This special edition of the Politics Hour combined local and national politics live from Slim's Diner in Petworth, Northwest D.C.
Iran signed a historic deal over the weekend to slow enrichment of uranium that it maintains is for energy use, but the global community fears could be used in a nuclear bomb. In exchange, the U.S. and the international community will loosen their juggernaut of economic sanctions and unfreeze access to some overseas assets. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has already blasted the deal, as have some American lawmakers. We explore the terms of the agreement, the potential pitfalls and what happens next.
- Alireza Nader senior international policy analyst, RAND Corporation; professor, Pardee RAND Graduate School; author "Iran After the Bomb"
- Barbara Slavin Senior Fellow, The Atlantic Council; author of the book "Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the U.S. and the Twisted Path to Confrontation.” (2007)
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, Mark Twain spent time as a Washington reporter, believe it or not. It was a short period, but we'll talk about how it influenced him. But first, Iran has signed an agreement with the US and five other world powers that will slow its nuclear program in exchange for some relief from severe international sanctions.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHopeful observers are calling the six month deal between Iran and its long time adversaries historic, even as critics denounce it. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says the deal is a historic mistake that makes the world a more dangerous place. A question for all parties now is what happens in the next six months and whether this limited breakthrough will lead to a longer and more substantive agreement. Joining us in studio is Barbara Slavin, Senior Fellow at The Atlantic Council and Washington Correspondent for El Monitor. Barbara Slavin, good to see you again.
MS. BARBARA SLAVINThank you for inviting me.
NNAMDIAlso in studio with us is Alireza Nader, Senior International Policy Analyst and Iran Specialist with the RAND Corporation. Alireza Nader, thank you so much for joining us.
MR. ALIREZA NADERGreat to be here. Thank you.
NNAMDIYou, too, can join the conversation by calling us at 800-433-8850. What do you think about the deal between Iran and the US and other nations to slow the Iranian nuclear program? 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com. Barbara, explain the basic outlines of this six month agreement. Iran will halt the action that most upsets the rest of the world, its highest grade enrichment of uranium. In exchange, the US and other nations will loosen some of their economic sanctions on Iran.
SLAVINWell, it's sort of more than that. It, as the Obama administration puts it, it puts time on the clock to negotiate a comprehensive agreement. Iran basically stops the most concerning nuclear activities for six months, but beyond that, it has a stockpile of uranium that's been enriched to 20 percent of the isotope U2-35. This is very close to weapons grade material. And Iran is gonna take this stockpile and turn it into a form that can't be used for bombs. So, it's more than just a pause in Iranian nuclear advances.
SLAVINIt rolls back some elements, and of most concern, and I would I would think, really, to the Israelis, is a facility that's called Arak, A-R-A-K. This is a heavy water reactor that, if it was finished, could produce plutonium, which is another way to make a bomb. And Iran is basically not doing any further work on this plan. So, that's a very important concession. I think, you know, the sanctions relief is good, but it's not an exorbitant price for what Iran is doing.
NNAMDIAnything you'd like to add to that, Alireza?
NADERAnd I think I agree with Barbara and everything she said. Also, Iran has agreed to very intrusive inspections, daily inspections of its nuclear facilities.
NNAMDIWhat will those inspections tell us?
NADERWell, if Iran moves toward a nuclear weapons break out capability, then the International Atomic Energy Agency will know, so it will be very difficult for Iran to cheat unless it has undeclared secret sites.
NNAMDIBarbara, if the ultimate international goal is to prevent Iran from being able to build a nuclear weapon, how will this deal move us closer to that point?
SLAVINWell, as Ali said, there are going to inspections of the enrichment facilities where Iran produces the fissile material for a bomb. And, you know, to make a bomb, you have to have the fuel. That's the key element. And Iran will not be able to produce bomb fuel, certainly for six months. And for longer, Iran is also agreeing that there will be a limit on the numbers and types of centrifuges that, these are the machines that spin and produce the enriched uranium. Basically, Iran has agreed to a number of steps that are outside the bounds of the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty, which Iran signed.
SLAVINThese are conditions that other countries, that have signed the NPT don't have to abide by. Now, Iran, you know, is not in good standing with the NPT. It's under six UN Security Council resolutions, so this is its way of saying, OK, we're going to get back in the good graces of the international community, and at the end of the day, we're gonna be treated like a normal nation.
NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, we're talking about the nuclear deal struck between Iran and six nations. We're talking with Alireza Nader. He is Senior International Policy Analyst and Iran Specialist at the RAND Corporation. Barbara Slavin is Senior Fellow at The Atlantic Council in Washington, correspondent for El Monitor. We are inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. Tell us what you think about this deal. You can also send email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or send us a tweet @kojoshow.
NNAMDIWhat's the significance of the fact that a deal was reached between Iran and no less than six world powers, including the United States? Is this really a historic agreement?
NADERIt is. It's a breakthrough, and the P5+1, the UN Security Council plus Germany, have been negotiating for Iran for a number of years without much success. Especially when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was Iran's President from 2005 to 2013. I think the significance is that the international community is behind this deal. It's not just the United States, but the major powers. United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia and China. And those who are opposed to this deal, including the Israeli government, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have to consider that the international community backs this deal.
NADERAnd this is just not an Obama administration initiative.
NNAMDIHow much difference does it make that there is a relatively new president in Iran, President Rouhani?
NADERIt makes significant difference. Of course, Hassan Rouhani is not the power in Iran. That belongs to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He makes the decisions. He's defined the parameters of negotiations and tells what the negotiating team what to do. But, the fact that Rouhani is President demonstrates that the Islamic Republic realized it was in a deep crisis, due to sanctions, Ahmadinejad's policies and its growing international isolation. And Rouhani, I believe, has been given the mandate to guide Iran out of its crisis. So, he's an important player, but his powers are, of course, limited.
NNAMDIWell, therefore, Barbara Slavin, who does get credit for making this deal happen? What role did US Secretary of State John Kerry play, and who else was working behind the scenes?
SLAVINYes, I think a lot of people get credit. Certainly, Rouhani. The Iranian Foreigner Minister Javad Zarif, former UN Ambassador, very accomplished diplomat. The teams from all of the P5+1, but one individual who hasn't gotten much public credit until this weekend, is Bill Burns, our Deputy Secretary of State, who was heading up a back channel with the Iranians for months. My colleague, Laura Rosen, wrote about it on El Monitor, and I think the Associated Press also wrote about it this weekend. Bill Burns has quite an interesting track record.
SLAVINYou know, he's one of the original peace processors, going back to the George H. W. Bush administration. He's a former ambassador to Jordan, to Russia. He was Assistant Secretary of State under George W. Bush, and he actually was the man in charge of negotiations with the Iranians at the end of the George W. Bush administration and the beginning of the Obama administration. So, I think there must be a great sense of personal accomplishment for Bill Burns today.
NNAMDIHe was the living institutional memory in all of this.
SLAVINIndeed he was. And somebody who, I think, saw the opportunity, very clearly, because of his past experience dealing with the Iranians and his past frustrations, saw the opportunity presented by the change in Presidents.
NNAMDIPut on your headphones, please. We're about to go to the phones where we will start with Ken in Washington, D.C. Ken, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KENYeah, on 60 Minutes last night, they reported that Secretary Kerry said there's no more enrichment, and when they interviewed the Iranian diplomat, they asked him point blank, are you going to continue to enrich, he says, yeah, we can do what we want. And if there's any more sanctions, the deal is off.
NNAMDICould you explain, exactly, what that was all about, Barbara Slavin? And you can jump in at will, Alireza.
SLAVINYeah. Yeah. Kerry did not say no more enrichment. What Kerry said is that the United States did not recognize a so called right of Iran to enrichment, which is not something that's part of the NPT. Under the agreement, the Iranians get to continue to enrich to a low level of that isotope that I mentioned earlier. It's capped at five percent, U2-35. And the Iranians have promised that any additional uranium that's enriched to that level will be converted to a form that is relatively benign. So, they won't increase their stockpile of low enriched uranium, and they won't produce medium enriched uranium. That's the 20 percent.
NNAMDIFor those of us in the public, what we need to understand here, I guess, a little more clearly, people like Ken and I, is that there are a variety of levels of enrichment.
NADERRight. So, low level enrichment is 3.5 percent, and Iran has been also enriching uranium up to 20 percent, and it claims this is for peaceful purposes, for medical purposes. If Iran goes up to 90 percent, then that can be used to assemble a nuclear weapon. And the step from 20 to 90 percent is relatively easy. Iran has done much of the work in producing enough enriched uranium to create a nuclear weapon.
