RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Iran is moving closer to having weapons-grade levels of uranium. Over the weekend, the government there announced that they will again boost uranium enrichment above the limit that was set in the 2015 nuclear deal. President Trump withdrew the U.S. from that deal last year and imposed economic sanctions on Iran. Now, though, Iran is taking another step in a series of violations designed to pressure America to back down or Europe to provide sanctions relief.
Here to talk about what all this means in practice is Ernest Moniz. He negotiated parts of the deal as secretary of energy under President Obama, and now he serves as CEO of the Nuclear Threat Initiative.
Mr. Moniz, thank you so much for being with us.
ERNEST MONIZ: Thank you, Rachel.
MARTIN: So media in Iran - media with government ties are reporting that Tehran is now enriching uranium to 4.5%. Can you explain the significance of that number?
MONIZ: Yes. The Iranians, of course, have nuclear power called the Bushehr plant. And for the fuel in that plant, it has an enrichment - that is, the amount of uranium 235, which is 0.7% in nature, is elevated, or enriched, to between 3.67%, which was the cap in the Iran agreement, to about 4.5%. So they are now apparently beginning to make uranium that would also be applicable to use in that nuclear power plant.
I do want to emphasize, Rachel, that, as of now certainly, neither of their violations would be of a direct concern in terms of a nuclear bomb because the deal makes it physically impossible for them to acquire the material in less than a year. So this erodes that a bit. But the fact is the deal is giving us time, certainly, to react to that in principle.
MARTIN: But is the deal still salient? I mean, if Iran continues now to intentionally violate the terms of the deal, what's to say that they won't violate other terms that would make it more likely that they could head on towards a path to a nuclear weapon?
MONIZ: No, there is concern - in particular, a slippery slope that they could go on to violate what actually, I believe, is the most significant part of the agreement, which is unprecedented verification procedures. If they should not follow those procedures, which allow international inspectors to go not only to where they say they are doing nuclear activity, but even to places where we suspect they might be doing it without declaring it, that would leave us kind of blind. And that's a slippery slope, potentially, to, perhaps in the end, military confrontations.
MARTIN: So what do you make of Iran's play in this moment? I mean, Iran is saying that it's going to make additional violations in 60-day intervals if they don't get sanctions relief.
MONIZ: Well, I think what it says is they are clearly not in any dash to a nuclear bomb, if you like. What they are doing is upping the political ante, particularly for the Europeans. The Europeans are kind of stuck in the middle of this because what Iran is saying is, we were promised a set of economic relaxations, if you like - most importantly, the ability to sell oil in the international market. They are not getting that.
The Europeans say, look; we are completely with the deal. But on the other hand, we cannot violate - or our companies cannot violate the sanctions that the United States is imposing because of the role of the United States in the international financial markets. Indeed, it's a little bit of a broader question involving more than Iran.
But what I would say is that another slippery slope - and there are many of them - is that the way the United States is, frankly, in a somewhat willy-nilly fashion, imposing all kinds of economic sanctions now on our own allies is a slippery slope to losing our dominant role in the international financial system. And that would cost us both in national security terms and also in economic terms.
MARTIN: But when we think about the Trump administration and how they are approaching Iran right now, do you think that this so-called pressure campaign, the escalating sanctions - is that likely, do you believe, to compel Iran to come back to the negotiating table with the United States?
MONIZ: I think Iran is going to be very leery, certainly at the level of the supreme leader, to get back into negotiations because their point of view is - well, been there; done that. And the United States, frankly, proved rather unreliable in terms of the agreement. So I think this maximum pressure campaign is a very dangerous approach unless, in fact, the point is ultimately to lead to a military confrontation. I believe the leaders in both sides, including President Trump, have said they don't want a military approach.
But it's hard to see any plan that would actually resolve our differences with Iran. And so that's why this is - this has the potential - I do not want to sound like Chicken Little here. But the reality is this has the chance of triggering - even unintentionally, though miscalculation - a major conflagration throughout the Middle East.
MARTIN: Ernest Moniz, former secretary of energy, CEO of the Nuclear Threat Initiative. Thanks so much for your time this morning.
MONIZ: Pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.