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The agreement the U.S. and five other world powers negotiated with Iran cleared a critical hurdle in Washington this week. President Barack Obama now has enough support in the Senate to prevent congress from blocking the deal. Per the agreement finalized in July, economic sanctions against Iran will be lifted in exchange for Iran halting nuclear weapons development. But debate over the deal is far from over: Critics charge it’s a windfall for Iran that fails to effectively rein in the country’s nuclear ambitions. Supporters concede there are problems, but say it’s better than the alternative. We look at what’s next for the agreement with Iran.
- Ambassador Nicholas Burns Professor of diplomacy and international politics, Harvard Kennedy School of Government, former under secretary of state (2005-08), and former U.S. Ambassador to NATO (2001-05)
- Mark Landler White House correspondent, The New York Times
- 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.
MS. TAMARA KEITHThanks for joining us. I'm Tamara Keith of NPR sitting in for Diane Rehm. Diane is getting a voice treatment. Weeks of White House lobbying all the way up to the president himself paid off yesterday when the 34th senator said she would support the Iran nuclear agreement. That number is important because it means Senate Republicans who oppose the Iran deal wouldn't be able to overturn a presidential veto.
MS. TAMARA KEITHAnd beyond any potential congressional action, even supporters say implementing the Iran nuclear deal will be an ongoing challenge. Joining me to discuss what comes next in the debate over the agreement with Iran are Ambassador Dennis Ross, now with the Washington Institute For Near East Policy, Mark Landler of the New York Times, and from a studio at Harvard, Ambassador Nicholas Burns, now at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.
MS. TAMARA KEITHWelcome all of you to the show.
AMB. DENNIS ROSSThank you.
MR. MARK LANDLERThank you very much.
AMB. NICHOLAS BURNSThank you.
KEITHMark, I want to start with you. And I just want to walk through that number very briefly so we can get it out of the way. Congress comes back next week. Congress intends to weigh in on this Iran agreement and in what way?
LANDLERThey will vote on a motion to approve or disapprove this deal and what's interesting about yesterday is the president won, but he's going to lose. He's going to lose this vote. The only question was the margin by which he lost it and would it be so lopsided that if he vetoed the motion to disapprove that they would be able to override his veto. The 34th vote guarantees that they will not be able to do that.
LANDLERSo one scenario for what happens next is they disapprove the deal, President Obama vetoes and they then fail to override. That's still a setback in some sense because you now have the Congress on record as saying that they disapprove the deal, but it doesn't prevent the deal from going into effect. What the White House will now try to do is actually roll up a few more votes. They'd like to get to the magic number of 41 because what you then can do is block the deal from ever coming to a vote.
LANDLERAnd that, then, saves the president from the, you know, sort of unpleasant spectacle of losing in Congress and having to use his veto. It's not clear yet whether they get to 41 and there are some people that argue, by the way, that not voting on it at all is also damaging because you've now effectively prevented the legislative branch from having a say in the matter.
KEITHAnd Ambassador Ross, regardless of how this vote goes, it's still -- there will be bipartisan opposition to this deal. Strong bipartisan opposition, though, ultimately it may -- it doesn't necessarily affect the outcome.
ROSSWell, it still looks more partisan because you don't have a lot of Democrats who are opposing the president. It tends to look like it's more of a partisan approach. I do think that if you avoid a vote, it still is good for the president from the following standpoint. If this were to be an agreement that in the sense squeaks through because he has one-third of the Congress favoring it, that looks a whole lot, I think, less convincing than if you end up having this go through because there wasn't the resolution of disapproval or if there was, it was only in one house.
KEITHAmbassador Burns, if Congress votes to disapprove, even if ultimately the deal can go forward, does that send a message to the international community? Are there concerns about that either way?
BURNSI think it does. I think for the reasons that Dennis and Mark have elucidated, if the Congress votes initially, by majority, to disapprove the president, that harms our credibility as a country overseas. It harms our adherence to this agreement. It's certainly going to preferable if the president can get to 41 votes in the Senate and therefore block a final vote. I've been disturbed, just as a citizen watching this, by the partisan nature of it.
BURNSI had thought on a big war and peace issue, which is really, in many ways, going to define American policy and strength in the Middle East for a generation to come that some members might want to vote their conscience. They might want to liberate themselves from party. But the reality is that the 301 Republicans in the Senate and House, all of them, are likely now to vote against this agreement and a relatively small number of Democrats will vote against the president.
BURNSAnd I worry that -- the president's going to get through this, as Dennis and Mark have said. The nuclear deal will go forward with the United States as one of the lead parties, but I worry that it could become the foreign policy version of Obamacare, that every time a Congress votes on a budget or votes on an ancillary bill, a rider will be attached to denounce and vote down the nuclear deal. The Obama administration will have to rally support.
