ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
There are contradictory signals from the Trump administration about the Iran nuclear deal. As a candidate, the president denounced that deal as the worst ever negotiated. But yesterday, the State Department, facing a 90-day deadline to report to Congress, reported that Iran is in compliance with the agreement. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also notified Congress that the White House is looking at whether the U.S. should break with the deal because of Iran's continued support of terrorism.
And today, the White House press secretary said Trump is directing an interagency review of Iranian compliance. Raymond Tanter was a National Security Council staffer back in the Reagan days. He opposed the Iran deal. And I asked him if the Trump administration intends to undo that deal, which was adopted by five other countries, how that might happen.
RAYMOND TANTER: Washington cannot unilaterally undo the agreement because the agreement is a multilateral agreement. But that agreement has not been signed. It's not a treaty. If the United States were to withdraw, then Iran would be free to exploit its own uranium enrichment capabilities and get closer and closer to getting the bomb.
SIEGEL: Secretary Tillerson said in a letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan - I'm quoting now - "Iran remains a leading state sponsor of terror through many platforms and methods." Let's assume that's true. If it is, is it a violation of the nuclear deal?
TANTER: Well, the nuclear deal doesn't prohibit Iran from engaging in terrorism. But on national interest grounds, the United States can withdraw from a treaty or re-impose sanctions as a result of Iran's behavior.
SIEGEL: Iran has also been developing missiles and has tested missiles. Are those violations of the nuclear deal?
TANTER: Just like on the terrorism issue, the United States has the right on national security grounds to withdraw from any deal that impinges on the United States' national interests.
SIEGEL: But it's not an explicit violation of the agreement that they've made the missiles. Are those omissions of missiles on terrorism from the Iran deal, are those incidental, or was it central to getting a deal done that they wouldn't be covered?
TANTER: No. President Obama wanted to get the deal done. And the Iranian regime said OK, if you want the deal done then you'll have to give us the right to do these kinds of things - no ballistic missiles, no terrorism and we will moderate. Iran never moderated.
SIEGEL: Well, then let's consider President Donald Trump, who at one point said he'd rip up this deal on day one, was the worst thing he'd ever seen negotiated, he said. He didn't do that on day one. Are there fixes and tweaks that the U.S. could get negotiated that would improve the Iran deal?
TANTER: I think one of the things that - president could do is to recognize the National Council of Resistance of Iran, the main Iranian opposition group. And that would put the fear of God, if you will, in the Iranian regime.
SIEGEL: So that counterstroke (ph) to the Iran deal, if President Trump followed your guidance, really wouldn't change the nuclear deal, it would just change our relationship with Iran.
TANTER: Well, Iran doesn't really have a choice, I think. Iran wants the nuclear deal. Iran wants good relations with the United States. But the United States has more to lose by pulling out than it has from staying in.
SIEGEL: The pattern that seems to be emerging about the Trump presidency, at least over the past couple of weeks, is very bold statements about relations with foreign countries. Do you now expect comments about the Iran deal that are much more accommodating than what he said as a candidate?
TANTER: Look. President Trump is moving towards the center. He's trusting his generals more and more. So one shouldn't criticize the president for moving toward the center of American national security affairs.
SIEGEL: Is there a position in the center on the Iran nuclear deal? Are people so polarized about it that there is none?
TANTER: It's good question. The position in the center simply is renegotiate the deal, exploit the deal's vulnerabilities but don't tear the deal up.
SIEGEL: Professor Tanter, thank you very much for talking with us today.
TANTER: It's my pleasure, Robert.
SIEGEL: Raymond Tanter is a former National Security Council staff member who now teaches at the University of Michigan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.