NADERI think the fact that Iran limits or stops its enrichment of uranium to 20 percent and decides to get rid of what it has and oxidize it is very significant. Because it effectively halt what some describe as Iran's supposed march toward a nuclear weapons capability.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is our number. What do you think about the deal between Iran and these six nations? 800-433-8850. You can also go to our website, kojoshow.org, and join the conversation there. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the deal a historic mistake. Allow me to go to Sam in Tysons Corner, Virginia. Sam, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SAMKojo, obviously people who are experts at this, and people who have been negotiating, have one view. It seems like Iran's making these concessions. And you quoted Netanyahu. He called it the most dangerous nation, or the most dangerous weapon. I read statements by members of the United States Congress about how they can see there's parody in what the concessions were and what they were getting. It seems like there are two views on this. And the stereotypes on both sides come into play, right? And the stereotype here is nothing seems to satisfy Israel short of bombing Iran. I wonder what your experts really think.
NNAMDII'll start with Alireza Nader.
NADERWell, Netanyahu has taken what I think is a maximalist position on the nuclear program. He is demanding that Iran dismantle it entire nuclear program and all of its facilities and centrifuges. And this position has been supported by some in the US Congress. What we have to realize is that this is not very realistic. The Iranian government has said enrichment is the red line, and I believe that no matter how much pressure we will put on the Iranian government, they will not cross this red line, because it would be humiliation for them.
NADERSo I think what is important is how to realistically stop and then roll back Iran's program. And make sure it's under international inspection. And the position taken by the maximalists really interferes with that, ultimately. We can't expect Iran to give up everything. The negotiations are about both sides have to be flexible on what they give up.
NNAMDIBarbara Slavin, how much of what Prime Minister Netanyahu had to say had to do with the internal politics in Israel? This is an individual who is in a coalition with right wing parties in the government. It would have been difficult for him to have stated otherwise. Would it not?
SLAVINWell, actually, this is something that Netanyahu has been quite consistent on for more than 20 years. Since Iraq ceased being a threat, he's been pounding the drum and saying that Iran is an existential threat to Israel, which is frankly not something I agree with. But I actually wrote something this morning, that it's a good thing that Netanyahu is criticizing this deal because it makes it easier for the Iranian moderate government to sell it to their hardliners.
SLAVINIf Netanyahu had been jumping up and down for joy, then it would have been very embarrassing. So maybe, if you want to be really Machiavellian about this, you know, Netanyahu is playing his assigned role and it will actually help the deal be implemented.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back we'll continue this conversation about the nuclear deal struck with Iran, but you can still call us, 800-433-8850 or send an email to email@example.com to tell us what you think about it. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're discussing the Iran nuclear deal with Barbara Slavin, senior fellow at The Atlantic Council in Washington, correspondent for Al-Monitor. And Alireza Nader, senior international policy analyst and Iran specialist at the RAND Corporation. You can call us at 800-433-8850. We talked about a few people who should get credit for making this deal happen, but there were other people in the room, Barbara Slavin.
SLAVINYes. I neglected to mention three very important ladies who were in the room. Wendy Sherman, our under secretary of state for political affairs who's been at this for a number of years now and leads the U.S. negotiating team at these meetings in Geneva. Catherine Ashton, the EU high representative for foreign policy who's had, maybe, the toughest job, which is to get all of the so-called allies and partners, the P5 plus 1 together on one page. And her assistant, Helga Schmid, who's been at it also for quite a long time.
SLAVINWendy Sherman and Catherine Ashton and Helga Schmid go back to the pre-Rouhani days when they had to deal with a man named Saeed Jalili, who was not so easy to negotiate with. So I just wanted to give them a little bit of credit. And of course, John Kerry, who really has taken this on board in the last couple of months.
NNAMDIAli, what level of sanctions relief is Iran getting from the West in this deal? How will easing sanctions affect everyday life in Iran?
NADERSo the estimate is that the sanctions relief package will be around $6 to $7 billion, which is not very high. Iran will be able to access some of its frozen funds and also sell petrochemicals and deal in gold. And also Iran will be able to send money to Iranians abroad and help them with (unintelligible) and aircraft industry and auto industry will also see sanctions relief. In terms of everyday life, I don't expect it to improve dramatically in the next few months because Iran still will not be able to sell big portions of its oil, inflation will still be high, the currency will still not be very strong. It has lost a lot of its value.
NADERI think it may provide a little more breathing space for the average Iranian, but President Rouhani, who promised to improve the economy, I think has a long way to go because a lot of Iran's problems are not just due to sanctions, but domestic policies and they're very much structural.
NNAMDIBarbara, how are Iranians, as far as we know, reacting to the news of this deal?
