Former US Officials on Trump's Iran Strategy

October 13, 2017

On October 13, former U.S. officials involved with negotiations, development and implementation of the Iran nuclear deal held a press call to discuss President Trump’s impending decision to decertify the agreement. The officials included Wendy Sherman, former Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, Ben Rhodes, former Deputy National Security Advisor to President Obama, and Robert Malley, former Senior Adviser to the President and White House Coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa and the Gulf region. The discussants weighed the pros and cons of honoring the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), but ultimately felt Trump's strategy could endanger the deal and have repercussions on any potential diplomacy with North Korea. The following is a transcript of the press call sponsored by Diplomacy Works


BEN RHODES: We thought we'd just provide some initial response to what we've seen from the Trump administration.

First of all, I think it's worth saying at the outset that this action is completely unnecessary and arbitrary. The question at play in certification is whether or not Iran is complying with the terms of the nuclear deal. And as you know, the Trump administration itself is twice certified that Iran is complying with the nuclear deal. Iran is currently complying with the nuclear deal. Trump's own international security team when asked has said that Iran is complying with the nuclear deal, including recently General Joseph Dunford. Trump's own Secretary of Defense, James Mattis has said that staying inside the nuclear deal is in America's interests. And all of the other members of the P5+1, including our closest allies in Europe, have all urged the Trump administration to keep the deal in place. So what is apparent here that Trump's team has forced a search for a rationalization for an irrational decision to de-certify a deal that Iran is complying with, that has lead to the removal of two-thirds of Iran's centrifuges, the conversion of a reactor so that they can't produce weapons-grade plutonium, and Iran getting ride of 98 percent of its nuclear material, a significant rollback of the Iranian program relative to where it was before the JCPOA.

A few points about what the administration is doing beyond de-certification. The approach that they've urged Congress to take would constitute a violation of the deal because it would constitute an effort to unilaterally re-negotiate the deal. This is a deal that was reached through painstaking diplomacy, not just between the United States and Iran, but among the P5+1 and Iran, enshrined in the JCPOA and in the UN Security Council resolution. And if the United States begins, through congressional action or otherwise, to try and change the terms of the deal, that would constitute a violation, and our allies and partners have made clear that even as there may be strategies to address other elements of Iranian behavior like its ballistic missile program and its support for terrorism in the region, they strongly believe that the deal needs to remain in place and that there should not be violations of the deal.

So essentially, Trump is urging Congress to do something that could precipitate a nuclear crisis with Iran at the same time that he is faced with a significant crisis on the Korean peninsula. The risks are significant, there's a risk that if the United States aims to impose certain sanctions that enter into the deal space, our allies and partners will not go along with that, leaving the administration with a choice of whether or not to enforce sanctions on some of our closest partners. There's a risk that if the United States seeks to alter some of the provisions in the deal, including the back end of the deal, that the Iranians will treat that as a violation, claim the moral high ground, restart their nuclear program, and exploit divisions between the United States and our allies and partners. And then we could be confronted with once again an unconstrained Iranian program.

If, as the administration says, some of its concerns about the deal have to do with sunset provisions, it's worth noting that first of all, the prohibition on Iran getting a nuclear weapon is permanent under the deal, that the monitoring and verification regime(?) in the deal extends far into the future and elements of it are permanent. And frankly, if you're most concerned about something that's going to happen in 2025, there's absolutely no need to precipitate a crisis in October of 2017 around an arbitrary congressional deadline. There's plenty of time to wait, assess how the deal is working, assess the state of Iran's program, and make judgments around those sunset provisions about what the United States wants to do. So this is, again, completely arbitrary in nature in terms of choosing this particular de-certification deadline to precipitate this type of uncertainty and instability around the JCPOA.

The final thing I'd say is that once again, Trump is throwing into question the ability of the United States of America to keep its commitments as it relates to international agreements. He's already pulled out of Paris and TPP. The risk of that is that other nations will not want to enter into agreements with the United States because they won't think that we keep our commitments. And that risk is most acute in North Korea. If North Korea is watching how Trump is approaching the Iran deal, they are calculating that they little incentive to enter into diplomacy with the United States because the United States does not keep its commitments even on nuclear deals. So what Trump is doing with Iran is going to make that much harder for him to achieve any diplomatic resolution with North Korea. That therefore raises the risks of conflict on the Korean peninsula, just as he's raising the risks of conflict in the Middle East. With that, I'll turn it over to Wendy.