BURNSAnd that's going to be unfortunate because we've got to move ahead here and we've got to try to get Republicans and Democrats unified on a big containment strategy against Iran in the coming years.
KEITHWe'll be taking your comments and questions throughout the hour. We definitely want to hear from you. Give us a call at 1-800-433-8850. You can send us your email to email@example.com. Join us on Facebook or Twitter. The handle is @drshow. And we're hearing news, Mark Landler, from Iran that the Supreme Leader is weighing in and he, in fact, wants parliament there to also vote on it.
LANDLERYeah. The Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini announced that he did want this to be put to a vote in the parliament. That's worth noting because it wasn't clear and, in fact, the president of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, who sort of made this agreement a key part of his presidency, argued that it wasn't necessary to get parliamentary support. And so what you're seeing is an odd parallel process going on in Iran where the Supreme Leader, who's the final arbiter on this deal, is, in a way, keeping his own distance from the deal.
LANDLERHe's saying, I'm not going to let the president just have his way on this. I'm going to put it up to a vote. Now, it will probably pass, almost certainly pass. The speaker of the parliament is Ali Larijani who is very familiar with the nuclear file. I think he'd be likely to make sure it passes. But there will be hardliners in the Parliament that vote against it and those hardliners, in a way, will be Ayatollah Khomeini's way of allowing it to be seen, that there's a bit of a split decision here in Iran as well.
LANDLERAnd I think it is a way for him to hedge his bets a little bit. He's always been ambivalent about this deal and ready to distance himself from it and so even here, as we're on the threshold of the deal, he does it yet again through this way.
KEITHDennis Ross, it seems like sort of a mirror image in some way.
ROSSWell, I think the Iranians also want to demonstrate that it's not the United States that determines whether this happens or not. It's also the Iranians. So it allows them to demonstrate that they have played a central role in this, number one. Number two, I think what Mark said is quite right, about Ali Khomeini, the Supreme Leader. He will acquiesce in this agreement. He will allow it to go through. He will acquiesce.
ROSSHe wants it both ways. If it turns out that it proves very beneficial to Iran because sanctions relief ends up really leading to a significant improvement economically, he'll be in a position where he can take credit for it. If it turns out it doesn't produce that, he'll be the one who will say, I always told you so. I mean, he's been very clear. Even now, he talks about the arrogant powers, meaning us. He talks about how he's not going to allow us to have economic, political or cultural intrusion into Iran.
ROSSHe's safeguarding his position. He likes to be above the fray. I do anticipate that he will also compensate the Revolutionary Guard that has been against this agreement as a way of also demonstrating the validity of his continuing revolutionary ideology.
KEITHI want to turn to a tweet that I got yesterday when I said that we were going to do this show and it's a pretty basic question, but, I think, one that people probably have beyond simply this one tweet. The tweeter asks, why is the Iran deal considered an executive agreement and not a treaty that would have to be approved by the Congress or by the parliament? Ambassador Ross.
ROSSI think the administration made a decision to treat it that way. In fact, the administration actually had a position for a long time that the Congress really didn't need to deal with it at all because the congressionally mandated sanctions were only going to be suspended, not terminated for eight years. The agreement needed to sort of prove itself over time before you'd go to the Congress and then ask them to revoke what were the congressionally mandated sanctions.
ROSSSo in a sense, what the administration and the president understanding that there was a Republican majority was positioning itself to protect the ability to get this agreement done and then implemented. Had it treated it as if it was a treaty, then it would've required the Senate, two-thirds majority of the Senate to be able to vote it and the administration understood that wasn't something that was going to be achievable.
KEITHSo Nicholas Burns, the administration just gets to decide these things?
BURNSWell, it is at the discretion, for the most part, of any administration as to whether they're going to present a deal as an executive agreement, we call it a non-binding agreement, or a treaty. Over the last century, Republican and Democratic administrations have tried to invest a lot of authority in the executive branch. So, for instance, the Atlantic Charter between Roosevelt and Churchill, which defined our strategic objectives in the second World War was an executive agreement.
BURNSThe Shanghai Communicate, President Nixon's opening to China, an executive agreement. Clearly, Congress has a role and I think that Dennis right to infer that in this case, as Congress had acted in both the Bush and Obama administrations to supplement the U.S. sanctions, they were an actor in the process, it was only right that Congress have a say. I think that there has to be a vote. There will be a vote. I think the Republican majority will insist on that, unless the Democrats have this blocking number of 41, but that might be a reach.
KEITHCritics have described this deal as a windfall for Iran. How much of a windfall, Dennis Ross?
