Washington Wednesday: The Iran nuclear deal

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Wednesday the 2nd of May, 2018.

Glad to have you along for today’s episode of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

KENT COVINGTON, HOST: And I’m Kent Covington.

Next up on The World and Everything in It: Washington Wednesday.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dropped a nuclear bombshell at a Monday press conference, revealing a treasure trove of intelligence on Iran’s nuclear weapons program.

With cameras rolling, the prime minister pointed to large satellite and street-level photos of a nondescript building in Tehran.

NETANYAHU: Now, from the outside this was an innocent looking compound. It looks like a dilapidated warehouse. But from the inside, it contained Iran’s secret atomic archives locked in massive files. 

Netanyahu said Iran secretly moved the nuclear files to the vaults inside that building last year.

NETANYAHU: A few weeks ago in a great intelligence achievement, Israel attained half a ton of the material inside these vaults, and here’s what we got.

He pulled back a black sheet covering a large bookcase to reveal volumes of documents, more than 50,000 pages in total, and another 50,000 files on nearly 200 CDs.

Among those files, the prime minister highlighted what he called incriminating blueprints, photos, videos and more, which he said were proof positive of Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

NETANYAHU: This is an original Iranian presentation from these files, and here’s the mission statement: design, produce and test five warheads, each with 10-kiloton TNT yield for integration on a missile. That’s like five Hiroshima bombs to be put on ballistic missiles.

And Netanyahu said the stolen secrets proved that the 2015 Iran nuclear deal has not stopped Iran from pursuing nuclear weapons. He said the regime “continued to preserve and expand its nuclear weapons know-how for future use.”

The point of Netanyahu’s message was clear:

NETANYAHU: The Iran deal, the nuclear deal, is based on lies. It’s based on Iranian lies and Iranian deception. A hundred-thousand files right here prove that they lied. 

Netanyahu reportedly coordinated the unveiling with the White House and timed it less than two weeks before a May 12th deadline. That’s when President Trump to decide whether to renew the sanctions relief that nuclear deal provided to Iran or reimpose those penalties.

For his part the president said Israel’s intelligence haul confirms what he’s been saying all along, that the Iran nuclear agreement was a bad deal. He vowed earlier this year that he would not renew sanctions relief for Iran unless that deal is reworked. And on Monday, he said:

TRUMP: You know in seven years, that deal will have expired and Iran is free to go ahead and create nuclear weapons. That’s not acceptable. Seven years is tomorrow. That’s not acceptable.

Joining us now with insight on the impact of those sanctions, which may soon be re-imposed on Iran is Rich Goldberg.

Rich is a senior adviser at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. But before that, he spent a decade on Capitol Hill as a senior foreign policy adviser. He was a key architect of tough sanctions levied against Iran prior to the 2015 nuclear deal. And he joins us now on the phone.

Rich, let’s start with some context here. Give us a snapshot what kinds of sanctions were bearing down on Iran prior to the 2015 nuclear deal?

RICH GOLDBERG, GUEST: Sure, so in 2013 before the Obama administration entered an interim deal with the Iranians, which gave them sanctions relief, we had built from the Congress one of the toughest if not the toughest sanctions regime against another country that the world’s ever seen. The sort of crown jewel of the sanctions architecture was the sanctions on Iran’s central bank. This put all their foreign exchange reserves on lockdown around the world. It also required all the importers of Iranian oil to reduce significantly their imports of Iranian crude. Really dried up their revenue. But then we went further than that and in 2012 and 2013 we had the Swift System, which is a messaging service based in Brussels that allows the 1s and 0s of banks to talk to each other. We ordered them to disconnect all Iranian banks including the central bank from their system, which truly severed Iran from the financial system of the world. We blacklisted entire sectors of their economy, including their energy sector in its entirety. And then we also looked for ways to clamp down on any loopholes that the Iranians were exploiting. The biggest one was their ability to import gold and use gold instead of dollars as cash. And so that was an intense amount of pressure building on the regime internally and if we had held on a little bit longer, history will never know what we could have accomplished.

Okay, and how much of that went away with the nuclear deal?

GOLDBERG: Everything I just described was given back to the Iranians. All that pressure was released. So, central banks sanctions, the oil sanctions. All the Iranian banks were reconnected to the Swift System, and just billions upon billions of dollars of sanctions relief. Probably $100 billion at least in the sort of economic return, a few billion in hard cash that the president likes to talk about being delivered out to the palace. But that was all given to Iran in exchange for a limited number of concessions in one area of a program that we’re concerned about. And that was their nuclear program. Now, the hiccup was not only did Iran get to keep its nuclear infrastructure, not only did it get to keep of all of its facilities that one day could be reactivated, they also had restrictions that expire in a certain number of years. We call those sunsets. So this was a non-permanent deal that didn’t require any dismantlement of Iranian facilities or infrastructure in exchange for all of our sanctions relief. And all the terrorism and repression at home just continues unabated.  