WENDY SHERMAN: Good morning, everyone. Ben has outlined quite amply all of the risks that we face here. I want to just make a handful of important points I think. The President is going to argue we believe that although Iran is technically complying with deal that it has not kept to the "spirit" of the deal and that America has not achieved the benefits it should have out of the deal for the sanctions relief that was offered. Indeed, he will argue that it is not in our vital national security interest we believe for this to go forward, and although the deal remains intact, he cannot certify and will toss this to Congress as you know for 60 days to consider whether they want to snap back sanctions or take other action that somehow will condition the deal.

Two points on this. First, there is no way someone can argue accurately that allowing Iran to begin down the path of obtaining a nuclear weapon is in our vital national security interest. Quite the opposite. The very fact that Iran is complying with doing all of the things that it must to ensure that they don't get a nuclear weapon is absolutely in our vital national security interest. When we negotiated this deal, we were focused only on nuclear because it is so complicated. You all know that we're talking about an agreement that's 159 pages long. And if we had included all of the maligned behavior that Iran is doing in the region and was doing when we were doing the deal, Iran would have attempted to trade off some of that against the nuclear deal and we would've ended with a weaker nuclear deal. And there is no spirit to a nuclear deal. You either have the verification and monitoring necessary to ensure that Iran isn't able to obtain a nuclear weapon or you don't. This deal ensures that we do, and to have complicated it further would have made that much more difficult.

Third, we have sanctions on all of these other issues. In fact, the Congress passed legislation in this term that puts more sanctions on the state sponsorship of terrorism, those go into effect this month. We have many tools at our disposal to deal with their maligned behavior in the region, and we should continue to do so. Next, as Ben pointed out, this rifts our relationship with people around the world. Certainly the transatlantic alliance is going to be wedged by Iran, Russia, and China, putting them in a more powerful position, us in a less powerful position. Even if the Congress does not snap back sanctions, even if it doesn't pass any further legislation, the very fact that the President has had to de-certify or decided to de-certify puts this deal in a kind of constant limbo, which really makes it harder for us to enforce the deal day to day. All of our other partners will be suspect about any basis we put on the table, for instance, of inspecting a military site. So we will have weakened our position and isolated ourselves. When the President goes to China next month, wanting China to be tougher with North Korea, get North Korea into some serious dialogue, China will be in a very difficult position to say to North Korea, well you should in fact sit down with the Americans when in fact the Americans have just put a deal at risk to make sure that Iran does not obtain nuclear weapons.

And finally, for my part and then glad to answer lots of questions, people understandably are quite concerned about the security of Israel, as am I, as the President, Secretary Kerry, Secretary Moniz, and all of us when we negotiated this deal. And that's why we kept in such constant close touch with the Israelis. Ehud Barak, as you all probably know, has just said in the last couple of days- he's the former Prime Minister, former Defense Minister, former Chief of Staff, a hawk on Iran, but was not in support of this deal initially, but has now said that this deal should continue, the President should certify the deal, that in fact as a result of the deal, Israel today does not face an existential threat from Iran. That is an enormous statement by the former Prime Minister of Israel, and I think we should take that seriously and the President should consider what the former Prime Minister has said as he contemplates his speech today at 12:45. I will turn it now to Rob to talk about the region more broadly.

ROBERT MALLEY: Thanks Wendy and Ben, I think it's worth taking a moment to reflect on the fact that despite what one could expect and imagine was the President's fervent desire to find that Iran was not in compliance with the deal, they don't seem to have been able to do that, and that's quite remarkable and I think it underscores that the deal is working. But it also underscores the logic of an approach that in the same breath says that blocking Iran's path to getting a bomb is the number one concern of the United States vis-a-vis Iran. It also says that Iran is complying with the deal that achieves that purpose, and then takes steps that's intended to destabilize that deal. So it is an illogical approach on its face.

Second point I'd make is that Iran's nuclear program has been a problem for the United States since the early 2000's. That means that it's about 15 years where we've been trying to find ways to put this problem in a box and, and as Wendy said, to put a problem that our allies had identified as their primary security concerns. So it's been with us for a long time. The regional challenges that Iran presents have been with us for even longer, over 30 years. Throughout this period, the only successful attempts to sustainably and verifiably alter any aspect of Iran's behavior is this nuclear deal. We haven't been able to change their regional behavior, we hadn't been able to change their nuclear behavior, until 2015 with this nuclear deal, which again for no justifiable reason, the administration is calling into question.

So that brings me to the third point, which is the other aspects of Iran's behavior which one imagines is going to a big part of what the President is going to be talking about. Again, three quick comments.

First, another illogical aspect of the approach. If the goal is to put the focus, the spotlight, on Iran's flouting of its obligations to the international community, why put the spotlight on America's unwillingness to respect its own commitments? Now should be the time to try and get other countries, if that's the goal, to focus on aspects of Iran's behavior that we find destabilizing, instead of which we're now putting all of the international attention on this decision to de-certify and therefore calling into question the nuclear deal. That's having it exactly backwards.

