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Deadline Closes In On Administration Regarding Iran Sanctions


The Trump administration is up against a deadline on whether to reinstate sanctions against Iran. You have heard that sentence before, likely, because this is something the president is required to do every few months. So far, Trump hasn't followed through on his promise to end the Iran nuclear deal. But this week, his decision is complicated by recent street protests in Iran. President Trump supported the protesters, saying they were, quote, "expressing legitimate grievances." Many Iranians linked those grievances to economic hardships caused by Western sanctions - the kind President Trump could choose to bring back.

For more on this, we are joined now by Ambassador Dennis Ross. He has advised four different U.S. presidents on the Middle East. He joins us on the line from Jerusalem. Ambassador, thanks for being back on the program.

DENNIS ROSS: Nice to be with you, thank you.

MARTIN: The deadline for reimposing these sanctions on Iran is tomorrow. What do you believe the president is going to do?

ROSS: Well, I think when it comes to predicting the president, somehow I feel it's easier to predict what he'll - it's easier to predict what's going to happen in the Middle East than to predict exactly what he will do. I'm hoping that he will not reinstate the sanctions. I think he can use the fact that he has concerns - legitimate concerns - about what the Iranians are doing both domestically but in the region as a way to say to the Europeans, look, let's join together. Let's see how we can raise the cost. Let's see how we can make it clear to the Iranians that they have some hard choices to make.

He could do that if he doesn't walk away from the JCPOA, the nuclear deal, because if he does that, if he walks away, he walks away alone, and the Europeans are going to feel the need to demonstrate that they are still sticking with the deal. And I think they'll be much less inclined to try to raise the price to the Iranians even on other issues. So I think the best path, particularly if the president is serious about wanting to affect Iranian behavior on the inside and the outside, is not to walk away from the nuclear deal.

MARTIN: If he does choose to reinstate sanctions, does that mean the deal is over?

ROSS: Well, technically, no because if no one else who negotiated this deal, meaning you have the permanent five members of the Security Council - counting us, but that was also the Russians, the Chinese, the British and the French, plus the Germans who negotiated this along with us - they - none of them will walk away from the deal. So Iran then has to decide, do they walk away from the deal? My guess is they probably don't walk away from the deal because they would prefer to isolate us than themselves. And particularly in the aftermath of what's been going on in Iran, they don't need to be more isolated on the outside when they already see there's a level of alienation on the inside.

MARTIN: How might the protests that we saw play out in Iran last month, how might that play into the president's decision, if at all?

ROSS: Well, I do worry that he may feel, particularly at a time when there's been this protests and unrest that reached 80 different cities, that he wants to make a statement that shows he's being tough on Iran and - by walking away from the JCPOA, by reinstituting what were the sanctions taken - lifted because of the deal, he may feel that he is demonstrating that he's being tough. But I guess what I'm trying to say is the best way to demonstrate that he's prepared to try to raise the cost to the Iranians is by doing it in a collective way. What made the sanctions effective is that it wasn't just the U.S. that it was doing it. It was a collective, multilateral set of sanctions. If we walk away from the deal, we reduce that prospect.

MARTIN: If I could get into the weeds for a moment, the president made a different decision last October that compelled Congress to come up with some fixes to the Iran nuclear deal. The president has said that there's not enough transparency, that inspections need to be tightened up. Did that happen?

ROSS: No, it hasn't happened. There is - there have been discussions on the Hill, and there have been some discussions with the administration, but that really hasn't happened yet. Now, the president also said in that October 13 statement - he also said at the time that his administration would work with the Congress and with the European allies to come up with ways to raise the price, not just on issues of transparency but actually to affect the ballistic missile testing, to affect Iran's behavior, its regional destabilizing behavior in the region. And the irony here is that the Europeans don't want us to walk away from the JCPOA and the fact is to keep us in the JCPOA, they might well go along with us on these other issues.

MARTIN: All right. Ambassador Dennis Ross, a distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute, thanks so much for being with us this morning.

ROSS: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.