Rich, I know you were watching when Prime Minister Netanyahu presented that intelligence haul of information … what was your reaction?

GOLDBERG: Well, what we learned from this bombshell that Prime Minister Netanyahu gave us is that Iran has been lying to the world all along. They’ve been lying for decades about the work that they’ve done to pursue nuclear weapons and they’ve lied to the International Atomic Energy Agency as recently as just after entering this nuclear deal, claiming that they never had a nuclear weapons program and they never will have one. But, apparently, according to these documents, they have the technical know-how sitting in a warehouse. They’ve expanded that during the nuclear deal and because, as we talked about, they didn’t have to give up any of their infrastructure, and they’ve been working on advancing their missiles. This is really just all about a time of Iran’s own choosing of when they want to say, you know what, our economy’s better, thank you for the sanctions relief, we have all the technical know-how we need to build a bomb, and that’s what we’re going to do.

Now on the same day that Netanyahu made his presentation, Iran’s deputy foreign minister said “The Iran nuclear deal is no longer sustainable for Iran in its present form without regard to a U.S. exit.” What kind of play is Iran making there — what’s behind that statement?

GOLDBERG: Well, you know, Iran over the last few weeks has tried to threaten the United States and threaten the Trump administration to scare them from re-imposing sanctions that were suspended under the nuclear deal. So they’ve made all kinds of statements to suggest that they would restart their nuclear program, that they can do more than we know, things that, quite frankly, contradict their past statements about how they don’t want to have nuclear weapons whatsoever. And so over the last few months, the Iranian economy has been destabilized by the president sort of waffling about whether he wants to stay in the nuclear deal or not. What that’s done is put a chilling effect on all international commerce with Iran, because all the banks around the world are waiting with bated breath to see what the president will do. I think what they’re doing is trying to do a little saber rattling of their own to see if they can scare President Trump off before his May 12th announcement.   

Okay, but can President Trump really reimpose sanctions? I mean, obviously he can stop renewing the waivers on the U.S. sanctions, but as some have pointed out, this was not a bilateral deal between the U.S. and Iran. There were five other countries involved. So even if the United States re-imposes those penalties, if the other five nations don’t cooperate, does the president really have the power on his own to bring back the kinds of suffocating sanctions that existed before the nuclear deal was struck?

GOLDBERG: He can. It’s a great question and it’s one that opponents of the president often bring up, claiming that if the tries to leave the nuclear deal the United States will be isolated if Europe doesn’t go along with us, that he needs all the other parties, including Russia and China to agree to reimpose sanctions. The truth is that he doesn’t need them whatsoever. And when he chooses to reimpose sanctions, all those countries will have to follow. The reason is how our sanctions work. Gone are the days where we just say the United States thinks that you shouldn’t do business with Iran and if you do and you’re caught, we might fine you a few thousand dollars. That’s sort of the old-school approach to sanctions. What we did in the Congress starting in 2010 is we said, you know what, we have a multi-trillion economy in the United States and Iran only has a multi-hundred billion dollar economy. What we could do is leverage our financial markets against all the financial markets around the world and say to the banks in Brussels and in London and in Paris or in Beijing or in Moscow, you want to do business and have a transaction between your bank and an Iranian bank? You can do that, but if we catch you doing it, you will lose access to all American banks. That’s huge, because nobody in their right mind is going to lose access to the U.S. market over the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Based on what the administration has said in recent days, where do you think this is heading — does the Trump administration make a valiant effort to rework the deal or do they just crumble it up and toss it all together — where do things go from here?

GOLDBERG: Well, if you read the tea leaves of what the president’s been saying ever since President Macron of France visited last week, it does look like he wants to keep the door open to a negotiation after May 12th. President Macron laid out the idea that a new deal on Iran would be based on multiple pillars: their existing nuclear program, any of their future capabilities, their ballistic missile capabilities, and certainly their regional activities that we see today, whether it’s fighting in Syria to support Bashar al-Assad or their work in Yemen to support the Houthis and to launch missiles against Saudi Arabia. This could be a basis for a new negotiation… But in the end, if you look at how the president is addressing North Korea right now, that’s really the model for how he should be addressing Iran going forward. Maximum pressure until we see the Iranians take verifiable, irreversible steps to denuclearize. That was a fatal mistake of the 2015 nuclear deal and it’s a mistake we can’t make again.

Alright, Rich Goldberg, thank you very much for your time, sir. We appreciate it!

GOLDBERG: You bet. Take care.

(AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner) Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presents material on Iranian nuclear weapons development during a press conference in Tel Aviv, Monday, April 30 2018. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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