The second aspect of the administration's regional approach is that in fact if one is to believe what's coming out of the administration, we'll know more in a short while, there's nothing new in the tools that are being mentioned. They're the same tools that the Obama administration mentioned and that its predecessors mentioned in terms of trying to counter Iran's behavior. What is new and what's counterproductive is the context, which is calling into question the nuclear deal, with bellicose rhetoric, which is hints of regime change and, just as importantly, the lack of any high-level diplomacy with Iran, all of which means that the likelihood that the pressure tactics will succeed are going to be much lesser.

Third point, and also pointing to the counterproductive nature of the approach, is that one could easily exaggerate the divisions within Iran's political system between moderates and hardliners. But one could also underestimate them because they do exist and we know that from experience. So it really should not be in the US business for no good reason to provide fodder to those in Iran who most likely can engage in the very kind of behavior that the policy is designed to counter. And by calling into question the nuclear deal, by saying that we're gonna sanction Iran even if they continue to abide by it in order to pressure Iran to renegotiate the deal, obviously that's gonna strengthen the hand of those in Iran who for whatever reason are gonna want to weaken those who negotiated the deal and who are the very forces that in general have engaged in destabilizing behavior, are behind the nuclear missile program, are behind Iran's policies in the region. So we are undercutting those who might be somewhat more pragmatic and strengthening those who are by all accounts more radical so on its face it's a policy that is at war with itself. I'm happy to take your questions

MODERATOR: Thanks everyone for your time and Robin can you please go over the instructions for asking questions and then we'll turn to the Q and A of course

MODERATOR: Certainly. At this time if you'd like to ask a question please press the * and 1 on your touch tone phone and you may. Once again if you'd like to ask a question please press..

MODERATOR: And well take our first question from Michelle Cullivin with NPR, please go ahead.

CULLIVAN: Hi, thanks for doing this. How much do you think this is really just about Trump personally not liking the certification requirement and what do you think of the suggestions of Corker's suggestions on rewriting the legislation and having it have these trigger points to snap back sanctions and this idea that it'll last longer than the sunset clause?

RHODES: Sure Michelle, I'll start and let me just say I think that this is entirely about Trump's annoyance with the certification process which forces him to certify that Iran is complying with the deal, that the deal is working and that all of his bombastic rhetoric about the deal has been based in dishonesty. The facts are the facts, and Iran has significantly rolled back its Nuclear Program and submitted to intrusive monitoring regime which has confirmed that Iran is complying with the deal. And there's an illogic to this entire exercise because Trump's own administration has previously certified twice that Iran is complying. I'm sure that there are people around Trump and his administration who have been searching for any evidence that they can find that Iran is not complying and have been unable to find that evidence. So what this feels very much like to me is that Trump has essentially forced his own national security team to pawn the line with the decision that they don't agree with and to find some rationale for that decision. And so you're looking at an administration that is contorting itself in order to justify the irrational decision of the president of the US. And in so doing is dividing ourselves from our European allies, from Russia, from China and frankly offering Iran opportunities to exploit concerns in those countries about this decision by the president of the US. And so he's essentially lighting a fuse that could blow up the deal or just kind of peter out and continues and this is all and rendered upon this exercise.

SHERMAN: Michelle I would also urge all of you to look at the Carnegie Endowment's website. They have just put up a new tracker of all of the concerns various people have written about what has happened during the Iran Deal. Folks had said that Iran violated it because of going over the heavy water limits, and they take each one of these things taht people have put out as fact and sort of go through where they are and what the reality is and where the facts are. And I would urge you all to take a look at that because indeed what the deal had in it that was so useful is a mechanism for concerns that get raised and getting those concerns dealt with quickly. And that has been the case every single time. So I quite agree with Ben, this is a problem that comes from the President's dislike for this deal and solution that has nothing to do with really the substance here. In terms of the legislation we'll wait to see what people put on the table. I think the one broad thing I would say is anything that adds unilateral conditions is a unilateral violation of the deal itself.

MALLEY: Michelle if I could just say and figure cause obviously we're seeing some reports of what the legislation would be. Any legislation that says that Iran is gonna be sanctioned, and that the sanctions that have been lifted are gonna be reimposed, even if Iran continues to abide by the deal, which is what would be the case if you're gonna start imposing sanctions after the sunset of (inaudible) of constraints because Iran is no longer abiding by those constraints which have expired that would be a violation of the deal, I think there's little doubt about it. And by the way, if your goal is really to try to see whether some of these provisions can be extended, the way to do that is to enter into the deal in good faith so that both sides have confidence in it. And then down the line you want to negotiate with Iran it's gonna be a tough negotiation, it's gonna be give and take, but it's when you say you're not gonna do it unilaterally and if you do do it unilaterally, none of the other countries you need to try to be successful are gonna be with us.

