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Iran Policy: Is America Safer Under Trump?

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Are we safer than we were four years ago? That's a question challengers usually ask of an incumbent administration, and Democratic vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris raised it again in the debate with Vice President Mike Pence. Now, the specific focus was Iran and President Trump's decision to withdraw from the multi-nation nuclear deal negotiated under the Obama administration known as the JCPOA and the U.S. airstrike that killed top military commander Qasem Soleimani in January.

As we did after the presidential debate, we thought we'd offer some context that might have gotten missed. So we called two people with deep knowledge but very different perspectives on this issue - Ambassador Seyed Hossein Mousavian, who is a Middle East security and nuclear policy specialist at the Program on Science and Global Security at Princeton University. He spent years as a diplomat in Iran, including as a nuclear negotiator.

We also reached out to Kirsten Fontenrose. She is the director of the Atlantic Council's Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative. She was also a member of President Trump's national security council, where she focused on Gulf affairs. And I began our conversation by asking her to respond to the question I posed earlier. When it comes to Iran, are we safer as a result of President Trump's policies?

KIRSTEN FONTENROSE: I'd say that we are safer, and I'd say it's for two reasons, specifically. One is that the debate about whether to stay in or attempt to renegotiate the JCPOA was at its foundation about making U.S. personnel partners and interests in the Middle East safe from attacks by Iranian militias around the region.

And Iran, you know, cannot currently reach the U.S. with its current missile delivery technology. If there were, frankly, any drastic increase in its nuclear arsenal, it would result in more strikes like we've seen recently, or perhaps even some originate from the U.S.

And, two, we've seen that a lot of Iran's affiliate organizations or proxies around the region have become more quiet. In 2018, for instance, Hezbollah withdrew from some of its locations in Syria and cited specifically that they weren't being paid. So we do think that we are safer now.

MARTIN: Ambassador, what do you say? Is the U.S. safer than we were before?

SEYED HOSSEIN MOUSAVIAN: I don't believe so. Everyone agrees nonproliferation is a key element to international peace and security. All experts around the world - they agree that JCPOA is the most comprehensive agreement during the history of nonproliferation. Second, we should look at whether Iran is safer or not. I believe no. President Trump has imposed the most comprehensive sanctions on Iran. When a country is damaged economically, it definitely is not more safe. However, by killing the deal, now Iran uranium enrichment is more than before.

MARTIN: And, Kirsten, what about in August? The U.S. intelligence community warned that Iran is attempting to interfere in the U.S. election, and they warned that attacks will likely take place online. But in a statement, the head of the Intelligence committee wrote Tehran's motivation to conduct such activities is, in part, driven by a perception that President Trump's reelection would result in a continuation of U.S. pressure on Iran in an effort to foment regime change. So I read that to mean that it seems as though the threat is motivated by President Trump's approach to Iran. So how do you respond to that?

FONTENROSE: I think that's a misread to the extent that prior to the Trump administration, the proxy activities, the ballistic missile program - these were all going on. That's exactly why the administration sought to renegotiate them by getting out of the JCPOA.

The U.S. and Tehran both constantly misread one another. It's sort of tragicomic. Washington believed that squeezing Iran economically would force the regime into a guns versus butter decision, and they would have to cut their spending on the militias, on the illicit missile delivery systems, in order to meet the needs of their people. But that's not what they chose to do. Instead, they chose to continue sending money to the IRGC and the Quds Force.

And Tehran believed that by escalating their reentry into their nuclear program, they would force the U.S. president to the table to talk about the JCPOA again. But instead, what it did was underscore the hardline narrative in Washington that Iran never intended to comply with the JCPOA to begin with.

MARTIN: Ambassador, what do you say about that - that this is a misread on both sides?

MOUSAVIAN: First of all, all security and military establishments - they agree in the U.S., in the region, in Iran that the cyberattacks, cyberwar between Iran and the U.S. has increased after the U.S. withdrawal from JCPOA. Iranians - also they have the same claim that the U.S. is interfering in Iranian election. If both are right - interfering in internal election of each country - it doesn't mean that they are more safe. It is more insecurity for both countries.

MARTIN: I'm going to ask each of you before we let you go, you both had a long career in international security and diplomacy. And we do know, speaking to the American audience now, Americans are very focused on domestic issues like the response to the pandemic, the pressures on the economy. So I know it might seem like a basic question, but I am going to ask - how significant is this issue when people are evaluating their vote in the November election? I mean, what is at stake in this election when it comes to Iran and national security?

FONTENROSE: I think the foreign policy issue in terms of the debate will simply be, can whoever is elected keep us safe from this country we may not understand as an American in - you know, somewhere outside of the D.C. circles, but that we believe has the desire to overthrow our way of life and our system of government?

And I think if there were a change in rhetoric - on both sides, but certainly on Iran's side - in terms of their intent toward the U.S., that might become less of a flare within the foreign policy debate that's going to take place in the election.

MARTIN: Ambassador, I understand it's a delicate matter to give advice to citizens of another country, so I'm not asking you to do that. But I am asking you...

MOUSAVIAN: Right.

MARTIN: ...To say - to frame, what do you think is at stake?

MOUSAVIAN: We are not going to manage the crisis in this region unless these two regional and international powers - they cooperate together. The current trend of increasing hostilities and animosities is not going to help nobody.

MARTIN: That was Sayed Hossein Mousavian, Middle East security and nuclear policy specialist at the Program on Science and Global Security at Princeton University. We also heard from Kirsten Fontanrose, director of the Atlantic Council Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative.

(SOUNDBITE OF EL MICHELS AFFAIR'S "CAN IT ALL BE SO SIMPLE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.