ROSSWell, let's put this in some perspective. Any agreement was going to give the Iranians sanctions relief. It's not just this agreement. If there had been an agreement where they weren't allowed to have enrichment at all, they would've gotten sanctions relief in return for it. So it's not the agreement, per se, that provides them a windfall. It's that there's sanctions that have been imposed on them. And in return for constraining their nuclear program with this agreement, they get sanctions relief in return.
ROSSNow, the question of how much, for a while people were saying that all the various assets that were frozen, that they didn't have access to, amounted to about $150 billion. The administration has come out and said that's actually about $56 billion.
KEITHMore of our conversation about the Iran nuclear deal and what comes next, up next.
KEITHWelcome back. I'm Tamara Keith sitting in for Diane Rehm. And we want to hear from you. The number to call is 1-800-433-8850. Or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or Twitter, our handle is @drshow. We are talking about the Iran nuclear agreement and what comes next. And we finished, before the break, talking about the sanctions relief that Iran will get as part of this deal. The question I think a lot of people have is, okay, they get the sanctions relief, what are they going to do with that windfall? And Ambassador Nicholas Burns, I want to go to you and ask, what happens there?
BURNSWell I think the Treasury Department believes the correct number is somewhere in the vicinity of $56 billion. We probably don't know for sure. I think there's no question that some of those funds are going to have to go to resuscitate and revive the Iranian economy and to try to elevate the standard of living of Iranians who've been living under sanctions. But -- and here's the big but for this deal and one of the downside risks -- some of the funds will go to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. That's the organization -- that's the hardline part of the Iranian government, supported by the supreme leader, that has been intervening so unproductively and so violently in Iraq, Syria, Yemen through support of Hezbollah and Hamas.
BURNSSo one of the downside risks -- and this is -- this deal is a careful balance of benefit and risk -- one of the big risks for the United States is, how do we counteract that? And I suggested in Mark's paper, The New York Times, yesterday in an op-ed piece that, as we implement the nuclear deal, we also have to, in effect, implement a containment strategy of Iran, to build up Israeli military power, to build up the military capacity of the Gulf States, as Secretary Kerry's been trying to do, and to reinsert the United States, not through our troops, but as a political actor, to push back against this big Iranian push as the great Shia power into the heart of the Sunni world. That's what's happening right now.
BURNSIf we don't do that, I think it weakens our ability to effectively contain the country, Iran, and to implement the nuclear deal.
KEITHYou describe that as coercive diplomacy?
BURNSThat's right. I mean, the fact is that the United States is the largest and strongest outside power in the Middle East and, traditionally, really over 50 years. We have played the role of a balancer there, trying to support our partners, like Israel and the Arab -- moderate Arab governments, and to try to make sure that unstable -- destabilizing countries like Iran don't become as powerful as they wish to be and, I think, what we haven't seen yet from President Obama. And, in fact, Dennis and I have both written about this recently. We haven't seen a concerted strategy for the long term, within which the nuclear deal fits as one element, but alongside those other elements and many others that I've talked about.
BURNSAnd if the president would go there, I think that's where the bipartisan unity is going be, after the vote in Congress. What I heard, in my own testimony on Capitol Hill in July and August, from Democrats and Republicans is what's the major strategy? That we -- so when we vote for the nuclear deal, how do we know it's going to be successful? The president has an opportunity, but he's not yet really stepped up to it.
KEITHAmbassador Ross, you're shaking your head, nodding.
ROSSYeah. No, I think the premise, as Nick put it is, the supreme leader is going to want to validate his revolutionary ideology. And that, by itself, is going to ensure that at least some of this money goes to Hezbollah, which by the way is hurting now. It is heavily involved in Syria. It has lost a lot of its fighters. It is under challenge in Lebanon. It needs more money to support what it's doing. So it's going to get more money. And I think some of the other Shia militias, as well as Hamas, are likely to get more money, partly because of the revolutionary ideology, partly because the Revolutionary Guard is going to be given more of a license, I think, by the supreme leader.
ROSSSo I think we're going to face that. And I think what is necessary right now is the strategy that Nick talks about. I would like to see us work out now, through a set of contingency planning with the Israelis but also with our key Arab partners, a set of options for what happens if we begin to see a surge in the support that Iran provides. It's very important that, I think, that we make it clear that what has guided us in the region will continue to guide us -- meaning historically. And that the clearer that the president is on this and the more determined he is to counter destabilizing behavior by Iran, it has the benefit not only of reassuring others in the region, it has, as Nick was suggesting -- it probably also enhances deterrence more generally.
