Thom Hartmann: Hello, I'm Thom Hartmann in Washington DC and welcome to The Big Picture.
If Donald Trump has any core philosophy, it's the idea that running a country boils down to making good deals. The thinking has led him to condemn — among other things — Obamacare, NAFTA and the Paris Climate Accords, all of which he says are bad deals. It's also led him to condemn the single most consequential foreign policy decision arguably made by the Obama administration over the last eight years — the decision to reach a nuclear deal with Iran. As far as Trump is concerned, that deal is one of the worst deals ever made by any country in history and he's promised to dismantle it once he takes office — his words. But even so, Trump has never been as clear about his position as say Ted Cruz who said unequivocally during the primaries that he would tear up the Iran deal as president.
Trump has had a more ambiguous position. Yes, he said he'd dismantle the Iran deal, but he's also said that he would be open to renegotiating it to get better terms for the United States. So where is all this heading? Is renegotiation even possible? Or will trump go ahead and "dismantle" the Iran deal? Does even have the authority to do so? And if Trump does dismantle the Iran deal, would that put us on the path to another needless and destructive war in the Middle East?
Joining me now is Dr. Trita Parsi, founder and president of the National Iranian American Council and expert on US-Iranian relations, Iranian foreign politics and the geopolitics of the Middle East. He's also the author of a new book Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran, and the Triumph of Diplomacy. Dr. Trita Parsi, welcome back to the program.
Dr. Trita Parsi: Thank you for having me.
Thom Hartmann: It's great having you with us. First of all, just to kind of set the frame and so everybody, we're all speaking the same language, how would you characterize the Iran deal for somebody who is unfamiliar with it or has just heard the bluster in the media?
Dr. Trita Parsi: The short description would be that it is a historic deal that avoided two disasters: the disaster of Iran being able to produce a nuclear weapon and the disaster of war with Iran through one diplomatic deal that was negotiated over the course of 22 months. That was not just the U.S. and Iran but it was Russia, it was China, it was all of the EU — the EU three. They managed to come to a deal that was a genuine compromise in which both sides had to give in order to get something. And it was a major achievement not just because of this but because at the end of the day almost everyone in DC said this is impossible, you cannot negotiate with Iranians. The Iranians won't come to the table. They will not sign a deal with the U.S. If they do they will not live up to the agreement.
And fortunately Obama chose not to listen to these skeptics. Instead he gave it a try and realized that actually it is quite doable and he managed to succeed. He managed to, together with his partners, reach a deal that a year after absolutely has been successful because almost no TV show in the United States in the last year has had a program on whether the Israelis are about to bomb Iran or whether the Iranians are close to getting a bomb. For one simple reason: the deal is working. The reason why we're talking about it again now of course is because Trump is threatening to rip it apart.
Thom Hartmann: Right. Just for the record, is Iran following their end of the deal?
Dr. Trita Parsi: With the IAEA?
Thom Hartmann: And what about what are their obligations under that part of the deal?
Dr. Trita Parsi: The head of the IAEA was just in Iran...
Thom Hartmann: That is the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Dr. Trita Parsi: Agency. Who was also, of course, a critical partner in all of this and who was overseeing the deal and overseeing that the Iranians are doing what they're committing themselves to do, what they're obligated to in this deal. And they have continued to get essentially a very high grade if not an A on making sure that everything of consequence that they need to do has been done.
Now there's been a few instances here and there that have been described, as you know, similar to driving too fast 10 miles per hour as a speeding ticket here and there, but beyond that on the larger picture both sides are living up to deal and it is a significant success.
Thom Hartmann: So what is the, you know, I hear this almost hysterical bloviating coming out of right-wing hate radio and Fox so-called News principally, and the Republican Party in general about the Iran deal. Is there an intellectual, philosophical or,
at the level of detail actual argument against it that they're making or is this simply 'Obama did it, he's a Democrat, it must be terrible'?
Dr. Trita Parsi: So, there's many different elements to those who oppose it. There are those who oppose it solely because Obama's doing it and whatever Obama does is bad and they oppose it. That's been the modus operandi of many, many Republicans for the last eight years.
But there are also those who oppose it for other reasons. Some of the reasons that they've been using in the debate I personally have found to be profoundly unconvincing. You know, complaints about,
there was a better deal, there could have been less centrifuge etc., etc. Those people are complaining that there could have been a better deal are people who have at every given opportunity rejected the chance of negotiating, so they have no experience in negotiating with the Iranians so where they think they could get a better deal is quite mysterious to me because they never negotiated and they've rejected every opportunity to negotiate.