MODERATOR: And I'll take our next question from Rachel Oswold with Congressional Quarterly. Please go ahead:

OSWOLD: Hi, thank you for doing this call. My question is about the political risks that Republicans on Capital Hill may be facing if they pursue legislation offered by Corker and Cotton which I understand subject to a 60 vote threshold. What happens if they're not able to muster enough Democratic support and they run out the clock on this 60-day window available to them under the Iran Accord review Act. Do they risk looking ineffectual and making the president look ineffectual and the United States divided on its Iran policy?

RHODES: Yeah there are risks either way, so the risks of - when Obama was president they could say anything they wanted about the deal. And frankly try to pass any legislation they wanted knowing that it would be vetoed. And so they had essentially a pass to say things about the Iran Deal and to put forward different approaches. But now there are risks either way. The risk if they actually pass legislation is that they blow up the deal and they're entirely responsible for the consequences of what comes next. And what could come next is either an unconstrained Iranian Nuclear Program that is bringing Iran closer and closer to the threshold of having a nuclear weapon. Or, the need for the United States to take military action to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. There's no third way here. You're either going to have a diplomatic agreement or Iran is going to have ultimately the ability to produce a nuclear weapon or you're going to have to take military action to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons. And so I think members of Congress need to think very carefully about the risks of passing legislation that blows up this deal and removes the constraints on Iran's program and could lead us into a war. That's what's before Congress right now. This is not a cost-free vote. This is not a message being delivered. This is a legislative process that could lead to a removal of constraints on Iran's program and ultimately another military conflict in the Middle East. Now the risk of not passing something are simply that it would reveal that Trump's rhetoric and this action today is essentially a political stunt to differentiate himself from Obama. But I think Trump is putting Congress in a very difficult place. And so if I was a member of Congress I would be very unhappy with hat Trump has done because as he did with the ACA, he is going out for a repeal, but he has no idea what to replace it with. And he's dumping this on the Congress. And so yes, while there may be some risk that Congress not acting would just reveal this to all be a political stunt, I think that is a far preferable course of action than setting in course a chain of events that could lead to a nuclear Iran or a military conflict.

SHERMAN: I think many members understand that this is not the vote of two years ago. This is a vote of today after Iran has been complying with the deal through 8 successive reports by the IAEA that it is complied. So the stakes here are quite different than they were at the time that the Congress was reviewing this deal. This would be an affirmative action to unravel the deal wither quickly or slowly but to indeed do all that Ben has just outlined. So people need to understand that this is a very different vote. I'd also note that some of the people who have been against this deal like Ed Royce and Chuck Schumer and Ben Cardon all believe that the president should certify. That yes there should be tough action to make sure that Iran does not - that it steps back from its malign activities in the region. But none of them believe that the president should be decertifying this deal.

MODERATOR: And we'll take our next question from Nick Wadham with Bloomberg News. Please go ahead:

WADHAM: Hi, Wendy or Rob I'm hoping you can address the question of what you're hearing from European countries about - you know there's been this narrative out there from the administration that while they have sort of publicly talked about the need to preserve the deal and possibly consider sort of an additional architecture post-2025 that privately they recognize the need to do this and essentially that they're giving one message publicly and another privately. Does that accord with what you're hearing?

SHERMAN: In my view that's just not true. I have been with some European ambassadors in private meetings on the Hill and they have been very, very consistent. They will not leave this deal, the president should certify this deal. They are not gonna renegotiate this deal. They have said the other activities of concern of Iran- they're happy to be in discussions with the United States, and to try to have a discussion and a negotiation with Iran on those activities. But the deal itself, not open to renegotiation.

MALLEY: Yeah and what I've head in private is exactly what they say in public. I know some in the administration and outside want to grab at any hint of anything to say aha, the Europeans are open to renegotiating. But I think as Wendy said they make a very, very clear distinction, which is the distinction I think we've been making on this call. Which is a deal is a deal. You don't renegotiate it, it was a deal that had compromises so both sides had to accept and one side can't say "we like all the constraints you're in, we don't like what we need to do." That just doesn't work that way. But what they're also saying is of course who wouldn't prefer to have the constraints last longer? Who wouldn't prefer to deal with Iran's ballistic missile program or regional activities? Sure, let's first implement this deal so that Iran sees that when there's a deal it actually is respected and complied with on both sides. And then let's talk to Iran about these other issues which are important, it's gonna be tough and we have pressure tools as well that we've already been using and we can continue using. But then we could sit down with them and say there are things you want, there are things we want, and what we want is to address maybe (inaudible) maybe ballistic missiles, maybe regional behavior. But it doesn't work if you have a gun pointed to the head of the JCPOA and say, "Unless you agree to do other things the JCPOA is not gonna be implemented." That's something where I think all of the European leaders in public and in private have been a one voice on. Which is to say "we're not gonna re-open the deal that took so long, that is working and whose erosion or collapse would spell the kind of negative or disastrous consequences that Ben and Wendy just described.