ROSSOne of the things that hasn't, I think, been sufficiently appreciated: if you want to empower more pragmatic elements in Iran, you have to show that what the Revolutionary Guard and others are doing costs. It costs mightily. In a sense, what got the Iranians to negotiate seriously were sanctions because of the nuclear issue. If it becomes clear that what Qassem Soleimani, the head of the al Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guard is doing, costs Iran, that actually helps to empower the pragmatists.
ROSSAnd so it makes sense not only from the standpoint of reassuring our friends in the region, it also makes sense in terms of making it clear to the Iranians: If you engage in destabilizing behaviors, it's going to cost you. Across the board, that enhances deterrence, whether you're dealing on the nuclear issue.
KEITHMark Landler with The New York Times, tomorrow, King Salman of Saudi Arabia will visit the White House. And Saudi Arabia has expressed support for this Iran deal. What do you -- do you have any thoughts on what that conversation might be like?
LANDLERWell, it's true that Saudi Arabia has expressed support more recently for this deal. But Saudi Arabia has been deeply ambivalent about this entire diplomatic process from the start. And if you recall, King Salman snubbed President Obama a few months ago, didn't go to a Camp David Summit of Gulf leaders and sent some subordinate. So it's been more of a twisty process. I think that a lot of what Dennis and Nick are talking about is going to be on the table, by way of just reassuring the Saudis and the other Gulf countries that the U.S. has their back.
LANDLERI thought it was interesting that Ben Rhodes acknowledged in a call with reporters yesterday that oil, which is traditionally the, you know, obsessive center of topic for Saudis in the United States, may be only a routine topic. This is going to be much more about deterrence, defense. I think there's a broader point I sort of wanted to make, listening to both...
LANDLER...Dennis and Nick, which is this: If you step back for a minute and think about what President Obama wanted to do in the Middle East when he came in and, indeed, was in some ways the predicate for starting this negotiation with Iran, was to sort of extricate the U.S. a little bit from this web of obligations that we've had historically. I think it's a little ironic that now, in the aftermath of the deal, it's become clear to everybody that the way to secure the deal and enforce it will involve us redoubling in some ways our involvement in the region.
LANDLERWe have to really shore up these alliances and probably put teeth behind them in terms of military aid and a security umbrella or, you know, you're going to start hearing those kind of words being used. So, ironically, at the end of the Obama presidency, we find ourselves as deeply embedded in the Middle East, I think, as we were at the beginning. Not so much with boots on the ground, obviously -- we don't have a war in Iraq the way we did when he came into office. But I think that the reality of the Iran deal is it's not our ticket out of the Middle East. And I think, perhaps at the beginning, Obama may have seen it as that.
KEITHHmm. Ambassador Burns.
BURNSWell, boy, I think Mark is right about this. This is almost a Shakespearian drama, if you think about it. The president came in and his advisers would say, you know, we're overinvested in the Middle East, we're underinvested in Asia. The president announced a pivot to Asia in 2011. We're seeing a pivot back to American leadership in the Middle East, because it's absolutely essential. We're the only power in the world capable of exercising influence in all regions of the world. We have to continue to do that. And I think it's welcome if the president would then articulate a bigger, coherent strategy for the Middle East.
BURNSThe difficult part, Tamara, will be, of course, what do we do about the Israelis? We have the greatest dispute with the Israelis since the Suez crisis of 1956. Very poor relations between the prime minister -- Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama. I think, after the vote, I would hope the president would very much try to make up that glaring gap between he and the Israeli government. We ought to announce a bigger military assistance package, two years ahead of time, before our current agreement runs out for Israel.
BURNSBut I also think Prime Minister Netanyahu needs to step up. He has, in my view, acted unwisely by intervening so blatantly in the Congressional vote and by making that ill-advised joint speech to Congress in March. I think he also bears some responsibility to bury the hatchet between the Israeli and American governments.
KEITHAmbassador Ross, what is the likelihood of that hatchet being buried anytime soon?
ROSSWell, I think, actually, it's more likely than one might think. First of all, I have a book that comes out next month on the U.S.-Israeli relationship, from Truman through Obama. So I look at the relationship now in a broader context. And we've seen periods before where there were real -- there was real dissidence between American presidents and Israeli prime ministers. One key that is sustaining the relationship is that it's basically a bipartisan relationship. It's -- Israel has not been a Republican or Democratic issue, it's been an American issue.
ROSSI think it's very much in Prime Minister Netanyahu's interest to reestablish that, especially in the aftermath of this. The president is offering a set of assurances -- in the letters he's sent to Jerold Nadler and now the letter he's sent to Senator Coons -- that he is going to address concerns as it relates to Israel. He's talked about our commitment to Israeli security as being sacrosanct. Those are his -- those are the president's words. I think, from that standpoint, the president's interests will be high, having reassured the people on the Hill.