But then there's another argument that I think is valid. I don't tend to agree with it, but it is a valid argument. But it's not an argument that actually has been used by the critics of the deal very openly. But I think it is something that is profoundly, it's a basis of much of their thinking and that is the fact that if you strike a deal with Iran, regardless of what's actually inside of the deal, regardless of the details of the deal, what you are signaling is that the United States have come to terms with the idea that there is an Islamic Republic governing Iran and that Iran is a major player in the Middle East and as a result any deal would lead to essentially an end to a three-decade-long policy of containing and isolating Iran.
In fact, immediately after the deal it was the United States that started insisting that Iran has to be at the table in Geneva when the different parties are talking about the situation in Syria. Prior to the deal in line with US policy, the Americans did everything they could to make sure that the Iranians would not be included in those talks.
Thom Hartmann: And Iran is a contiguous country to Syria?
Dr. Trita Parsi: It is not, but it has of course a tremendous amount of influence and everyone knows that you cannot have an outcome, a durable outcome, unless the Iranians, the Turks and others, the main players are in on it. But this is what it signals. It signals that we have ended an era of containment and that we're coming to terms with the fact that Iran is a major power. If you have a perspective of American power in which you want the United States to be the hegemon of the Middle East, then you don't like this deal because you have now accepted that Iran is a major player in the region and Iran is a challenger of American hegemony.
So, you don't like it. It has nothing to do with what's in the deal, it has nothing to do whether there were too many centrifuges included or not, it is about the larger geopolitical picture, at the fact that the U.S. is saying, 'you know what? Iran is a major player, we have to deal with it, we can no longer just contain it or pretend that it's not there'. This changes a whole set of different things and relationships in the region. And this is also the primary reason why the Saudis and the Israelis were against the deal. Again, not so much about the details of the deal, far more about what are the geopolitical repercussions of the United States and Iran no longer being lethal enemies.
Thom Hartmann: Because they were essentially partners in regional hegemony.
Dr. Trita Parsi: Of course. They were the main benefactors of regional hegemony, of America's regional hegemony. They wanted the United States to go back to the era that existed pre 2003. That was no longer an option because the U.S. lack the power to be able to do so. But a core tenet of American hegemony was an all-out containment and confrontation with Iran, and at least under Obama that has ended. Now, whether Trump will try to go back to that or not remains to be seen but that's part of the reason why there is a degree of excitement in Saudi Arabia and Israel about the Trump presidency.
Thom Hartmann: Right. And interesting. And I want to get into the the whole Trump piece of this. But just the last question with regard to kind of back story. On this program a number of years ago former Republican congressman Bob Ney told me the story that he at the time when he was serving in Congress, this was during the George W Bush administration, he was the only Farsi speaker in Congress and that the Swiss ambassador who was representing Iran delivered a physical letter to him from the ayatollahs saying, 'we will recognize Israel, we will stop our nuclear program, if you will simply normalize relations with us'.
It was basically a unilateral disarmament offer and Bob Ney delivered that to the White House, arguably to President Bush — he didn't put it in his hand. I think it went to State. And, you know, within six months...
Dr. Trita Parsi: It went to the White House.
Thom Hartmann: It went to the White House. Within six months Bob Ney was in prison, I mean literally...
Dr. Trita Parsi: Yeah.
Thom Hartmann: And the rest of us never heard about this offer. Is that part of the back story of this or is this some...
Dr. Trita Parsi: It is part of the back story of it, and full disclosure, I've known Bob Ney for many, many, many years.
Thom Hartmann: So have I, actually.
Dr. Trita Parsi: And did work for him in Congress as an informal adviser on foreign policy. And I was there when that proposal come in. When Tim Guldimann, the Swiss ambassador handed it over, Ney sent it over to Karl Rove who he had known since the past when they were both in the Young Republicans, I believe, and Rove actually called back within two hours and wanted to know if the proposal was authentic and they explained that it came from the Swiss ambassador who said that this came directly from the Iranians at the highest levels and didn't say much more except for saying that he would take it to the president and he found the proposal intriguing.
Now, what was in the proposal — I want to slightly correct a few things — they did say that they would agree to the Saudi peace proposal of 2002 which meant that all of the Arab countries would recognize Israel in return for an Israeli recognition of Palestine.
Thom Hartmann: Ah, OK. That is a very important distinction.
Dr. Trita Parsi: But it is, at the end of the day, would be a recognition of Israel.
