STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Let's make sense of two moves that President Trump's administration made this week. The administration affirms that Iran is following a nuclear deal. The administration also says Iran is misbehaving around the Middle East. Put another way, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says Iran is following a deal that the Trump administration really doesn't like.
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REX TILLERSON: This deal represents the same failed approach of the past that brought us to the current imminent threat we face from North Korea. The Trump administration has no intention of passing the buck to a future administration on Iran.
INSKEEP: One observer of the administration moves is Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council. He supported the nuclear deal made by the Obama administration, although he is not on good terms with Iran's government. Welcome to the program.
TRITA PARSI: Thank you so much for having me.
INSKEEP: So what does it mean that President Trump, who said he would rip up this nuclear deal on day one, instead says Iran is following it?
PARSI: Well, I think the first thing to say is that it doesn't seem as if the Trump administration really knows what it's doing. It's a significant contradiction to first come out and say that the Iranians - contrary to all of their claims that Iran would be cheating - actually is living up to the deal only to come out the day after and saying, well, we hate the deal anyways and signaling that the U.S. might actually be walking away from the deal, unless of course the aim is to get rid of the deal without the U.S. having to pay the cost for it, meaning instead of the U.S. violating the deal directly by not renewing these sanctions waivers, killing the deal by escalating tensions in Yemen and elsewhere in the region and hoping that that will force the Iranians out of the deal.
INSKEEP: And we should remind people there's a civil war in Yemen. Iran is said to be involved, although they deny being all that involved. And that's one of many places, Syria being another, where there's a lot of tension about Iranian behavior. But let me ask about what you just said, Trita Parsi, because didn't President Obama's administration do something quite similar - do the nuclear deal but continue pressuring Iran on other issues because there are so many other issues?
PARSI: Well, there certainly are a tremendous amount of issues, and there was a lot of pressure on the Obama administration by some of the very same people that are now criticizing the deal, saying do not include other issues into the deal. Focus only on the nuclear deal. And that's exactly what the Obama administration did. But the difference is this - the approach to these other issues, whether it was Syria or Yemen and elsewhere, was a diplomatic one.
The United States and Iran spoke extensively about Syria, for instance. It wasn't an approach of suddenly going to the podium and escalating tensions the way that the Trump administration has done now. And if you do it that way, you not only risk escalating things in the region in a very dangerous way; you also risk killing the deal.
INSKEEP: Wouldn't you like some pressure on this government, though, even though you are a supporter of the nuclear deal?
PARSI: Certainly. There's many areas in which there needs to be pressure on Iran, particularly, I would say, on the human rights front. But an approach that is centered on pressure and that is completely void of diplomacy most likely will lead to a military confrontation.
INSKEEP: But let me ask - is there a real risk that Iran would pull out of this deal? There's an argument to be made that they have no choice, and if the United States starts slapping around Iran, they'll just have to take it.
PARSI: I don't think so. I think it would be very dangerous to calculate that. There can be a significant amount of escalation elsewhere without it actually spilling over to the deal. And mindful of the fact that just a few years ago everyone was talking about the Iranian nuclear program as an existential problem, I think it would be quite foolish to risk a deal that even the Trump administration is admitting is working in order to be able to escalate matters in Yemen, as if Yemen and the situation there is as crucial to U.S. national security as Iran potentially having a pathway to a nuclear bomb.
INSKEEP: Can you just remind us what the basics of this nuclear deal are? Iran still has a nuclear program - right? - but it's restricted.
PARSI: Iran has a restricted nuclear program. There are inspections in every aspect of Iran's program. And all of the various pathways that Iran had towards building a nuclear bomb as a result of this deal has been closed. Some of these restrictions will be lifted in about 15 or so years. But the most important restriction is the inspections regime, the additional product called a Non-Proliferation Treaty, will be permanent, granted, of course, that all sides live up to their end of the bargain. And as the Trump administration certified two days ago, so far, the Iranians are living up to the bargain. And now, the United States also has to continue to waive sanctions in order for the United States to be in compliance with the deal.
INSKEEP: OK. You just mentioned waiving sanctions. Does President Trump have to actively do something to keep the sanctions off Iran for the moment?
PARSI: Yes. Before May 18, the United States is obliged to continue to waive sanctions in order for the U.S. to be in compliance. If it doesn't, then the U.S. pulls out of the deal, and that will likely cause the Iranians to do the same.
INSKEEP: So that would be the next big moment to watch, potentially, is whether President Trump is willing to affirmatively keep sanctions eased on Iran.
PARSI: Exactly. And the day after the deadline is the Iranian presidential elections.
INSKEEP: And in which the president who did the deal, President Hassan Rouhani, is up for re-election.
PARSI: He is up for re-election. And if he loses, then we will have a president in the United States and a president in Iran that most likely will be opposed to this deal. And that would be very negative for the continuation of this nuclear accord.
INSKEEP: Trita Parsi has a book coming out called "Losing An Enemy: Obama, Iran, And The Triumph Of Diplomacy." He's with the National Iranian American Council. Thanks very much.
PARSI: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.