SHERMAN: Let me also add one flip to that: There is no sunset to this deal. There is a misnomer out there that somehow-that some of the restrictions come off, that Iran is free to then again pursue a nuclear weapon. They are not. And so although people don't like some of the timelines on the some of the provisions, Iran can never obtain a nuclear weapon. There are verification monitoring mechanisms forever in this agreement. They don't end.

MODERATOR: And we'll take our next question from Carol Morello with the Washington Post. Please go ahead:

MORELLO: Hi thank you for doing this. I wanted to ask you if the Trump administration goes ahead and designates the IRGC as a terrorist organization what impact that will have on this whole ugly brew out there.

SHERMAN: The IRGC is sanctioned enormously already. No one can do business with the IRGC. And so, and in fact they are already subjected, if companies do, to criminal not just civil penalties. If it was designated as an FTO, which I hope the Trump Administration will not do, because quite frankly it will put our American troops at risk in Iraq and elsewhere where they might come into any interplay with the IRGC, so it has a military dimension to it which is quite concerning. The United States has never ever sanctioned a government entity or a government military and it would put our military I believe at great risk. And we already have all of the tools that we need to ensure that companies, entities do not do business with the IRGC.

MODERATOR: And we'll take our next question from Tom O'Connor with Newsweek Magazine. Please go ahead:

O’CONNOR: Hi, Tom O'Connor Newsweek Magazine. Thanks so much for having this. I guess my question is then since we're talking about realistically the potential of the US to have to use military force at some point to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon if this deal does end up failing - which it very well might if Trump decides to decertify this. I guess I'm wondering to go back to the question about our allies in Europe. You know in past conflicts Europe, maybe begrudgingly, but it still kind of sided with the US I mean, if there was some sort of military action against Iran, do we really see our allies and Europe siding with us? Especially with pressure from China and Russia? Thank you very much.

SHERMAN: It is quite frankly, I'll be blunt about it. This is insane to consider military conflict in Europe with Iran. And the reason for that, and the reason that President Obama didn't go that route is because you cannot bomb away knowledge. The Iranians have mastered the nuclear fuel cycle. They know how to do what they know how to do. And if we had bombed all of their facilities which we're perfectly capable of doing, and President Obama really in an extraordinary act commissioned a new weapon - the Mop- which would have penetrated the underground facility "Fordow" so Iran knew we could take out all of their facilities, but they would rebuild them probably within two or three years and they would do so in secret and underground. So military action has never and will never be a perfect action that would resolve this forever, because you cannot bomb away knowledge. And more importantly for anyone to believe that you can contain a war and that it would not become a more broader Arab-Persian conflict is not thinking ahead to what the consequences of what such actions would be. So no, the Europeans would not want us to go down this road. And I don't think that the American people want us to go down this road.

RHODES: I would just add that not only would the Europeans be opposed to military action, I think the Europeans would be opposed to additional unilateral US sanctions. This notion of imposing tougher sanctions on Iran that get back into the deal space I think is something that is completely impractical in the real world. The reason that sanctions worked in pressuring Iran to come back to the negotiating table in 2012 and 2013 is that the Europeans voluntarily imposed an embargo on purchases of Iranian oil and the Chinese voluntarily reduced their own purchases of Iranian oil. If the US blows up this deal and seeks to reimpose sanctions, there's no reason to think that Europe will go along with that. And in fact there's past precedent for Europe taking measures in their own parliament to protect their businesses who are doing activities in Iran from US sanctions. And so, again not only would Europe not go along with war, I don't think they'd go along with sanctions that get back into the deal space. And that would leave Trump in a position where he would have to determine whether or not to begin sanctioning European and Asian entities in a way that is incredibly destructive to the global economy and that frankly would open up division between the United States and our allies and partners that Iran would exploit. So, all he's doing is isolating the United States from even our closest allies even a conservative government in the UK has urged him to stay in this deal. And the so called "tougher approach" that he is likely to talk about today are unworkable without international cooperation. What we can accomplish with sanctions unilaterally is far less than what we can accomplish with the cooperation of other countries, and we're not going to have that cooperation if the United States is seen as violating a deal that Iran has complied.