Thom Hartmann: That's correct.
Dr. Trita Parsi: Or at least an indirect one. On the nuclear program they said that they would open it up for full transparency and at the time the Iranians had estimatedly 164 centrifuges.
Thom Hartmann: Virtually nothing.
Dr. Trita Parsi: Virtually nothing.
Thom Hartmann: Just a start.
Dr. Trita Parsi: Whereas when the negotiations began in 2013 the Iranians at 22,000 centrifuges. Back then they had no low-enriched uranium, any stockpile of it. They had not expanded uranium to 20%. They knew quite little about the fuel process. By the time the U.S. finally agrees to fully negotiate with Iran and accept enrichment, the Iranians expanded. They had 10,000 kilos of low-enriched uranium which is sufficient to produce about eight bombs. They had a stockpile of medium-enriched uranium 19.75%. They had several facilities, 22,000 centrifuges, several centrifuges of a later more modern generation etc. So they had aggressively advanced their program during the period when the United States was pursuing sanctions and no diplomacy.
Thom Hartmann: Right.
Dr. Trita Parsi: That's the price of not talking.
Thom Hartmann: Right.
Dr. Trita Parsi: And more so in the proposal they talked about collaborating with the United States against al-Qaeda, making sure that Iraq would be stabilized and do with the Iranians did together with the United States and Afghanistan only a year and a half earlier, which is that they collaborated and they helped mediate to make sure that was a new constitution in Afghanistan, that the new government there would not be a sectarian one. All of these things were on the table. The Bush administration did not even respond. They rejected it flat-out.
Thom Hartmann: That's somewhere between bizarre and a tragedy.
Dr. Trita Parsi: And the way it has impacted other things going forward is that every time you have an attempt at diplomacy that fails, and particularly when it fails like this, when it's just like flat-out rejected, it makes it so much more difficult to be able to get diplomacy off the ground.
Thom Hartmann: So in a way what president Obama has done is even more extraordinary than it would have been.
Dr. Trita Parsi: He had to overcome.
Thom Hartmann: We've got to take a break. We'll pick this up right after this. More with Dr. Trita Parsi right after the break.
Thom Hartmann: Welcome back to The Big Picture. I'm speaking with Dr. Trita Parsi, founder and president of the National Iranian American Council and an expert on US-Iranian relations and Iranian foreign politics and the geopolitics of the Middle East and you have a new book out, the title again is?
Dr. Trita Parsi: The title is Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran, and the Triumph of Diplomacy.
Thom Hartmann: And it's not yet out.
Dr. Trita Parsi: It will be out by May of 2017.
Thom Hartmann: I'm very much looking forward to that one.
Dr. Trita Parsi: Thank you.
Thom Hartmann: OK, so let's talk about Donald Trump. This is kind of how we kind of set this up. Trump, it seems like here's a guy who's not an ideologue. This is the one little sliver of hope that all of us on the, Democrats have been kind of hanging onto. Maybe he's not crazy or at least an ideologue — crazy is the wrong word — but he has said that this is a bad deal and he wants to tear it up.
What sense do you have of what he might do? What are the options, frankly, that he can do legally? And what do the — using Elizabeth Warren's phrase that personnel is policy — the people he's surrounding himself with, what does that tell you about what he might do?
Dr. Trita Parsi: I think this is one of the questions that almost everyone in Washington are asking themselves, not just on the Iran issue but almost everything.
Thom Hartmann: Yes.
Dr. Trita Parsi: I think if we focus in on the Iran issue first, I think we first have to recognize that the criticism he has presented against the deal is rather shallow. He's not gone into any significant depth. But when you scratch that shallow surface it often comes down to the fact that he's upset that the deal did not lift sanctions on US entities. On several
occasions when he's complained that the Iranians got 150 billion dollars from the US — which is not true — but nevertheless...
Thom Hartmann: It was Iranian money that had been frozen.
Dr. Trita Parsi: It was Iranian money. It was not frozen in the US, it was frozen elsewhere and as part of the deal they got their money back and it's not 150 billion. But nevertheless what he also then said on a few occasions was that he was upset that they're going to take their money now and start buying things from Europe, but they're not buying it from us, and that's unfair. Unfair is a very common word in his vocabulary.