ROSSAnd I think Prime Minister Netanyahu's interests, in terms of making it clear to the Israeli public that he's managing the American relationship in the aftermath of what was clearly a very sharp disagreement over Iran. I think that he, too, will have an interest in doing that. And he'll have an interest in reaching out to the Democrats, particularly in the aftermath of this vote. So in a lot of ways, much like we've seen in the past, we're going to see, whenever there's a dissidence, there's also factors that help to reproduce the relationship that has moved in a certain trajectory.
KEITHI want to go to our listeners now. And there's a tweet from Ryan. Ryan writes: Why are we not asking for the release of Americans in Iran as part of this agreement? Mark Landler.
LANDLERWell, I think that the administration has been very careful all along to try to keep this agreement compartmented around the nuclear file and not raise a whole range of human rights issues or for that matter regional security issues -- Hezbollah, Yemen. There are many, many things we could demand of Iran that we haven't as part of this deal. But that isn't to say that in back channels and other conversations that this point isn't being made. And there are, obviously, there's a Washington Post reporter who's been languishing in jail in Iran, and it will be very interesting to see if somehow, in some way that we may not fully understand or may not be fully transparent, he's suddenly released. There's a precedent for this.
LANDLERSo I do think these issues are pressed by the U.S. But I think they're not pressed as part of the deal, per se. Because the thinking is that, if you were to lump it all in together, it just becomes too complicated and it probably impedes you from achieving as much as you can on the actual nuclear negotiation itself.
KEITHIs that like negotiating to buy a car and then you try to throw in the floor mats and then you suddenly get a worse deal?
LANDLERThat's not a terrible analogy.
KEITHLet's go to the phones and Nathan in Baltimore, Md.
NATHANThank you. It's not just Congress as a whole that will most likely oppose this deal. In a poll that came out early this week, it was noted that the American people are against this deal two to one. That's very impressive opposition. My question is, how could President Obama be so forceful in pushing this deal through when the majority of the people he serves are against it?
ROSSLook, I think presidents, whoever they are, make a decision about what they think is in the national security interests of the United States. And in this particular case, President Obama clearly believes this agreement serves our national security interests. And he feels a deep obligation, I think, to act on it. I think he continues to hope that he'll be able to persuade the American public and also, as the deal is implemented, it will begin to demonstrate that this was, in fact, the right course. He's been clear, I think consistently, that there isn't a military solution to this problem, there's only a diplomatic solution to the problem.
ROSSAnd while he's said all options are on the table, he's also saying that if you can resolve this through diplomatic means, that's clearly the right way to go. And he's -- in his judgment, he's exercising the leadership that he was put in office to conduct.
KEITHI'm Tamara Keith of NPR. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And we would love to hear from you. Give us a call at 1-800-433-8850. Send us an email to email@example.com. Or send us a tweet @drshow. And let's go to another caller. And Bob, in Jackson, Mich.
BOBHello. I have a quick question, quick comment. My quick question is, I don't have the source, but I read that when it comes to checking how much bomb-making material the Iranians have, that they get to check their own and then hand in a report with nobody else looking. I can't believe that's true but I read that that's what it might be. And then my comment is that the only reason the Republicans don't like this deal -- the only reason -- is because the Democrats came up with it. I also feel that if it was reversed, the Democrats wouldn't like it at all, if the Republicans came up with it. And the way these two groups can't get together for the good of the country just makes me sick.
KEITHIt sounds like you are reflecting a feeling many people have about the dysfunction of American politics. Ambassador Burns, what about his first question?
BURNSIt's a good question. One of the principal issues here is, are the verification procedures strong enough? So therefore, the International Atomic Energy Agency is going to be checking and watching Iran closely to make sure they adhere to the deal. Are they going to be tough minded enough? And I'd look at it in two ways. We know about existing Iranian facilities -- the Natanz uranium plant, the Fordow plant. I think Secretary Ernie Moniz, the secretary of energy, has been very effective in reassuring Congress, we're going to have line-of-sight and a lot of understanding about what Iran is doing in their known facilities. And it's very unlikely that the Iranians would be able to cheat or cut corners without us knowing about it.
BURNSThe problem occurs if the Iranians decide, as they have in the past, to try to build secret facilities. In that case, and here's where your question comes in, if the United States or France or Britain uncovered a secret facilities, it went to the IAEA with that complaint, the Iranians would, in a sense, have to report back to the IAEA about what they were doing. There would be a procedure in place that would be quite prolonged, up to 24 days, to decide what kind of access would be given. But, you know, I think, if there's a secret facility uncovered, it's going to be a fundamental violation of the agreement. I think the United States and other countries would have the grounds to abrogate the agreement.