MODERATOR: And we'll take our next question from Felicia Shorts with the Wall Street Journal. Please go ahead:

SHORTS: Thanks so much for doing this. Going back to Wendy's point that there's no Sunset to the Deal, you described as a misnomer, with the Sunset clause and what is allowed in 2025 and beyond it becomes such a hot button issue for the Trump Administration, can you speak to what they are or some of the things they are allowed to do at that point? Are some of the concerns expressed by the Trump Administration about those abilities valid?

SHERMAN: So they have to keep the stockpile at 300 kg and the level of enrichment to 3.67 for 15 years. After 15 years they can increase that. They can begin further development of more sophisticated centrifuges, but- and they can bring their IR1s out of storage which quite frankly won't be of any use to them after they've been in storage for that many years. They can do more after that 15 years but for 20 years there are additional verification monitoring efforts on their centrifuge production so that we `know exactly what they're doing as they produce rotors and bellows which are the guts of the centrifuges. For 25 years there is uranium accountancy which means that from the time the uranium comes out of the ground through the enrichment process we can account for it. And the reason that's important the reason the centrifuge accountancy is important is because it means they cannot create a covert supply chain. We will know what's happening to every ounce of that uranium for 25 years. And this is one of the brilliant things that Secretary Moniz helped us to design, which is if you know where these elements are and what is happening to them, you cannot have a covert supply chain. You cannot find another means to get a nuclear weapon. And most important of all, Iran after 8 years will ratify the additional protocol. Under the additional protocol they're ongoing forever verification and monitoring provisions that will continue for forever and Iran commits to never obtaining a nuclear weapon and that has no sunset to it whatsoever. And finally, I would say that all of the technology that has been put in place does not disappear anytime. We talked about this I think some of you who got to traipse around the world with the rest of us remember that there are electronic seals, there are all kinds of technological monitoring processes that we have put in place that will not disappear. If we start to put this deal at risk we lose our eyes and ears on what Iran is doing. We will not know any more what is happening. And it is beyond me why we would give that up.

RHODES: And just to make the point again that if the biggest concern that can be expressed about the deal is something happening in 2030, it's completely illogical that we would precipitate a crisis in 2017 over that. You know Trump's own advisers clearly have been dragged to this position reluctantly because what's obvious is that in a very unstable global environment when you're already dealing with a nuclear crisis in the Korean Peninsula, at a minimum it is in the US national interest to have these very significant constraints on the Iranian Nuclear Program till at least 2030 and some that extend beyond. And if you have concerns about what's happening in 2030 you can deal with them in the late 2020s, you don't need to deal with them today. And one last point that is significant because Trump is clearly the one who is driving this process I don't think any of us has ever heard Donald Trump discuss these various provisions of the Iran Nuclear Deal at any type of length. You know he doesn't seem to have specific substantive concerns with elements of the deal he seems to have an interest in following through on his political rhetoric. And that is incredibly dangerous when you're dealing with very sensitive matters of national security. Essentially this is a policy that is in search of some alignment with Trump's political talking points, and in doing so it puts at risk the Nuclear Deal and the security of the United States and global stability. Because we see in North Korea what happens when you don't have intrusive inspections and verification regime. And you don't have constraints on a nuclear program before a country is able to acquire the ability to conduct a nuclear test. So again while people can have discussions around various provisions that lead to Iran having additional capacity in 2030 and beyond, that's not a reason to do what Trump is doing today.

MALLEY: And just quickly to remind ourselves that when we were negotiating the deal when we find the deal, Iran was just a couple of months away from having enough fissile material to build a bomb. That was the preoccupation. As a result of the deal we now have for at least 10 years a situation where Iran is at least a year away from being able to (inaudible) that kind of fissile material. So as Ben says, it's not a real Sunset Clause. Whatever it is, if it's in 15, 20, 25 years, why would we want to jettison a deal undermine a deal, threaten a deal because of that fear of the future sunset, in order to bring that sunset forward to today?! Because obviously if the deal was to collapse then Iran could resume the program that it had in 2014 and 2015 and we'd be back in the situation where Iran was two months away from acquiring the fissile material needed to build a bomb. So the fear of a future sunset should not lead us out of some kind of illogical approach to fast forward that sunset and bring it just to our doorstep.

MODERATOR: We'll take our next question from Oliver Knox with Yahoo News. Please go ahead.

KNOX: Hi guys I got one for Ben and one for Wendy. Ben, we're kind of flying blind here we don't have any of the actual legislative proposals, but it looks like corporate Corker and Cardin would say to Iran if after various things Sunset, you take steps that we can see that is getting closer to a nuclear weapon we'll impose sanctions. What's wrong with that. And then Rob sort of a second ago Wendy if you could remind us of the relationship between estimates of Iran's breakout time and the Obama Administration's decision to start the negotiations that would be helpful.