Thom Hartmann: That's very interesting. Well you know, Dick Cheney's company Halliburton, when Dick Cheney was the CEO of it in 1999 there was this embargo on Iran and yet they were illegally doing business with Iran. Cheney was never held to account for that, to the best of my knowledge neither was Halliburton. And I believe that what I'm saying is an absolute fact that has been demonstrated, although perhaps it's an allegation. I'm not sure if there's been a good investigation.
Dr. Trita Parsi: It's not uncommon for those in the private business to be far less excited about sanctions than people in government tend to be.
Thom Hartmann: Right.
Dr. Trita Parsi: And we see that in the case of Tillerson now as well, who's been nominated to be Trump Secretary of State. He's spoken out quite strongly against sanctions both on Russia and in just in principle as well. I don't know if he's spoken specifically on the Iran sanctions but, so...
Thom Hartmann: So if he does away with...
Dr. Trita Parsi: This goes back to this practicality and non-ideological trait that Trump does have which is that his problem with the deal primarily seems to be that it did not open up the Iranian market for Trump to build Trump towers in Tehran.
Thom Hartmann: Right.
Dr. Trita Parsi: Because I have not found a lot of other things that when you push him he goes and explains why the deal is bad. He's not said a word about, you know, the Iranians are keeping too many centrifuges or anything like that. So the question then is what will he do when he comes in? What are the options? He said that he preferred to renegotiate the deal which is also very important because that sets him apart from people like Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio who just categorically said that they were going to rip it apart on day one. This was not a deal that could be improved because in principle, as I explained earlier, they're against the idea of a deal
Thom Hartmann: Right.
Dr. Trita Parsi: That's not Trump.
Thom Hartmann: Right.
Dr. Trita Parsi: He's not said anything...
Thom Hartmann: At least so far.
Dr. Trita Parsi: At least he's not said anything that would lead us to believe that that's his view because more often than not he's been saying that he will be negotiate the deal and it's a bad deal, these American negotiators don't know how to negotiate.
Thom Hartmann: Right.
Dr. Trita Parsi: Right. The only instance that I've been able to locate in which he actually said that he would rip apart is when he gave a speech at the AIPAC conference and it's one of those instances in which he had a prepared statement. Everything else is him just improvising.
Thom Hartmann: Right.
Dr. Trita Parsi: When he had a prepared statement, what he said is actually quite different from when he was speaking off the cuff, which is almost all the other times. So if we didn't accept the assumption that he is opposed to the deal because it is not sufficiently positive for American businesses, he does have the option of actually trying to lift more American sanctions and perhaps he would want to open up a negotiation with Iranians to see what he could get in return.
That would not, however, be opening up the entire nuclear negotiations. If he wants to open up the entire nuclear negotiations he would be picking a fight not with Iran but with Russia, with China, with France, with Germany, with the UK. None of these guys are particularly excited about the idea of having to revisit this issue. All the bad news that has come out of this region for the last decade, this is one of the few success stories in which diplomacy worked. And no shots were fired. None of them are open to the idea of shifting that back and potentially risking having the deal collapse all together.
Thom Hartmann: Which makes perfect sense. My understanding of the US sanctions — the ongoing sanctions against Iran — is that this is the leverage that we have over Iran, that if they behave well under the deal at some point these sanctions are going to be loosened in progressive stages and altogether eliminated. Is that right?
Dr. Trita Parsi: The sanctions that the US are going to lift or have lifted are all part of steps that Iran will take on the nuclear front. So between September 2015 and December 2015 the Iranians did a tremendous amount in disconnecting their centrifuges etc. That was then verified by December 15 by the IAEA and as soon as that was done that opened up the pathway for the US to lift some of the sanctions or waive some of the sanctions that had been decided beforehand would be waived.
Then you have some Congressional sanctions that will be lifted in year eight if Iran by that time has done everything it is obligated to do and everything is working out fine. The president doesn't have the authority of lifting those sanctions because they are Congressional sanctions and they can only be lifted by Congress. Who will be sitting in Congress eight years from now, no one knows.
Thom Hartmann: Right.
Dr. Trita Parsi: So it is a big question mark, but if the United States at that time doesn't do it and Iran has done everything it is supposed to do then that's another moment of potential crisis. And again, the big risk for the US is this: if all of these countries have come together and they have reached a deal and Iran against all odds or expectations actually is living up to deal, and then the US is not, it will be the US that will be isolated, not Iran.