BURNSSo this is not an exact science. But Secretary Moniz has also said, even if the Iranians had some time to report on their own or to clean up a facility, to keep it away from the IAEA, he thinks that microscopic elements of nuclear material would remain behind. That's been the case in the past. I think Secretary Moniz has been a very important figure in this debate. He's been a reassuring figure on these questions to Congress of verification.
KEITHComing up, your calls and questions for our panel. Please stay tuned. This is "The Diane Rehm Show."
KEITHWelcome back. I'm Tamara Keith of NPR, sitting in for Diane Rehm. And today's show is all about the Iran nuclear agreement, and we have a couple of tweets here that I want to read, first from Brad. Snapback sanctions are a fantasy. No European businessman is going to pull out of Iran in four years. It's a fantasy. And then from Lorelei, this tweet says, what is the timeline on the deal insofar as how long it will keep Iran without nuclear weapons? Is there a sunset date. Ambassador Ross, do you want to weigh in here?
ROSSSure, on the issue of -- there is no sunset date. There is a 15-year period where I think you're going to have a very high degree of confidence that Iran will not have a nuclear weapon. I mean some people, including myself, have real concerns about what happens after year 15 because even though there's monitoring after year 15, including on the supply chain, there is no limitation on how big the program can be that the Iranians build up.
ROSSIn many respects, I've written that they're treated like Japan or the Netherlands when it comes to the size of their program, and so that's one of the reasons I'd like to see deterrence enhanced for the post-year-15 period. But up until year 15, you're going to have a high degree of confidence that they really can't be in a position where they can have a nuclear weapon.
ROSSThe snapback function, I mean, it's an interesting point that the listener raises. The question is, will the Europeans, after they have businesses that have deeply invested, will they in fact be prepared, if Iran violates at that point, to fulfill their obligations under the agreement. The way the snapback function works is you have to have an affirmative vote to continue the suspension of the sanctions. The sanctions regime does not get terminated for eight years. It's suspended.
ROSSSo there's a vote in the Security Council, and we effectively could veto a vote of continuing the suspension of the sanctions regime. The Europeans would be obligated. They signed up for this agreement, so they'd be obligated under those circumstances to go along with the snapback of the sanctions regime. One can debate whether or not at that point, in fact, the companies will act or not. My suspicion would be it would be pretty hard for them not to. But here again, it comes back to something pretty fundamental.
ROSSIf the violation is along the margins, it's hard to see snapback working because then you bring the whole agreement down. If the violation is a big violation, then I think, you know, the prospect of snapback working is very real. So it...
KEITHAnd how do you know if it's a big violation or a little violation?
ROSSWell, I mean, if they're making a dash towards a weapon, that's a big violation. If they're suddenly producing highly enriched uranium, that's a big violation. There are some things that would be unmistakable in terms of being a big violation. The Iranians, if you look at the pattern of their behavior in the past, they cheat along the margins, and I would say they'll cheat along the margins this time, too, because -- if for no other reason wanting just to test to see how good our verification system is.
ROSSSo the real question is, and this is another issue that many have raised, what do you do for the smaller kinds of violations, where snapback is much less likely to be invoked because you don't want to put the whole agreement at risk. And I think that's an important question, and the letter that the president wrote to Congressman Gerald Nadler, he made it clear that he didn't want to telegraph what we were doing in those kinds of cases.
ROSSI think some have raised, including myself, have raised the question that the way deterrence works is by in fact telegraphing that the Iranians should know what the price is. You're much more likely to be able to deter them if they do know what the price is, and I think it's part of trying to bolster deterrence that you create a consistent pattern of behavior. Any transgression, no matter how small, produces a price.
KEITHMark Landler, this agreement, which is big and complicated, and some parts of it aren't even fully known, this is going to be part of President Obama's legacy, I guess, well past his presidency.
LANDLERI think you could argue it's his major foreign policy legacy. It's hard to think of another. I mean, he's had the opening to Cuba, of course, he's had the pivot to Asia, which may result in a very, very significant trade deal, and those will both be legacy achievements, as well. But in terms of an achievement that you can think about really changing the dynamic of the region that is at the heart of America's sort of security concerns in the world, this is probably going to be the big one.
LANDLERAnd, you know, it's worth pointing out that because of that, it'll be at the heart of the 2016 presidential campaign, and I think that as a foreign policy debate, foreign policy we have to acknowledge is typically not number one on the list, it's typically the economy, and that'll probably be true next year, as well. But to the extent that foreign policy figures, the Iran nuclear deal is going to be at the heart of the debate, and that's why you'll see Secretary Clinton, I mean, next week she's giving a major speech on the Iran nuclear deal, and that'll be fascinating to watch because there you'll see the way she positions herself.
