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Former Iran Nuclear Deal Negotiator Weighs In On Current U.S.-Iran Tensions

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Our next guest thinks it would take a lot more than an all-caps tweet to scare the leaders of Iran. President Trump a couple nights ago addressed a tweet to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and wrote in all caps, never, ever threaten the United States again, or you will suffer consequences the likes of which a few throughout history have ever suffered before. It was a response to Rouhani saying in a speech that a U.S. conflict with Iran would be, quote, "the mother of all wars." Today - a different tone from Trump in an address to the Veterans of Foreign Wars saying he'd be willing to negotiate with Iran.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We'll see what happens, but we're ready to make a real deal, not the deal that was done by the previous administration, which was a disaster.

(CHEERING)

CORNISH: We're going to get Philip Gordon's take on all of this. He has sat at the table with Iranian officials as one of the negotiators of the Iran nuclear deal under the Obama administration. Welcome to the program.

PHILIP GORDON: Thanks. Nice to be here.

CORNISH: Now, this focus by President Trump isn't new, but it also comes as U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered a Sunday speech basically blasting the Iranian regime. What's the first thing that goes through your mind as you watch all this unfold?

GORDON: The question of what happens next 'cause I don't think we know, and I don't think the president knows. And I'm not sure he's gamed out, you know, starting with pulling out of the Iran deal in the first place or the escalating rhetoric, what is supposed to happen and where it leads. And I think it's fair to be very worried about where it leads.

CORNISH: Some people have raised the question of North Korea, looking to a template there from the Trump administration. You know how the Iranians operate. Is that parallel, appropriate?

GORDON: Yeah. It's not a great template if you think about it. I mean, the parallel is good in terms of the president comes in. He escalates rhetoric. And then in the North Korean case, what happens is North Korea comes to the table to have a meeting. And if anyone got something from that meeting, it was the dictator of North Korea who got the ability to meet with the president of the United States as an equal and as a nuclear power. So to there, the situations are similar. What I think is very different is Iran is not interested in a meeting. And Iran is I think highly unlikely to come back and even give the president the pretense of a victory here.

CORNISH: Despite the fact that the U.S. pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal, you don't think they would seek an opportunity to put something else in place.

GORDON: So I would say because the United States pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal, that makes it really hard. I mean, think about this from an Iranian point of view. They have a deal that they negotiated very bitterly and with great difficulties over two years under great economic pressure 'cause the world was against them. It's passed in the United Nations Security Council, and just about every country in the world supports it and believes that it's working. Then the United States comes along, a new president, and says, well, it's not working for me; I'm tearing it up.

Under those circumstances, you know, how likely do you think it is that the supreme leader of Iran will say, OK, everyone thought this was working; we were abiding by it, but because Donald Trump wants a better or a different deal, we're going to have to revise it? That seems to me a very tough sell, which raises the question that I asked at the beginning. What is President Trump trying to do? And there it's difficult to avoid the conclusion that the answer to that question is we just cut them off until the regime is pushed aside and, you know, the place is destabilized and you get a different regime. And that's pretty risky business, too.

CORNISH: Based on your understanding and experience, when the Iranians hear this kind of rhetoric from the president or from Mike Pompeo, how do you think that lands?

GORDON: I think the Iranians are not convinced that President Trump is really willing to expend blood and treasure to confront them in the Middle East. I think they think the American public is skeptical of that. And Donald Trump himself for years has argued against American involvement in the Middle East. He repeatedly says, we've spent $7 trillion; we've got nothing for it. He's pulled back our support for Syrians who are fighting against the Syrian regime backed by Iran.

And that's why I think or I should say I'm afraid they're going to test him because what they're trying to say is look; a tweet's not going to cut it. You want to deploy military forces and show us that you're willing to fight, bring it on. So that's the risk of this approach. Now we've launched a process that, as I say, I'm not even sure the administration itself can answer.

CORNISH: Philip Gordon was on the team that negotiated the Iran nuclear deal on behalf of the Obama administration. He's now senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Philip Gordon, thanks so much.

GORDON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.