RHODES: Yeah so, hey Olivia. On your first question what's wrong with it is that it constitutes a unilateral renegotiation of the deal by the US Congress. If they are saying that they will reimpose sanctions that are in the space of the JCPOA in response to Iran doing things 10-15 years from now that are consistent with the deal, then we'd be violating the deal. So, again if what Iran does after certain restrictions are loosened is still complying with the terms of the deal, and we are mandating that there will be sanctions for those actions, we will be yanking that determination unilaterally without the thought of negotiation with the Iranians even an agreement among our partners in Europe and with Russia and China. And the fact of the matter is this is an international arms control agreement that has multiple parties to it. We the United States would not abide by the mother country coming into an agreement that we're a party to and saying that we're gonna change the terms without you. And that's effectively what that type of legislation would do. Congress can - has any number of ways to express itself. You know if Congress wants to lay out some legislative form its vision of ways in which we combat Iranian behaviors in the region, if Congress wants to, as they've already done, under Trump impose sanctions that don't go back into the Nuclear Deal space but designate various Iranian entities and provide certain authorities to deal with the ballistic missile program, they can do that.

I think the clear line is whether or not they are passing legislation that gets into the space of the JCPOA, and again if they're doing that, even if it's triggered, that's still renegotiating the deal without any partners. And again, you can't have arms control agreements that involve multiple countries simply altered by one party absent any negotiation. And the problem for us is that the other countries won't go along with that, put aside Iran, the Europeans, the Russians, and Chinese won't go along with that. I think what would be more constructive is to say, this deal will stay in place, and we will continue to have the benefits of the JCPOA while we may want to address other elements of Iranian behavior. And the Trump administration for instance has seized on in the past comments by people like President Macron in saying that France is concerned other aspects of Iranian behavior, they're concerned about the ballistic missile program. But what the Europeans have been very clear about is that the deal should remain in place as the foundation from which we address those other concerns. And so again, if legislation is violating the deal, they're both going to make it harder to address those other issues and you're going to put at risk the constraints in the nuclear deal.

SHERMAN: So on the breakout time, Rob mentioned this a moment ago, which is when we began this Iran, our estimation was that Iran could break out in 2 months, have enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon. The President was very clear to all of us who were negotiating to say that there must be at least a year that it would take, because a year would give us time to either fix the problem or to take other action, including military action if need be. Given the limitations of military action that I talked about a moment ago. So, we now have a one year break out time, that is very crucial for American security and again I don't know why we would put that at risk, I don't understand how that's in our vital national security interests.

The one other point I want to make before we end this call is that if the President in his speech today and the Congress goes down this path to put this deal at risk and to undermine this deal, we are also putting further at risk the American citizens who are missing or still held in Iran. Because we will end any possibility of dialogue to get them back home. And after we all were very, totally thrilled to see the family come out of Asia yesterday, which had begun with work done by the Obama administration and continued by the Trump administration, brought a family home, that we would put at risk the Americans who are still in Iran or missing in Iran. Robert Levinson is extraordinary.

MODERATOR: And we'll take one last question from Steve Clemons with The Atlantic, please go ahead.

STEVE CLEMONS: Good to be with all of you, and thank you for such extensive coverage of this. I guess the question I want to ask is slightly in a different direction and understanding the gravity of what the President may do today and this arrangement being shoved over into Congress, which I think looking at the numbers could end up in a paralyzed situation, are there are any scenarios that you folks see where Europe, Macron, France, other negotiating partners with Iran, could try to cocoon this damage to the deal and what they see evolving and try to put something bigger on the table, which is to do what they did- as I remember, some of these negotiations started with Europe, I remember John Bolton grudgingly having to ascent at the time before the Obama administration came in, the early European efforts with Iran. And I'm just wondering, you know, part of the criticism of this deal now is that it's not the "Grand Bargain" and you know, part of the reason why the Obama administration went after the nuclear arrangement is that there was no support by Republicans critics of doing a grand bargain deal and now they're coming back and disingenuously saying, "Hey we didn't cover these other aspects of the Iranian behavior profile." So what would stop Macron or some of the Europeans to say, "Look, let's stop trying to just save what we have, let's go try to talk about Iran about its broader behaviors in other fronts, whether the United States wants to be part of that or not." And I'm just interested in your thoughts about that understanding, the dynamics, that Europe did that once before, we came along and kind of gave the process real heft. But couldn't the Europeans sort of step aside and say, "We're not going to allow the United States to create the weather in this, we're going to try and go further with Iran in deepening relationship in trying to deal with some of these other broader concerns."