Thom Hartmann: So if the threat of sanctions, or the ongoing reality of sanctions, is perceived by our diplomats — and 'our', I'm talking about the the six nations who negotiated this — if it's perceived by our diplomats as the thing that is holding this deal together and Donald Trump comes in and says, and you could see actually the kind of rationale, the Cuba rationale, you know, hey, if we open it up, American tourists will start going into Tehran, you know they'll start adopting Western values, they'll become friendly with us, you know trade makes good partners, blahdy blahdy blah, you know, would lifting the sanctions, if Donald Trump was able to convince Republicans in Congress — I realize that this is a real stretch, particularly given Mr. Netanyahu's position on this which I want to get to in just a second — but if he was able to do that, would it actually weaken our strengthen the deal?
Dr. Trita Parsi: If the United States lifted its own sanctions beyond those that have been part of the deal, it would probably strengthen the deal, because one of the things that is actually weakening the deal right now is that the sanctions that were supposed to be lifted have technically been lifted, but they have not really come into full effect because a lot of companies, because of many factors — primarily risk factor on the US side — and remaining American unilateral sanctions that complicate the trade in other ways, a lot of companies have not gone into the Iranian market.
Thom Hartmann: Yeah.
Dr. Trita Parsi: So the Iranians are not seeing the benefit that they expected, that they were promised, and as a result there's a lot of people in Iran that are quite unhappy with the deal. If you want a deal to be sustainable, you want it to endure, the main factor that will cause it to endure is that all parties find it to be beneficial and that they're all happy with it. That's how you keep a marriage together, that's how you keep a deal together.
Thom Hartmann: Kind of diplomacy 101.
Dr. Trita Parsi: 101, exactly. And if you have a scenario in which sanctions relief for these reasons are not ending up becoming as effective as they should have been and the Iranians are unhappy, that's actually a big risk. John Kerry is actually expressing this quite explicitly because he knows very well that if the Iranians are not happy, they're going to walk out. If the Iranians started to do things when it comes to their reduction of centrifuges etc. that was not at all in line with the deal and it was either breaking it or breaking the spirit of it and the US started to feel like, look, this deal is starting to become a liability because the Iranians are actually not doing things in the way that they should, and as a result our confidence that they're not going to be able to go for a nuclear weapon has significantly reduced, then we would justifiably here in Washington be unhappy with the deal.
Thom Hartmann: Yeah. Yeah. That makes perfect sense. One of Mr. Trump's biggest boosters has been Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He is — irredeemably is the wrong word — but unmovably opposed to the deal, at least taking his words at their face. What are your thoughts on that?
Dr. Trita Parsi: OK. It was clear that he was against the deal, of course, and I think it was clear by 2015 for everyone although many of us already knew this beforehand that what he was really opposed to was the very idea of the deal. There really wasn't any deal the United States could have struck that he would have been happy with, because he just did not want a deal, because a deal meant that the US and Iran would have eliminated their main point of friction. That doesn't mean that there would be a love fest between the US and Iran but their tensions will be reducing and the other tensions that they had were not at the level that could potentially bring them towards a military confrontation.
And from an Israeli perspective, or at least the Prime Minister's perspective, he wanted to keep that fight alive. He wanted to make sure that the US was automatically on the side of the Israelis whenever they had a tension with Iran, and if you take the nuclear issue out of the equation, that's not necessarily going to be the case.
Thom Hartmann: We have just a little less than a minute left. Do you think that he's going to be able to push Republicans in the House and Senate to blow this deal up?
Dr. Trita Parsi: Well, I think one thing we have to keep in mind is, it's not necessarily as simple as him pushing the Republicans as much as it may have been the Republicans pushing Netanyahu as well.
Thom Hartmann: Really?
Dr. Trita Parsi: In the sense that, when at least when it comes to, for instance, one of the major organizations in Washington that has been supportive of Netanyahu who was quite against the deal. AIPAC fought, but they fought beyond what I think they themselves knew would be valuable, but they did so because they were tied to the hip to Netanyahu according to one of the officials that I interviewed and they had no choice. But they knew it was a losing battle and I think they were essentially outmaneuvered by the Republicans who have been working very hard to try to present the Republican Party as the pro-Israeli party in the United States to ensure that Republicans and Democrats are not both as good on Israel.
Thom Hartmann: Fascinating stuff. Dr. Trita Parsi, thank you so much.
Dr. Trita Parsi: Thank you so much for having me.
Thom Hartmann: Always a pleasure to have you with us.
Dr. Trita Parsi: Thank you.
Thom Hartmann: Thank you.
And that's the way it is, tonight. And don't forget, democracy is not a spectator sport, and get out there, get active, tag you're it!
Transcribed by Sue Nethercott.