Washington Wednesday: Iran sanctions

JILL NELSON, HOST: It’s Wednesday, the 15th of August, 2018.

Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Jill Nelson.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Next up: Washington Wednesday.

In 2015 the United States and five other world powers entered into a nuclear agreement with Iran. Among other things, the plan limited Iran’s enriched uranium stockpile, prohibited construction of heavy-water reactors, and granted access to international inspectors.

In exchange, Iran got major sanctions relief to boost its ailing economy.

From almost the beginning of his presidential campaign, Donald Trump vowed to tear up what he called the one-sided deal. It was a frequent talking point on the campaign trail and in interviews—like this one with CNN.

AUDIO: The Iranians are very good negotiators. The Persians are always great negotiators. They are laughing at us back in Iran.

Upon taking office, President Trump ordered an internal review of the agreement. Meanwhile, as required by law, every three months the Trump administration certified that Iran was in fact in compliance with the terms of the nuclear deal.

In an April 2017 letter to Congress, then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said easing economic sanctions against Iran is—quote—”vital to the national security interests of the United States” even though it “remains a leading state sponsor of terror through many platforms and methods.”

But President Trump changed course in May of this year.

AUDIO: I am announcing today that the United States will withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal. In a few moments I will sign a presidential memorandum to begin reinstating U.S. nuclear sanctions on the Iranian regime.

Those sanctions began hitting Iran last week. They put restrictions on Iran’s ability to purchase U.S. currency, limit Iran’s trade in gold and other precious metals, and curb sales of auto parts and commercial aircraft to Iran.

Another round of sanctions will hit the country in November.

Here to discuss this issue is Mindy Belz. She’s the senior editor for WORLD Magazine and has traveled extensively in the Middle East. She’s also the author of the 2016 book, They Say We Are Infidels: On the run from ISIS with Christians in the Middle East.

Mindy, we’ve just covered the what of these sanctions. I’d like you to give us some context on the why. The administration says it is making this move because Iran is supporting terrorism. Does that explanation hold up to scrutiny?

MINDY BELZ, SENIOR EDITOR: Yes, I think it does. If we look around the world at state sponsors of terror, we would find Iran at the top of that list in almost any category. And this is something that American presidents have been grappling with since 2005. And even going back to 1979 when the Islamic regime first came in and it really tilted the whole balance in the Middle East. So it’s not new that we’re looking at ways to contain Iran both for its ambition for spreading radical Islamic jihadist government, I would say even, throughout the Middle East and up to the Mediterranean.

REICHARD: OK, now let’s look at things from Iran’s perspective. Iran insists it has not broken the terms of the agreement. Some European nations seem to agree with that claim. Does that hold up to scrutiny?

BELZ: I think that technically Iran could. Keep in mind that we are at the early stages of the unfolding of what’s called the JCPOA, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the nuclear deal that the United States negotiated with European powers in 2015. But I would say what has been the achilles heel in the JCPOA from the beginning is that it had these sunset clauses. So, in other words, all of the restrictions that were put in place in the deal that were meant to curtail Iran’s nuclear ambitions, they all end within a relatively short period of time. And so people like Ambassador Nikki Haley and others in Congress have been arguing, I think, very persuasively that this might be a near-term deal that Iran could abide by, because they only had to follow the curtailment for a short period of time and then the restrictions are lifted, in other words. And what’s been clear is that Iran is on this long march for upgrading its nuclear centrifuges. They’ve been these big, clunky, outdated things that we could easily monitor, and what they’ve been doing is gradually transitioning them into late model, high-tech, smaller centrifuges that will be much easier to conceal. This is what has concerned the Trump administration, and I think rightfully so, because the nuclear agreement simply did not put long-term holds on that kind of development.

REICHARD: How much will Iran feel these sanctions?

BELZ: I think we wouldn’t be seeing the outcry and the president of Iran tweeting in all caps back at the president of the United States if they weren’t really concerned about them. Iran’s economy is in free-fall and has been for some time. And so what this does is really undermine its ability to conduct the most basic financial transactions in international markets. It will curtail its ability to export oil. We’re talking about taking Iran back to a level of oil exports that are pre-2015, where it was at about a million barrels a day and it had escalated up to about four or five million barrels a day under the nuclear deal and we’re basically talking about taking them back to before the deal.

REICHARD: We know over the past three years Iran has already greatly benefitted from loosened sanctions—accounts unfrozen, cash returned, foreign investment. So even with these sanctions snapping back into place, is it essentially too late to really hurt Iran?

BELZ: Not at all because we’re looking at a country that has been under long-term sanctions, and that’s why I go back to 2005. We put new sanctions in place, we continue to deal with Iran on its terrorist activities throughout that decade and those have all had long-term effects on the Iranian economy. And, keep in mind, this is a command economy. This is a government essentially run by a tight corps of Ayatollahs working with the Iran revolutionary guard corps. It is in many ways run by military junta and so when the sanctions happen it dries up resources at the ground-level where people genuinely feel it. And so the economy has not been functioning as it once did for a long time. It was starting to get back on its feet to some degree under the nuclear agreement, but we’re looking at a downturn. And I think we’re seeing a country that is drained and it has a fraying economic structure.

REICHARD: Mindy, I want to get your reaction to something Philip Gordon said about this move. Gordon helped negotiate the agreement in 2015 as part of the Obama administration and is now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He said—quoting now—“The United States could face the dilemma the [agreement] was designed to avoid: allow the [nuclear] program to continue to expand in the absence of international monitoring or use military force to stop it.”—end quote. Mindy, how concerned are you that this will quicken Tehran’s path to a nuclear bomb?

BELZ: Well, this is what has concerned European leaders and why they have not joined the United States in pulling completely out of the agreement. They feel like there has to be monitoring protocols in place. Keep in mind that Iran’s missile technology allows them to deliver a nuclear device to Europe right now, whereas it does not allow them to deliver one to the United States. And so I think that the Europeans have a reason that they want to try to stay in some kind of monitoring situation with Iran. And, frankly, I think that the United States should. I think that we should have maybe negotiated, although, the Trump administration did try to do that last fall. President Trump actually extended an invitation to President Rouhani to talk about some of these things and trying to negotiate through this. But now that we’re out of it, I think we have to find a way to continue to monitor what Iran is doing both—not only in terms of developing its nuclear capacity, but in terms of developing its missile technology.

REICHARD: Will these sanctions have the desired effect? Meaning, will Tehran change its terror-supporting ways?

BELZ: It could have that effect. We could see this economy squeezed so much, and given a lot of the political fracturing that is happening in Iran, the fact that the Ayatollahs who have been ruling this country for the last 20-plus years are old men and subject to their own political in-fighting, those are things that could work in our favor. But what I think we need to stress here is Iran is not simply out to dominate the Middle East. Iran is not out to dominate the Muslim world. We have to think of Iran and Iranian ambitions as becoming something of a Mediterranean power. That is clear from the work they have done to support Hezbollah, to support Hamas, to have a stake in Gaza and a stake in Lebanon and a stake in Syria. These are important, strategic concerns and I think until we see a lessening of that, until we see Iran pulling back—and it’s really hard for me to envision these things happening soon without something of a collapse of the regime in Tehran.

REICHARD: Mindy Belz is senior editor for WORLD Magazine. She provides regular international reporting for The World and Everything in It. Mindy, thank you for your insights.

BELZ: Thank you, Mary.

(Iranian Presidency Office via AP) In this photo released by official website of the office of the Iranian Presidency, President Hassan Rouhani addresses the nation in a televised speech in Tehran, Iran, Monday Aug. 6, 2018.

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