Washington Wednesday – Biden plays chicken with Tehran

NICK EICHER, HOST: It’s Wednesday, the 10th of March, 2021.

You’re listening to The World and Everything in It and we’re so glad to have you along today. Good morning, I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. First up: Iran. Deal or no deal? 

In 2018, President Trump pulled the plug on what the Obama administration considered a signature diplomatic achievement.

TRUMP: We cannot prevent an Iranian nuclear bomb under the decaying and rotten structure of the current agreement. The Iran deal is defective at its core.

Critics of the 2015 nuclear agreement said it would not prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. And it funded Iran’s terrorism around the world.

EICHER: President Biden, however, believes the best way forward is backward: a return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action—the JCPOA, as the Iran Deal is known.

But Iranian leaders rejected the first attempt by the Biden White House and European allies to try to bring Iran back to the table. Press Secretary Jen Psaki…

PSAKI: We’re disappointed in Iran’s response. We remain ready to re-engage in meaningful diplomacy to achieve a mutual return to compliance with JCPOA commitments.

Leaders in Tehran continue to play hardball. 

They say the United States first has to drop all sanctions against them before they’ll agree to new talks. 

President Biden says that’s not happening.

REICHARD: So, will either side cave? Or will Iran simply stay the course? 

Joining us now to discuss this is Richard Goldberg. He is senior adviser on Iran with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He’s also a former White House National Security adviser on Iranian weapons of mass destruction.

Richard, good morning.

RICHARD GOLDBERG, GUEST: Good morning. Thank you for having me. 

REICHARD: Now, I know we can’t know the answer to this question with any certainty. But, in your opinion, how close is Iran to developing a nuclear weapon?

GOLDBERG: So, the answer to that has a couple of different paths. Number one, when we look at Iran’s capabilities, we look at two different sides of how you can make a nuclear weapon. One is through uranium and one is through plutonium. Now, they did have a heavy water reactor. The base of it still exists. The reactor core is no longer functional. It could be reconstituted. That represents the plutonium path. 

Right now that is delayed. Their uranium path, though, is quite active and remains a threat. And what happens is when you start enriching uranium to a high enough level, all the way up at some point to 90 percent, which is considered weapons grade and you have enough of that fissile material left over, you have enough to put into a nuclear weapon potentially. 

Now, Iran is not at that point yet. What they do today is they run a lot of centrifuges and they enrich a lot of uranium and they increase their stockpile. And they do that to create a source of tension. It’s an extortion tactic where they say, listen, our stockpile is growing. We’ve said we don’t want to pursue nuclear weapons, but you never know. So, if we have this much uranium sitting around and we ever chose in the future to develop it further to weapons grade uranium and we ever chose to build a nuclear device, we might be capable of racing to a nuclear breakout within just a few months. And that’s the timeline that we talk about in the media. Now, we don’t have evidence that that’s going to happen yet, and so that’s really the crux of the debate here. This extortion tactic of the Iranians is something that Donald Trump saw and said I’m not going to take the bait. I’m not going to pay you to stop enriching. I’m going to continue the sanctions pressure until you change direction, including halting your enrichment. We’re seeing different signals right now from the Biden administration, which has said we want to go back into the nuclear deal and lift U.S. sanctions on Iran in order to stop them from enriching. 

REICHARD: As we mentioned, Iran is showing no signs of budging. Do you believe a deal is still possible?

GOLDBERG: Well, a deal is always possible. The question is it a good deal for the United States. A deal is possible for Iran because Iran is still short on cash. they need money. And regime survival for a regime like this is their number one priority. So, the question for them is how much do they have to give up and how much are they going to get? And that’s the entire equation. That’s the dance we’re seeing right now is can they hold out long enough to really extort the Biden administration, make them desperate to get this crisis over with so they give up more than they have to and Iran gives up less than they need to. 

REICHARD: Iran may need money, but is it possible its strategy will be to stay the course, develop nuclear weapons and use nuclear status to blackmail everybody else? 

GOLDBERG: So, they clearly want to keep the capability to blackmail us. They want to keep the capability to be a nuclear threshold country where they’re right at that cusp. But they don’t want to go too far because they’re also afraid of a military strike. 

