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Would New Sanctions On Iran Lead To Negotiations?


The United States has asked the U.N. Security Council to meet on Iran today behind closed doors. The meeting comes as tensions continue to escalate between the U.S. and Iran after Iran took down a U.S. drone in the Gulf of Oman. For an assessment of where things stand, we turn to Dina Esfandiary. She's a fellow at The Century Foundation, a progressive think tank. And she is on the line from Brussels. Thanks so much for being with us.

DINA ESFANDIARY: Thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: The Trump administration is expected to unveil a new round of sanctions against Iran today. This, of course, after President Trump called off a potential military strike on Iran. So back to sanctions, which the U.S. has used many times to try to change Iran's behavior. What is left of Iran's economy to sanction at this point?

ESFANDIARY: To be honest, not that much. It is true that the U.S. has used sanctions time and again to change Iran's behavior, but the problem is that Iran behavior hasn't really changed as a result of sanctions. The last time they came to the negotiating table it was because they made a decision that they no longer wanted to be isolated. And admittedly, yes, sanctions work to a certain extent, but it certainly wasn't the only thing that the U.S. was using.

Today, things are a little bit different. The Iranians are definitely being squeezed, but as they're being squeezed, they're being pushed to the brink and really cornered, which means that it's really unlikely that they're going to return to the negotiating table as a result of additional sanctions.

MARTIN: If they want the sanctions lifted, what option do they have?

ESFANDIARY: They do want them lifted. But remember - the last time they tried to negotiate an agreement, the nuclear deal where sanctions were going to be lifted, the U.S. didn't actually lift them. The remainder of the world powers did, but the United States didn't. So Iran doesn't really trust that the U.S. is going to actually do what it says it will do. So as a result, what it's done is that it's turned to the other countries that are parties to the agreement; it's turned to the Europeans, to the Russians, to the Chinese, in hopes that they will be able to make up for what the U.S. did not do.

MARTIN: You're in Europe right now. I mean, France, Germany, the U.K. - the EU collectively are all still part of the Iran nuclear deal, as you mentioned. How do the Europeans view the current standoff?

ESFANDIARY: Well, much like the Iranians, I think the Europeans don't really understand what's going on. To them, the situation that we're in today doesn't really make sense. Iran was doing its part to implement the deal. It, you know, had done its part. The Europeans had done their part, and it was the U.S. that walked away from the agreement. And today, it's the U.S. that's implementing this maximum pressure campaign, which is creating serious tensions in the region.

So the Europeans are a little bit lost, much like the Iranians are. At the moment, they seem to be trying to figure out a way to give Iran just enough to ensure that Iran continues to implement the deal and does not go for a less-for-less in the nuclear deal, like it's doing at the moment.

MARTIN: That becomes increasingly difficult though, right? With each new round of sanctions from the United States, that means the Europeans, who are currently doing business with Iran as part of the nuclear deal, they have to work around said sanctions.

ESFANDIARY: Absolutely. The Europeans - to be fair, much of the business that the Europeans contemplated doing with Iran, actually, they've even stopped contemplating doing because if any European business has exposure to the U.S. market, then they could be sanctioned. And no European company wants to have to face that because while Iran is an attractive market, the U.S. is much more attractive.

What it does mean, though, is that the United States is potentially eroding a tool that it could be using in the future. The more it uses sanctions and relies on sanctions and the less people believe in their use of sanctions, the less likely they are to be able to use it in the future.

MARTIN: What about the regional influence in this moment? Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was in Saudi Arabia today for meetings. National security adviser John Bolton was in Israel over the weekend. These are two countries that see Iran as an existential threat. Are you concerned about how those countries in particular are influencing the U.S. response right now?

ESFANDIARY: Of course I'm concerned, but I would actually say that countries in the region, they, too, don't want a war. They also know that if a war breaks out between the U.S. and Iran in the region, that it would impact them first, much like it would impact Iran, because they would be in the line of fire because Iran cannot retaliate as effectively against the U.S. given how far the U.S. is, so it would likely retaliate against U.S. positions in the region or against U.S. allies in the region.

MARTIN: In an interview on Sunday with NBC's "Meet The Press," President Trump said he's willing to enter into negotiations with Iran with no preconditions. He just wants Iran to agree to not make nuclear weapons. Is that something you could foresee Iran doing?

ESFANDIARY: That is exactly what the Iranians did in 2015 with the JCPOA. They agreed - in fact, to be clear, the Iranians actually ceased producing anything that could be used for nuclear weapons a while before. But with the 2015 nuclear deal, they rolled back their nuclear program and agreed to give up parts of the program that were particularly problematic from a nonproliferation perspective. And so what Trump is asking for is exactly what the Iranians entered into already in 2015. I'm not sure what more he can expect to achieve now.

MARTIN: Although, what do you make of the fact that Iran is on track to exceed its uranium enrichment levels that were established by the Iran nuclear deal, 2015?

ESFANDIARY: That's right. So Iran has announced that it will potentially breach parts of the agreement. It is thinking about doing what it calls a less-for-less. Given that it has obtained so little from the nuclear deal, it's now saying that it will cease implementing some aspects of it. But the reason why Iran is doing that is it's a clear message to the Europeans, Russians and the Chinese to kind of step up their game and try to give Iran something for it to stay in the deal.

MARTIN: Dina Esfandiary of The Century Foundation on the line from Brussels. We appreciate your time.

ESFANDIARY: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.