SLAVINWell, they seem to be very happy, frankly. Judging from what I see on Facebook and Twitter and emails that I've gotten and so on, I think this is a huge relief for a lot of people. I was in Iran in August and the people that I met in Tehran were extremely skeptical that Rouhani would be able to deliver. It was a lot of pressure on him. And tomorrow, which is November 26th, Rouhani officially marks his 100th day in office.
SLAVINHe dates it from when his cabinet was seated. And so he's now going to be able to deliver a big speech and say, well, look, you know, I've achieved my first priority. I've gotten a nuclear agreement with the P5+1 and things are going to get better now.
NNAMDIOnto the telephones again. Here now is Charles in Washington, D.C. Charles, your turn.
CHARLESYes. Two points. One, you have to keep your eye on the large picture. The large picture is does Iran want a bomb or not? The answer is yes. There's no reason for them to have gone into the billions and billions and billions of dollars (unintelligible) because they only have one power reactor and the Russians, who built the reactor, said they'd be glad to refuel the reactor and they could buy it from any of four different suppliers.
CHARLESSecond, the notion that the Iranian enrichment is the whole focus of whether or not they want a bomb is missing the most important point of all, and that's plutonium. Plutonium was going to be produced at Natanz by their heavy water facilities and their reactor. Plutonium has no other use except as a nuclear weapon.
NNAMDIYou say this to say, Charles, that you don’t think this agreement is a good idea?
CHARLESNo. I think it's a start. But I think that, for instance, the Iranian enrichment will only work if they have inspectors, resident inspectors, from IAEA there and the right to go anywhere. It's been made a point over and over that even by enriching uranium to 20 percent for medical reactors that they could, with the number of centrifuges they have, very rapidly increase that to bomb material.
CHARLESBut the other point was that the entire world has been switched from 20 percent enrichment for the research and medical reactors to low. So they will not want to accept that regimen.
NNAMDIYou raise a number of technical issues that I am completely unqualified to address, which is why we have Alireza Nader here.
NADERWell, does Iran want a bomb? Not necessarily. The U.S. intelligence community judges that Iran is building the capability to produce weapons, but that Iran's leadership has not made the political decision to assemble a bomb. And when we look at the Islamic republic, like many nation states, looks at the costs and benefits of its actions. And people like Rouhani particularly, realize that Iran's nuclear pursuit has had very high costs for the Iranian economy, for Iran's position in the world. So there's no absolute conviction in Iran among the system that Iran has to have a bomb. It may want that capability.
NADERIn terms of plutonium, it can be used for civilian purposes. Iran has not built a processing plant that can be used to turn the plutonium from Iraq into a bomb. We are several months, if not longer, away from that, probably a few years. And it's important to note that Iran is under IAEA International Atomic Energy Agency inspection. And that inspection regime has been tightened through the deal. And so this is one of the good reasons we have this deal. And it is a positive step because it gives us more insight into Iran's program.
SLAVINYeah, two points. First, Iran has the slowest moving proliferation program of any country in history. In the 60 and more years Iran has had a nuclear program, Israel, China, India, Pakistan, and North Korea have all developed and tested nuclear weapons and Iran has not. And then on plutonium, under this agreement Iraq puts heavy restrictions on completing the Iraq facility. So this puts that prospect off. Also, Iran promises not to build a reprocessing plant. So even if it finished Iraq, it would be able to use the plutonium that comes out of it.
NNAMDIBut what could be potential pitfalls for this deal? Are there potential spoilers inside Iran maybe?
NADERThe critics in the United States especially and in Israel are worried that the first step agreement, the initial phase could become the deal, that there may not be a comprehensive deal reached in six months and that Iran will still face sanctions relief and investors will go back into Iran. So this is one of the main criticisms, that this is where the Iranians want to stop. However, I think the Iranian government has expressed a seriousness in pursuing in the negotiation track. And I don't think they would sign a deal and violate it right away. They really do want sanctions relief at the end of the day.
NADEROf course, there will be complications in the six months ahead. I think we might have a lot of ups and downs. Iran will be asked to do things it will have a hard time swallowing, like rolling back its program. And the United States and the international community will have a very real demand that might cause some anxiety and friction in Tehran.
NNAMDIHere is Shaka, in Fort Washington, Md. Shaka, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SHAKAWell, thank you very much, Kojo. How are you today?
SHAKAExcellent. I want first, Kojo, that I'm listening to this program here and my biggest problem here is that the elephant in the room that nobody wants to mention. And we're talking about President Netanyahu's reaction to this deal. Well, the thing is folks, if we go back and listen to Mordechai Vanunu, we know that Israel, itself, has an illegal nuclear program.