Now, certainly during the Trump administration they feared that Donald Trump might use military action because he was, you know, quite frankly, unpredictable. Now I don’t think they fear as much the Biden administration. But  they do fear the Israeli Air Force and what they might be capable of. And the Abraham Accords, that is the agreements of Arab countries normalizing with Israel, adds another wild card to that because maybe you don’t have to think about an Israeli airstrike like way back in the 1980s against the Iraqi program having to come all the way from the Mediterranean and back. Maybe there are some bases nearby Iran that could be used. Maybe there’s some cooperation with Arab countries that would happen in that case. So, they fear a military strike. They don’t want to go too far, obviously. 

But, again, they are showing us their cards, right? There’s a reason why they publicly display the enrichment. They announce to the International Atomic Energy Agency every time they increase enrichment. They want the attention. They want the crisis atmosphere. They want the headlines. Really what should bother us is not what we see but what we don’t see. And that is starting to come out slowly but surely from the International Atomic Energy Agency. Just last week we heard from their director general that he is increasingly confident that Iran may be concealing undeclared nuclear material, nuclear activities, nuclear sites that stem from before the United States left the Iran Deal—a fundamental breach of Iran’s nuclear obligations, a fundamental breach of the whole idea, the premise of the JCPOA, the Iran Nuclear Deal itself, that they abandoned all of their clandestine nuclear activities. And really questioning whether or not the deal did anything to detect them. And so that’s what we really need to worry about is will we allow ourselves to get sucked back into a nuclear deal and give Iran billions of dollars and not even get answers to basic questions about what else we don’t know about their nuclear program. 

REICHARD: You mention Iran’s not so fearful of the Biden administration. On Sunday, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani said he was prepared to take steps to live up to the 2015 nuclear deal as soon as the United States lifts sanctions. Do you think President Biden is going to blink first and agree to those terms? 

GOLDBERG: Well, we’re seeing some moderate blinking at the moment. We have seen some recent reports over the last few days of a few billion dollars being unfrozen from different accounts—whether it’s in South Korea, Oman, or Iraq—that the Iranians are being given access to by the Biden administration very quietly. That’s not going to be enough, long term, for them to sustain their economy, given the level of their oil exports being driven down by U.S. sanctions, other exports in the non-oil arena as well.  

We also saw that even though the director general of the IAEA made those very startling comments last week, by the end of the week under U.S. pressure, our European allies pulled back on a resolution that had been offered to censure Iran, to condemn them for potentially concealing this undeclared nuclear material. Reportedly the Biden administration thought that was too provocative, asked them to pull back, not condemn Iran. 

The one last piece I’ll also talk about, obviously, is we’ve seen rocket attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq pick up. We had an attack against a U.S. base in northern Iraq in Erbil. It took several days for the Biden administration to respond to that, to even identify who was responsible. They ended up hitting a target in Syria of a militia that wasn’t even responsible for the attack and certainly did not attack any Iranians directly. 

So, really, a lot of signals combined that project to the supreme leader a real eagerness to get back into the deal and eagerness to give them money, quite frankly. And so if I was the supreme leader I would say I’m going to hold out as long as I possibly can, increase the desperation on the American side, and we’ll see what I get at the end of the day. How much money am I going to get for how little do I have to give up? 

REICHARD: Even if Iran were to come back to the table and they resume the JCPOA, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, would that truly prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons? How much trust can we have in this?

GOLDBERG: No. In fact, it gives them a legitimate pathway to nuclear weapons. One of the big flaws of the deal is that it did not require Iran to give up these enrichment capabilities. And we see that flaw on full display today. The fact that they’re able to enrich right now, they’re able to threaten us after all these years, means they’ll be able to do that at any time of their choosing in the future, no matter what. We ruffle a feather, we say something they don’t like, they will simply say, OK, we’re going to increase our enrichment. And over time under the deal, there are actually sunset provisions, termination clauses to the restrictions that were in the deal. And so legally under a UN security council resolution, by 2031 Iran is allowed to enrich uranium up to weapons grade. And by that time with the sanctions relief they got under the deal their economy is booming, they’ve tested and perfected their missiles, which are not banned by the Nuclear Deal. This will be a crisis at some point. It could be a crisis today or it could be a crisis in five to 10 years. The question is do you want to face that crisis with a weak Iran without perfecting their missiles and without advanced nuclear capabilities? Or do you want to face a strong Iran that has perfected both their nuclear missile capabilities and sits in a robust economy? 

REICHARD: Richard Goldberg with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Richard, thanks so much!

GOLDBERG: Thank you.

(Iranian Presidency Office via AP) In this photo released by the official website of the office of the Iranian Presidency, President Hassan Rouhani addresses the nation in a televised speech in Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021. 

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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