LANDLERShe was part of the negotiation. She was deeply involved. She's on the record as supporting it, but she's also known to be far more skeptical of Iran that President Obama. And I think you will see some very interesting, in terms of the deterrence message that Dennis and Nick have been talking about, I think you'll see her, you'll see Clinton really push that message hard next week.
KEITHAmbassador Burns, what do you think of that?
BURNSWell, I think that these last two tweets have really focused on the fact that we're just at the beginning of a national debate on Iran. The nuclear deal is going to go forward, but the strategic ambition and aim has to be to contain the Iranians. How do you do that most effectively? How do you get closer to the Israelis? How do you build up the Arabs? How do you create strategic deterrence against Iran? The next president is going to have to do that, as well as President Obama, and I think it's going to be one of the major preoccupations of American foreign policy going forward. It ought to be part of our 2016 debate.
ROSSCan I just add on that?
KEITHYeah please, Ambassador Ross.
ROSSI agree, I agree with what Nick said, and I just, on this issue of deterrence, it's precisely because after year 15 the gap between threshold status and weapon status is not great, the fact that the Iranians are not limited in terms of how big a program they can create, all the more reason to create a firewall now.
KEITHCan you translate the threshold status versus weapon status?
ROSSThey will be in a position, the Iranians will be in a position where the size of their nuclear program will be so large that if they really wanted to move towards a weapon quickly, they could. Certainly if they wanted to move quickly towards weapons-grade fissile material, there would be almost what's known as breakout time -- there'd almost no breakout time. So if you want to deter them from doing that, they need to know if they make a move in that direction, that's not sanctions that's triggered, that's the use of force, they risk their whole nuclear infrastructure at that point.
ROSSThe clearer that is, the earlier that's established, the more the rest of the world will accept that that's the appropriate approach, which is why I would like to see this administration be as clear as possible on that, and I would like to see them be clearer than they have been up to this point.
KEITHAnd email from Harry. Once President Obama is out of office, if it appears that the plan is not working, what can the next president do? Can the next president repeal the entire program? And then I just want to go straight to the phones and Fern in Columbia, Maryland. Fern, I think you have a similar question.
FERNYes, my question is that North Korea, I believe there was a similar scenario years ago, and we reduced the sanctions on North Korea so they would not get the bomb, and they really reneged on their part of the agreement. My question is, is Iran any more trustworthy than North Korea?
KEITHAmbassador Nicholas Burns?
BURNSAnd the answer is Iran is not more trustworthy than North Korea. The North Korea history is a very long, involved one. President Clinton and President George W. Bush both had failed attempts to arrive at agreements with them. But, you know, North Korea is content to live in isolation. Iran is a trading nation. Iran wants to re-enter the international financial system. They have a system of government where people can at least voice some concerns and opposition.
BURNSThe Iranian people want to be connect again. I think that's where our leverage is over the Iranians. And so because the North Korea agreements failed doesn't logically mean the Iranian agreement is going to fail, but it will take two or three American president for the next 20 or 30 years, maybe four American presidents, to implement this deal. And I really think that there is some common ground between Democrats and Republicans on the larger strategic deterrence issues that Dennis and I have been talking about.
KEITHLet's go back to the phones and Dan in Warrenton, Virginia, welcome to the program.
DANThank you. So I have a concern that, generally speaking, whenever the United States involves itself in the Middle East, all we do is create more problems for ourselves and create more enemies. And I look at Iran in particular, and I look back to the fact that the only time in their history they had an elected government, it was our CIA working with our State Department that overthrew that government on behalf of British Petroleum. I can't imagine how they resent us for that.
DANI look at the states we support, for example Iraq. We supported Saddam Hussein because he was fighting the Iranians because we were mad at the Iranians for taking our embassy, and they were mad at us because we overthrew their government. We supported and created another monster that we then had to go break. The mujahedeen, they were fighting the Soviets. We went, and we supported the mujahedeen because we wanted to stick it to the Soviets.
DANThen the mujahedeen turned on us. We keeped creating our own monsters, and maybe, and I hate to say it, but even Israel was a state that was created in part through terrorism. So we're over there, we're supporting depots, we're creating our own monsters over and over again, and now we're wondering why they're turning on us.
KEITHDan, thank you very much for your question. Nicholas Burns at the Kennedy School, what do you -- what do you make of that?
