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Former Iran Deal Negotiator Weighs In On Rising U.S.-Iran Tensions


The Defense Department says it's deploying a thousand additional troops to the Middle East. This is the latest sign of growing tensions between the U.S. and Iran. Yesterday, Iran said it would stop meeting uranium enrichment limits it originally agreed to in the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. The U.S. pulled out of that deal last year. Philip Gordon negotiated that 2015 agreement as Middle East coordinator in the Obama White House. He is now with the Council on Foreign Relations. Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

PHILIP GORDON: Thanks, nice to be here.

SHAPIRO: You've sat across the table from Iranian negotiators. What do you think this escalation looks like from their perspective? Take us inside their likely mindset right now.

GORDON: I think their mindset is that they see the United States choking them off and essentially trying to kill their economy. And in a way, they actually showed a fair degree of patience. You know, the U.S. pulled out of the deal more than a year ago, increased sanctions, made clear that other countries couldn't buy Iranian oil. And the Iranians didn't want to escalate. They sort of sat tight.

But about a month or two ago when the United States decided to push oil sales down to zero - or at least try to - I think at that point the Iranians felt, look; we can't just sit tight anymore. This is hurting too much. We've got to send a signal to the United States and the rest of the world that something needs to be done to fix this problem or others are going to suffer as well.

SHAPIRO: Something needs to be done to fix this problem. This escalation is worrying people all over the world. Both sides say they don't want war. What do you think it ultimately will lead to?

GORDON: Well, I am genuinely worried about escalation because when you think through the alternatives to escalation, it's hard to see how they play out. And that's why this was always so concerning in the first place because it seemed like the Trump administration didn't have a realistic plan for what they were going to bring about. So one option would have been new talks, a new deal. That's what the administration said they wanted to produce through this pressure.

But when you think it through, is it really likely that the Iranians are going to come back to the table? They had a deal that they struck with six major powers, Security Council endorsed, most countries in the world supported it. And then the United States pulled out, and they're going to come back to the table and negotiate again. You know, Iran has politics, too, and they're going to give away all of these things that they fought so hard to preserve in the first place. It just seems unlikely.

SHAPIRO: The Trump administration says if we cause Iran enough pain, they may come back to the negotiating table. You're just saying that's not going to happen.

GORDON: Yeah. We're testing that proposition. I mean, so far, clearly, it's not the case. Anything's possible over time. The Iranians are definitely feeling pain. There's no question that it's taking a toll. But what seems implausible to me is that they would come back to the table and agree to the type of deal that the Trump administration says is absolutely necessary for there to be a deal.

SHAPIRO: So how do you see this playing out?

GORDON: I think Iran is going to continue to send these signals that there's a price for squeezing them. They're not just going to sit there and take it. And so we've seen that first in terms of these incidents that are attributable to Iran, and I believe Iran (unintelligible).

SHAPIRO: In the Gulf of Oman, yeah.

GORDON: Exactly - but now increasing the nuclear program. And what Iran said, again, you know, they were patient for about a year, but they have now said that they will start to violate the deal if the pressure comes on. And I think that's what we're going to see as they increase their uranium enrichment stockpile and take other measures that had been limited by this deal when it was in place.

SHAPIRO: How big a step towards creating a nuclear weapon is this uranium enrichment program?

GORDON: So what's big about the step is not so much that, you know, 350 kilograms of low-enriched uranium is much more significant than 300, right? You still are a long way from a bomb. But what's significant is that it crosses this fundamental threshold from being in compliance with the deal to not being in compliance with the deal. And once you're not in compliance with the deal - so you're not complying with the uranium stockpile threshold - then you're not necessarily going to comply with the level of enrichment or the types of centrifuges you can use or the numbers of centrifuges that you can use. So that's what's significant is the deal will no longer be in place.

SHAPIRO: The premise of the deal was that if Iran complied, it would be at least a year away from creating a nuclear weapon. Do think a year from now we will see Iran with a nuclear weapon?

GORDON: No, I don't think so. I never thought it was likely that Iran - the Iranians aren't stupid. If they were to sort of break out and make it look like they were dashing to a nuclear weapon or even getting much closer, they really would run the risk of American military strikes. And that's not something that they want to bring about. They're more clever than that. And I always thought it was more likely that they would do what they are doing, which is to go ever so slowly, whereas the United States might well use military force if it looked like they were getting close to a nuclear weapons capability. Are we going to bomb them because they have 400 kilograms rather than 300? Unlikely. So I think it will be much slower than that.

SHAPIRO: Do you see a path to de-escalation?

GORDON: Well, one merit in a way of the Trump administration foreign policy, or the president's approach to these things, is he is capable of pivoting and turning around and doing something - right? - that...

SHAPIRO: Right. Reversing himself in a day.

GORDON: Reversing himself - remember; "Fire And Fury" with North Korea. I mean, he does have this pattern of sort of creating a crisis and then taking credit for the de-escalation of the crisis that he created.

SHAPIRO: One possible risk is that each side, Iran and the U.S., decide a war is inevitable. But another risk is that both sides are on such high alert that they stumble into a war, which is something a lot of people have raised concerns about. Do you think we're getting closer to a scenario where that becomes likely?

GORDON: It's certainly a risk. You know, we saw about a month ago a rocket land near the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. Probably that was a case of wanting to send a signal, right? And it landed, didn't harm anybody. People hardly noticed. But that's the sort of thing that can go wrong. And if that rocket, you know, doesn't land an empty street but kills some Americans, then we've suddenly got a real crisis on our hand. You know, people on this side who somehow seem to think because we're stronger than Iran, they won't dare do X or Y. But, you know, we've seen this in the Middle East before. The Iranians may well - I don't think they want a war, but they may well not believe that the United States is really prepared to escalate and in a certain way sort of say, bring it on. Let's see who's prepared to have bloody incidents in the Middle East. This is our neighborhood, and we care more than you do.

So there are plenty of scenarios in which this can get out of hand. And what's so unfortunate about it is that it was so unnecessary. Even after the Trump administration pulled out of the deal, we had this situation because Iran didn't pull out of the deal where Trump could have sort of claimed success and said, look; there's not a new and better deal, but at least they're not selling much oil, and we've got them contained, and we won.

SHAPIRO: Instead, he kept increasing the pressure.

GORDON: He kept increasing the pressure. He did that for a year. And then, you know, a couple of months ago, remember, the United States designated the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization, notwithstanding U.S. military and intelligence circles saying that's kind of problematic. You know, that's the state military, and they could respond - and guess what? They're responding - and then squeezing the economy further, forcing Iran to respond in the way that they have.

SHAPIRO: You've been clear that you think the Trump administration is going in the wrong direction. If you could whisper some advice in the ear of the Iranians, what would you tell them?

GORDON: Well, I would tell them that they also are running a pretty big risk here because, you know, when I said earlier that it wasn't clear how this plays out, I think there are people in the Trump administration who knew that very well and wanted to see this escalatory cycle precisely to bring about a situation in which we might be in a position to use military force to deal with the program. You know, the national security adviser, John Bolton, has long held the view and has written that the only way really to deal with the Iranian nuclear program is through the use of military force. So I think the Iranians need to understand that they're also playing with fire, and they do run the risk of military conflict that wouldn't be pretty for them if they escalate.

SHAPIRO: Philip Gordon, thanks for coming to the studio today.

GORDON: Thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: He was a negotiator on the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and is now with the Council on Foreign Relations. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.