SHAKAThey have never signed a nonproliferation deal and they won't let anybody inspect their facilities. So who cares what Netanyahu has to say. Right? But we do care because most of our politicians are bought and paid for by the Israel lobby. And that's why we care. So we need to start focusing on who is in the neighborhood, who has these programs, these nuclear programs…
SHAKA…that are illegal and let's focus on that and let's be fair-minded when we talk about this. We're focusing on Iran. We're ignoring Israel.
NNAMDIGlad you brought that up. (laugh) Barbara Slavin, what does this deal mean for the region, as a whole?
SLAVINWell, let me first say that Israel's nuclear program is covert, but it's not illegal because they never signed a nuclear nonproliferation treaty.
SLAVINSo they never promised not to make weapons. And just in terms of Congress, I mean we can talk about what Congress may do, and that could be certainly…
NNAMDIWell, some allies of President Obama's, like Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer of New York is opposed to the deal and…
SLAVINYeah. This is a real question, whether Obama can prevent new sanctions from being passed over the next six months because he's promised that, and the deal could fall apart there. But in terms of the region, you know, I think this opens up a lot of good prospects. It's hard for the Israeli's, particularly Netanyahu and the Saudis to adjust to it because they're so used to having Iran as the bogey man in the region. But if the Iranians decided to be constructive, they could help stop the fighting in Syria. I mean they could even help get rid of Bashar al-Assad. So we have to hope that this is the beginning of a more constructive relationship with Iran generally.
NADERWell, I think some of the Israeli anxieties and concerns are warranted because Iran does have a history of deception on the nuclear program, its nuclear facilities were revealed by another party in 2002, ostensibly an Iranian opposition group. And a lot of people argue that we shouldn't trust the Iranian government. And I empathize with that sentiment. However, the deal that we're looking at is not just about trust, it's about verifying Iran's nuclear program. And so the international community is putting real constraints on Iran in terms of the regional balance.
NADERYou know, I don't think that just because we have a nuclear deal at this point, our relationship with Iran will dramatically change. As Barbara stated, there are issues we should talk to the Iranians about in Syria and Afghanistan, particularly, so we can have a more engaged and cooperative relationship with Iran. But this does not mean we're going to abandon our allies, like Israel and Saudi Arabia.
NNAMDIAnd that there's going to be a sudden warming of the relationship between the U.S. and Iran.
NADERNo. I see this as a reduction of tensions for now. And I think that in itself is very important. It's not a new alliance with Iran. We're very far away from that.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Dawn, in Washington, who says, "The trouble I'm having with this agreement is the parsing of words and the rhetoric from both sides. It's hard to really believe either side." Barbara, this agreement is set to last for six months. What happens next, so that Dawn can be informed as to whether or not (laughter) each side is…
SLAVINWell, both sides are spinning this is a victory, which is good. They have to sell it, you know. And that's very important.
NNAMDIThis is what diplomatic relations is all about.
NNAMDIPeople want to win, win.
SLAVINAbsolutely. But now what happens is they start negotiating the comprehensive agreement. They have six months to do it and that's not a very long period of time. In terms of U.S. - Iran relations I would disagree a little bit with Alireza. I think we may not see, you know, full-blown detente in diplomatic relations, but we will see more exchanges, academics, sports, artistic. I think it's going to be easier for Americans to go to Iran and Iranians to come here. And that is something that we should welcome after 34 years.
NNAMDIAnd finally, Kathleen, in Washington, D.C. No, Kathleen dropped off. So Antoinette, you get the last word. You're on the air, Antoinette. Go ahead, please.
ANTOINETTEYes. You know, the Iranian people -- I think these people are really suffering from all those sanctions. And, you know, we have some smart people that's dealing with this and I think we should give them a chance. Right? Israel, they need to really check themselves. You know, stealing land from Palestinians. But I'm just saying, give Israel, I mean, Iran, give those people a chance.
NNAMDISo you're all for this deal?
ANTOINETTEYes, I am. Yes, I am. What could go wrong? The sanctions are there and they already said it's going to be more sanctions. I think that they really tried to get out of this hole. So give them a chance.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. Antoinette has the last word because it's an optimistic word (laughter) Antoinette has. Barbara Slavin is senior fellow at The Atlantic Council and Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor. Barbara, thank you for joining us.
SLAVINMy pleasure. Thank you.
NNAMDIAlireza Nader is senior international policy analyst and Iran specialist with the RAND Corporation. Ali, thank you for joining us.
NADERThank you. I enjoyed it.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, Mark Twain's time as a Washington reporter and how it influenced him. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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