BURNSWell, when you talk to Iranians, there's a -- they have a long list of grievances, starting with that event more than 60 years ago, where Mosaddegh was overthrown in part by the United States and the United Kingdom. But look, we have our list, too. They bombed in our embassy in Beirut and killed our employees in 1983, the Marine barracks in 1983. They killed Malcom Kerr, the president of the American University of Beirut, and of course they took our diplomats, 52 of them, hostage. So, you know, when the Iranians give me the list, I give them our list.
BURNSAnd as a diplomat, you can't be a prisoner of these historical grievances. I think what President Bush tried to do, and Condoleezza Rice, and President Obama too, is okay, we have to move forward. We have to try to seek some negotiating platform. We had not had a strategic, sustained discussion with the Iranians for 35 years until John Kerry sat down with Javad Zarif roughly two years ago. And it's in our interest to talking to adversaries like Iran. It makes us actually in better position to be able to thwart them.
BURNSSo I don't think we ought to be consumed by the history because if we are, that's all we'll talk about. I think Secretary Kerry in particular has been able to move us forward with the Iranians. Now that we're talking on the nuclear issue, we should be challenging the Iranians in direct conversations about what they're doing to destabilize at least four countries in the Middle East.
BURNSThat's what diplomacy is. Coercive diplomacy, Tamara, you asked me about it earlier, it's hard-edged. It's winning through negotiations, not just through the use of military force.
LANDLERI guess I just would maybe make a point I made earlier, which I think the way the listener expressed it would be a little more hard-edge, but I think President Obama sympathized with a lot of those sentiments. I think President Obama came into office thinking that in a lot of cases where the U.S. gets involved, the outcome is bad and that we need to do less of it. I think that was kind of the underlying predicate of his Middle East police.
LANDLERI think what he discovered in six and a half years is that it's not that easy, that un-involvement, lack of engagement, can also lead to very bad outcomes. I think you see that a little bit with ISIS. So I think that there's been a learning process on his part, as well, but I think he came in thinking not that differently from what the listeners summarized just now.
KEITHI'm Tamara Keith, you're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. Dennis Ross, just to step back a little bit, American politics and then getting into foreign policy, it seems like the Iran deal doesn't necessarily translate easily to simple political discussion.
ROSSWell, I think, look, we're trying to deal with an Iranian nuclear program that has a long history. And there's been an effort to try to find a way to stop it. And, you know, the debate on this is influenced not only by the history of trying to stop it but also by the history of the relationship with Iran and the legacy. One of the reasons there's such profound distrust is because of Iran.
ROSSI mean, Nick was talking about the legacy that we face. He didn't mention Hobart Towards, but obviously when it relates to the American public, the American public looks at Iran, and they see they took -- they took American hostages, they see Iran as one of the three countries we designate as a country supporting terror. They've been associated and identified with terror. And so, you know, this issue in a sense is put in a context of who Iran is and why there's such profound distrust.
ROSSThe fact that we continue to see demonstrations in Iran where they call death to America makes it pretty easy for the American public to say we're doing a deal with these guys, and that's a good idea because. So it's -- you know, it's not a simple thing to get one's head around and to explain, and yet, you know, you -- the nuclear issue is something that multiple administrations have been dealing with as it relates to Iran, and the objective has been to ensure they never become a nuclear weapons state.
KEITHMark Landler of the New York Times, this has been something of a tough pitch for the president.
LANDLERWell, a very tough pitch because, as Dennis says, you're pitching a deal with the original, ultimate villain in our foreign policy and not just the ultimate villain but a villain to a country, specifically Israel, that has deep sentimental, emotional and strategic ties to the United States. So politically it's sort of a perfect storm for the president and a very difficult choice, particularly for senators from places where they care -- you know, you now see Senator Cardin in Maryland struggling with the vote, Senator Booker, New Jersey, struggling with the vote. This is a very, very complicated issue on multiple different levels.
KEITHVery quickly I want to go back to the phones and John in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. We don't have a ton of time, but welcome, John.
JOHNThank you. I happen to agree with the panelist who attest the leadership, which I believe has been fairly remarkable, from President Obama in leading this initiative to respond to this nuclear -- well, this anticipated crisis with diplomacy rather than with our traditionally horrid way of responding militarily. But more than that, I thought it was pretty remarkable that a previous caller asked about the trustworthiness of Iran versus the trustworthiness of North Korea immediately after another caller was curious about the requirement or the ability of a successor of President Obama to repeal the deal.
KEITHJohn -- John, we are all out of time, but thank you for that call, and you're basically getting the last word here. I want to thank Ambassador Nicholas Burns, professor of diplomacy and international politics at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, Ambassador Dennis Ross, a counselor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a former Middle East special envoy, and Mark Landler, White House correspondent with The New York Times. I'm Tamara Keith of NPR, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thanks for listening.
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