RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
After threatening to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal for the past year, President Trump is expected to take action today. The Iran deal was a central part of Barack Obama's foreign policy legacy. And undoing it was a central part of Donald Trump's 2016 campaign.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I have been in business a long time. I know deal-making. And let me tell you, this deal is catastrophic for America, for Israel and for the whole of the Middle East.
MARTIN: Despite a lot of high-level lobbying by European leaders, many expect President Trump will announce today that he is reimposing sanctions on Iran. For more, we are joined now by Rob Malley, the lead White House negotiator on the Iran nuclear deal under President Obama.
Thanks so much for coming in.
ROBERT MALLEY: Thank you.
MARTIN: What are the consequences today if the president announces the U.S. is reimposing sanctions, essentially pulling out of the deal?
MALLEY: Well, the first consequence is that America's word is not going to be as trusted as it was before. But I think beyond that, we have to look at what might happen next. At some point, Iran may well decide, why should we stay in this deal if we're not getting the economic benefits? - resume its nuclear program, which has been halted and in fact reversed.
And then the United States and Israel and others are going to face a choice - do they let Iran do that? Do they resort to military force and then create another military confrontation in a region that really doesn't need it? That's what we are buying at this point by throwing this deal, which is actually working - I think everyone would agree that Iran is respecting the deal - throwing it out, creating uncertainty in a region that is already going through so much tension and so much potential escalation.
MARTIN: Well, is it all-in or all-out, or is there some middle ground? I mean, the president has argued that the deal doesn't do enough to restrict Iranian missile development or address Iran's role as a state sponsor of terrorism and that, essentially, you and the Obama administration gave too much flexibility to a bad actor. Is there a way to tighten it up, as the president has talked about, without scrapping it?
MALLEY: There might have been a way. I mean, there was a logical way which was implement the deal, which at a minimum for many years keeps Iran in the box in terms of its nuclear program and then go to Iran and say, we want to negotiate something else that's going to require you to do more, but we'll do more, as well. And there's no way you're going to negotiate a new deal when you've just scrapped the one that is the ink of which is barely dry. And why would Iran agree today to say, OK, we're not going to negotiate something else, after the United States...
MARTIN: Because they don't want sanctions.
MALLEY: But the sanctions are coming now. And so Iran is - I mean, I think we know Iran's behavior well enough to know that the last thing they're going to do is surrender to this and tell the Americans - tell us and tell others - OK, that deal wasn't good enough for you. Now we're going to go into a deal that's going to be even tougher for us? That's not the way it's going to work.
MARTIN: As I noted, European leaders were here trying to convince the president to stay in - high-profile visits from French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The British foreign minister was here just the other day. Clearly, those conversations didn't work out the way the Europeans wanted them to. What does this mean for America's relationship with those European partners?
MALLEY: Well, first - I mean, I think it's true. The Europeans really did try hard. I think - you know, if you talk to them, they tried to meet President Trump more than halfway. I think what they concluded in the end is that this was really a decision that President Trump took because he wanted to undo President Obama's legacy and because it was a campaign pledge. And there was little that the Europeans could do, short of rewriting the deal entirely, that would have pleased him.
So I think now for Europe, the main task is no longer to try to convince the United States to stay in the deal. It's to convince Iran to stay in the deal despite the reimposition of U.S. sanctions. There's going to be friction between Europe and the United States. There's already quite a bit of friction. I don't think we're going to see a rupture. I think really for Europe, the task now is to pivot from convincing one party not to leave and convince now the other, Iran, to stay.
MARTIN: Is it plausible to think that the deal could exist without U.S. participation?
MALLEY: It's not easy, but it's possible. And I think we're hearing some voices in Iran - not all of them - but some that are saying, we're going to be better off if we stick to the deal, even with reduced economic benefits - far reduced. But some benefits, we'll get from European business - Chinese, Russian, Asian, diplomatic relations with Europe - and try to present to the world Europe and Iran against the United States rather than Europe and the United States against Iran.
The International Crisis Group, the organization I lead, published a report last week with some ideas of how Europe could try to protect its businesses from the reimposition of U.S. sanctions. And I think that's what Europe needs to now focus on.
MARTIN: What are the consequences for Iranians?
MALLEY: Well, the consequences, first of all, are a domestic one. Who's going to win this battle? There's been a battle now in Iran since before the deal was signed about people who were in favor of it and engagements with the West - I'm not going to call them moderates, but they just simply had this more pragmatic view, if you will - and others who are deeply against any engagements with the West. Of course, scrapping the deal is going to strengthen the more hard-line faction that's now going to say - we told you so; we should resume our nuclear program. Some are even saying we should now go get a bomb, which was not something that you heard earlier.
So I think that's going to be one repercussion. There's going to be economic repercussion. A country that's already going through economic hardship is now going to find that it's going to go through more. And then we can't forget the fact that this is a region that is extremely tense right now. Possible confrontation between Israel and Iran, between Saudi Arabia and Iran, between the U.S. and Iran - this just makes everything much more dangerous.
MARTIN: Robert Malley - he was the chief negotiator of the Iran deal under President Obama.
Thank you so much for coming in.
MALLEY: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.