

    LEEYeah, yeah, a punching bag, if you will. And so he'll -- he's doing that in Israel, and then he's -- when he goes to Saudi Arabia, it's similar, to hear the concerns. And part of what the goal is here is there was -- there were discussions that happened, particularly between the Obama administration and nations like Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, about what they might need if they reached a deal. Well, now they can see the deal, and so they have -- they need to update that conversation and say, you know, what else might you need, particularly the lifting of the arms, conventional arms embargo in Iran in five years.

  • 10:54:07

    LEEThat has a lot of people being very nervous, and that's likely to come up as another issue that wasn't on the table in May, when the president met with officials from the Gulf nations. That is now on the table.

  • 10:54:18

    ROBERTSI'm Steve Roberts, and you're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. Time for perhaps one more caller, and let's go to Chip in San Antonio, Texas. Chip, welcome, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 10:54:27

    CHIPThank you, and thank you for taking my call. I truly appreciate the conversation. But I'd like to suggest that it's time for a change in definitions. Number one, how can a nuclear weapon in any way be defined as defensive? And number two, instead of weapons of mass destruction, can't these be defined as mass murder? Thank you.

  • 10:54:51

    ROBERTSThank you. Nick Burns?

  • 10:54:55

    BURNSWell, you know, we're -- we're just about to mark the 70th anniversary of the use of the atomic bombs by the United States in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Nuclear weapons, thank goodness, have never been used. It was -- it's been a five-, six-decade-long effort to create strategic deterrence among the countries that have them to keep the peace. We've seen near misses, like the Cuban Missile Crisis, October 1962, when President Kennedy and Khrushchev saved us.

  • 10:55:21

    BURNSBut on balance we can't destroy all these weapons because our opponents will not destroy their own. We have to do our best to achieve nuclear stability so the weapons are never used. Call them what they will, they've become part of strategic deterrence among the great powers of the world, China, Russia, two European countries, Britain and France, and the United States. Our problem now is we have outlaw regimes like North Korea and Iran trying to get them. That's why what Dennis said at the beginning of the program is so important.

  • 10:55:47

    BURNSOur policy should be Iran shall never get a nuclear weapon. We will do whatever it takes to prevent that kind of instability from disrupting, from leading to a catastrophic event, the use of a nuclear weapon.

  • 10:56:00

    ROSSBecause what -- you know, it's hard to prove a negative, but as you say, these weapons have never been used, which...

  • 10:56:04

    BURNSNuclear weapons, right.

  • 10:56:04

    ROSSIt has to argue that the doctrine of massive retaliation has, at least on some level, worked.

  • 10:56:11

    BURNSYou know, you look back, we were both diplomats during the Cold War. It was a reign of nuclear terror, President Kennedy said the sword of Damocles hanging over our heads, but it did keep a relative peace between the Soviet Union, communist China in the '60s and '70s and the United States. You don't wish for this type of world, but it's the world that we've all inherited. We have to do our best to prevent it from ever happening.

  • 10:56:35

    ROBERTSAnd Carol, in conclusion, how do you expect this, as you read the administration's campaign, how do you expect this to play out both on Capitol Hill and with our foreign allies?

  • 10:56:45

    LEEWell, over the next 60 days, I think you'll see, obviously see a very aggressive campaign from the administration. There's hearings on the Hill this week, and next week there's classified briefs, this week -- and ultimately, you know, it's going to come down to whether or not this president can get members of his own party to stop an override of his veto. That raises the question of whether that's a great way to implement such a significant piece of American foreign policy, with a veto, and overseas, you know...

  • 10:57:15

    ROBERTSAt best a weak victory.

  • 10:57:15

    LEEAt best a weak victory, exactly, and overseas, after you get through this 60-day period, you know, the Israelis have said that they might be willing to have conversations, will be willing to have conversations, about increased American military aid, and you could end up seeing a dynamic where the U.S. and its partners in the Middle East wind up coming closer together.

  • 10:57:35

    ROBERTSCarol Burns of the Wall Street Journal, Nick Burns, Carol Lee of the Wall Street Journal, Nick Burns and Dennis Ross. I'm Steve Roberts, sitting in for Diane today. Thanks so much for spending an hour of your morning with us.

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