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Former Deputy Secretary Of State Talks About Future Of Iran Nuclear Deal


President Trump says he has made a decision about what to do on the Iran nuclear deal. He won't say yet what he's decided, but he calls the deal an embarrassment. The 2015 agreement was signed during the Obama administration, and Tony Blinken was closely involved as deputy secretary of state. He joins me now to talk about Trump's critique of the deal. Thanks for stopping by.

TONY BLINKEN: Good to be here.

CHANG: So under the deal, Iran cut back its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. And now the White House says the deal wasn't tough enough, and they might want to renegotiate it. What do you think of that idea?

BLINKEN: Well, first of all, it's a very good deal, and it puts far into the future the prospect of Iran getting the material it would need for a nuclear weapon. It cuts off its pathways to a bomb. When we came in under the Obama administration, Iran was a threshold nuclear state. It was in a place where in a matter of months it could turn the low-enriched uranium it had into high-enriched uranium, material for a bomb. That's now been pushed back.

Its pathways have been cut off - the most intrusive inspections regime ever in an arms control agreement now in place. So we know more about the people, the places, the technology. So it's a very good deal that's made us more secure, made all of Iran's neighbors more secure.

CHANG: But one of the biggest concerns the Trump administration has pertain to the deal's sunset clauses which lay out that the agreement starts to expire in 2025. Why when you were negotiating the deal - why did you have sunset clauses in the first place?

BLINKEN: Iran was never going to accept these limitations in perpetuity. And in fact when the Bush administration put on the table the prospect of negotiating some kind of agreement with Iran, it too understood that Iran would not accept limitations forever. But even with some of the provisions in the agreement expiring under these sunset clauses after 10, 15, 20 years, there are some things that are permanent, including a permanent prohibition under the Non-Proliferation Treaty for Iran to ever acquire a nuclear weapon, including inspections that go on in perpetuity.

So all of that will still be there. And if a future administration is faced with an Iran that decides to break out and go for a nuclear weapon, it will have all of the tools that we had to deal with it but with a lot more knowledge about what Iran is doing, who the people are, what the places are, what the technology is.

CHANG: Even so, is there a part of you that thinks maybe the U.S. could have gotten a better deal - for instance, terms in there that could have addressed Iran's support for militant groups or terms that could have addressed holding Americans in prison?

BLINKEN: In an ideal world, we would have negotiated every misbehavior that Iran conducts both at home and around the world. But we live in the real world, not an ideal world. The only issue that our partners were prepared to negotiate, including the Europeans, including China, Russia, not to mention Iran, was the nuclear program.

Had we got engaged in a negotiation trying to bring everything on the table with Iran into the negotiation, we never would have gotten anywhere. Iran would still have a nuclear program moving full speed ahead. It would still be continuing to do these other things. The benefit now is as we deal with Iran's problematic activities in other areas, at least we don't have to worry about Iran being able to have a nuclear weapon, to be able to do these things with impunity.

CHANG: Well, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson spoke at length last night about how Iran in his mind is violating the larger aims of the deal. He also said that the president has not yet shared his decision about the deal with him, his secretary of state. Do you find that part odd, that Tillerson does not yet know what President Trump's decision is about the Iran nuclear deal?

BLINKEN: Well, this has been a big challenge I think for the administration on basically every front, which is that his most senior advisers believe the policy is one thing, and then the next day, the president tweets out something exactly opposite. So that's not actually a surprise. But this notion that somehow Iran is in violation of the spirit of the deal - there's no spirit of the deal. There's the deal, and Iran is in compliance with the agreement.

The IAEA, which monitors the agreement, has said that repeatedly. Ironically, so has the Trump administration. President Trump has twice certified that Iran is complying. If he turns around in a month's time, in a few weeks' time and says they're not, what changed?

CHANG: Tony Blinken was the deputy secretary of state under President Obama. Thank you very much for coming in.

BLINKEN: Good to be here. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.