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We Should Continue To 'Apply The Pressure' On Iran, Says Former Sen. Bob Corker


We're going to talk about that policy problem now with former Tennessee Republican Senator Bob Corker. He was the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at a critical time - when the Obama administration passed the Iran nuclear deal and when the Trump administration withdrew from that deal last year. We called him to try to understand the president's thinking on this issue as well as his party's thinking on this and where this could go from here. Mr. Corker, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

BOB CORKER: I'm glad to be with you. Thank you.

MARTIN: First of all, just - can I just get your reaction to the series of events that I just laid out this week? Did the president make the right call in calling off those strikes at the last minute?

CORKER: Well, we'll have to see how things unfold from here. I do think that the greater focus should be on the economic pressures that we're putting on them, and we should let those play out. I think, you know, people have come to understand that, many times, the president reacts to the very last person who talked with him. He's - yet there's a lot of access to him, both from senators but also commentators, radio talk show hosts and those kind of people. So decision-making has, as you know, been somewhat unusual with the administration. And so it's really difficult to determine what happened at the last minute. I do think, again, how we go forward will determine whether it was a good decision or not.

MARTIN: And, you know, that some members of your party have been rather critical. Some Republican members like Congressman Adam Kinzinger of Illinois compared President Trump's decision not to strike Iran to President Obama's unwillingness to order strikes against Syria in 2013. Others - like, for example, Congresswoman Liz Cheney - have raised similar concerns. What about you?

CORKER: Well, again, so far, we've had a drone shot down. We've had some tankers that have been disrupted. How they go forward will determine whether he made a good decision or not. You've seen in the past - with North Korea, with Venezuela - a lot of bellicose statements, but then it's not followed up on. So, again, if it were to happen again, then I think the comparisons that some of the other members are making would well be true.

But, again, let's see what happens over the next week or two. Our greater focus should be continuing to apply the pressure to them, which is creating instability within the country at a time that's very important to the Iranian government that's in control now. So let's see how it unfolds over the next couple weeks.

MARTIN: I think it is important to point out that one of the other precedent events that led up to this moment was that the president decided to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal. You were a critic of the Iran nuclear deal when you chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. And I don't recall if you agreed with the president's decision - President Trump's decision to withdraw from the deal. I know you were a critic of it at the time that it was first negotiated.


MARTIN: So the question then becomes - I mean, there are international actors who are saying that, you know, the president actually kind of started this by unilaterally withdrawing from something that had been negotiated across a number of countries. Your thoughts about that?

CORKER: Yeah, I think Iran has responded in a way that's very different than the way the president thought that would happen. And, obviously, the actions that they are taking is to try to keep the Europeans with them. And they're playing a very dicey game themselves. They have a lot more to lose right now than we do. And so they're right on the edge.

But back to the agreement. Yes, we saw what President Trump said during the campaign. And so we immediately began to work with Secretary Tillerson and their national security adviser, General McMaster, to craft a new agreement, something that did away with the sunset agreement. As you know, after 10 years from when this was put in place, Iran is in many ways off and running again on their nuclear agreement. So we began working with them, working with the Germans, the French, working with United Kingdom to try to see if there was a way to have an add-on agreement just with the Western allies to do away with the sunset agreement. Angela Merkel in particular was not willing to go there, I think the other countries actually

were. And so when that did not happen, the president did withdraw. At the time, I felt like, actually, we could end up in a better place because of the actions that he took. But, again, it has to be joined with tremendous economic pressures and a willpower to stay that course. There are numbers of people within the administration, as you know, that would like nothing else other than to get into a kinetic war with Iran. I'm sure that the leadership in Israel right now would love to see that happen. And so, you know, I do think we have to be careful as we move down the road. I still think there's an opportunity for this economic pressure to play out in an appropriate way for us. And I've been a critic of the administration, as you know.

I think if they take the next steps, appropriately, and don't just allow Iran to continue to do the things they're doing without some kind of pushback, I think this still could play out in a manner that works well for U.S. interests.

MARTIN: And before I let you go, I did want to ask about what role you think Congress should be playing now. There were congressional leaders who huddled with Trump on Thursday to talk about Iran hours before he called off that retaliatory strike. Senator Chuck Schumer of New York emerged from the meeting, saying that Democratic leaders had urged the president to seek congressional authorization before taking military action.

And, of course, as you know, when President Obama pushed to approve the Iran nuclear deal without congressional oversight, you said that such an attempt would seek to undermine Congress's appropriate role. And since you're somebody who fought to grant Congress a seat at the table...


MARTIN: ...What role do you think Congress should be playing now?

CORKER: Well, we've had this long debate - haven't we? - over the '01 and '02 AUMFs.

MARTIN: You mean the authorizations for use of military force?

CORKER: Yes, which were AUMFs - that were used to fight nonstate actors. And that's been morphing, and it's been difficult for Congress to actually come together and play the appropriate role there. This is against a state actor. And so there's no question that the former AUMFs that we've had in place do not apply to this situation. And I agree, wholeheartedly, that Congress should play a role in making a declaration if we're going to take action against Iran.

MARTIN: That's the former Republican Senator Bob Corker. He chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from 2015 to 2019. Senator Corker, thanks so much for talking with us.

CORKER: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.