MALLEY: I think that it's a good question, and I think it's what a few of us have said today, is that there are other issues to be addressed, and I think the Europeans are already hinting, they're more than hinting, they're prepared and they want to address those issues. But number one is you're stabilized and you're respected, that's already on the table. I mean, we're talking about how North Korea's going to look at us if we [don't validate?] this deal and then want to deal with them on their nuclear program. How's Iran going to look at us if we say, "Ok, this deal, yeah it was fine, but we're not going to validate it, but now we want to get a bigger one." I mean there's no way, no negotiator who's worth his or her salt would go down that road. So number one I think the Europeans can say that they'll respect the deal, now we want to deal with other issues. I think you have to have the planning for that, and obviously to do it in a [time of complete uncertainty, as a sort of survival of the JCPOA]? is not the most propitious moment to put that on the table.

But I think we know from conversations with some Iranian officials, we know from conversations with Europeans, that there is some openness to talking about the broader issues, as I say, number one you have to stabilize and respect this deal, number two, it's going to be a give and take, it's not going to be one side saying, "Here's what you have to do," so there's going to have to be concessions, the Europeans, the Americans, if we're part of it, are going to have to make as well so that Iran is prepared to put on the table some of the things that they had apparently considered putting on the table in the early 2000's but wouldn't address ballistic missiles and their regional policies. So I think that is the right approach, it's the right approach to try to stabilize a relationship, normalize a relationship, by getting Iran to change it's behavior. But you can't do it when you told Iranians that if they don't change their behavior, the deal they just signed with us and with the rest of the international community, is going to go up in flames.

MODERATOR: And I'd like to turn the call over to our speaks for any additional or closing remarks.

SHERMAN: I think we've all sort of covered the waterfront here, I think the fundamental message is the one that Ben began with, which is that this is a very reckless undertaking by the President if the reports that we've heard in advance of his speech today are accurate and that it puts at risk our relationships around the world, our credibility and our reliability. As I said in the New York Times op-ed I wrote, unpredictability is a useful negotiating tactic, but when it comes to war and peace, reliability and credibility matter much more. And what we are seeing here is either a slow or a fast unraveling of this deal and to the last question that Steve asked, indeed the Europeans may start to talk to Iran about these other maligned activities in the region and the US will not have the same seat at the table that it has today having been part of the nuclear deal if the United States begins to take it apart.

RHODES: And my last comment would be, to Steve's point too, which is that the challenge here is that Trump is ignoring the fact that other countries have interests, and he's essentially pursuing the gambit as if other countries are going to bail him out for his interest in keeping some political promise. If we want a grand bargain, we the United States have to both abide by our own commitments and we're going to have to put more on the table, not less. He's ignoring that Europe has interests, and that they won't want to see this deal go away and won't want to see their own economic interests harmed. China has Iran at the center of its "One Belt, One Road" initiative, the last thing they want is a return to a conflict between the west and Iran. Russia certainly is not going to abide by the United States blowing up a deal and taking some punitive actions against Iran. So, what we're seeing is essentially the collision of a political position taken by Donald Trump in the real world. And the world isn't going to readjust itself to Donald Trump's whims. And it's very dangerous that essentially we're dealing the nuclear issue of Iran in the same manner we deal with Donald Trump tweeting that he wants to kick transgender troops out of the military before his own administration has figured out whether that's their position and frankly opposes it. He's essentially dragging down to the level of his politics the rest of the world, but the fact is the rest of the world has no incentive to go along with that, they have an incentive to stay in this nuclear deal, and frankly if the United States is the one that blows it up, the United States will be the one who's isolated. And that's just painfully obvious that what is happening is illogical and unnecessary and is only happening because Donald Trump got tired of certifying a nuclear deal that was achieved under Barack Obama. But that's an incredibly dangerous way to approach foreign policy.

We in the Obama administration redirected certain policies that we'd inherited from George W. Bush, but we didn't just around with a wrecking ball to international agreements that had been reached by previous administrations. There has to be for any effective functioning of American foreign policy and any sustained US leadership in the world, a degree of continuity where we're honoring our commitments. And that the rest of the world believe that the principle driver of American foreign policy is not American national interest but Donald Trump's political interest. It's going to be a much more dangerous place, and we're going to risk really matters of war and peace, not trivial issues here, but whether or not we're going to war in the Korean peninsula because he's gotten into a war of words and set unachievable objectives with respect to Kim Jong-Un or whether or not we're going to get into another war in the Middle East with Iran because he doesn't like that Barack Obama negotiated a nuclear deal. That's a crazy way to run American foreign policy.

MALLEY: I'd just sum it up very quickly that it seems that in order to placate a President's unwillingness to stomach any part of his predecessor's legacy, the administration is manufacturing a crisis when none exists and it's making it harder to deal with other very real crises, whether with Iran or North Korea or elsewhere that are ready for us.