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What Soleimani's Death Will Mean For Iran's Nuclear Ambitions

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And finally today, over the course of this hour, we've talked about many of the questions sparked by the death of top Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani in the U.S. airstrike. We've talked about the role of Congress going forward. We've talked about the prospect of counterattacks and what Soleimani's death will mean for Iran. But another big question we want to tackle is, what's next for the Iran nuclear deal, which European allies have been struggling to keep alive since President Trump pulled the U.S. out of the agreement back in 2018?

The deal aimed to curb Iran's nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. The agreement was already hanging on by a thread, with Iran slowly backing out of some of its obligations. And so this latest escalation raises questions about the future of Iran's nuclear capabilities.

For a perspective on this question, we've called on Ernest Moniz. He is the former secretary of energy under President Obama, and he was one of the key architects of the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. He's currently the co-chair and CEO of the Nuclear Threat Initiative.

Mr. Secretary, nice to have you back on the program. Thanks for joining us.

ERNEST MONIZ: Good to be back, Michel.

MARTIN: As we mentioned, the deal was hanging on by a thread. The U.S. backed out of it in 2018. Late last year, Iran's president mentioned the country's plans to enrich uranium. So I have to ask, was there ever any hope for this deal since the U.S. backed out?

MONIZ: Well, I think the - there was certainly hope that the Europeans together with Russia and China would be somewhat more effective perhaps in terms of delivering commercial benefits to Iran. But in the end, of course, it is all about getting the United States and Iran back onto the same page, whatever page that is.

I think it's worth, Michel, emphasizing what the core elements of the agreement were because they are the ones that, one way or another, I believe we have to see our way to being restored. No. 1 - there was, of course, the substantial constraint on Iranian nuclear activity for 15 years. And as you've already noted, we may come back to it. They've taken some steps away from that in response to our withdrawal.

But the more important issue is the verification regime. It gave the international inspectors unprecedented tools to make sure that Iran had no covert program being rebuilt for weapons. That's the basis of international confidence. So far - I think it's very important to note that so far, the Iranian steps away from the agreement have been in rebuilding some activities on the nuclear side without compromising their relationship with the international inspectors. That's very, very important for international confidence.

The question now is, in the wake of the Soleimani events, where will Iran go now in terms of its next steps away from the agreement? In principle, they were to make their next announcement tomorrow or Monday. So we'll see if they follow through and if they, in fact, ramp that up into a much bigger step, which would really cause tremendous problems in getting anything like the agreement restored.

MARTIN: Well, expand on what you just were mentioning here. What do we know about Iran's current nuclear capabilities? Tell us more about that, if you would.

MONIZ: Well, there's complete agreement going back, frankly, to American intelligence estimates over a decade ago and all the way through the recent - more recent Israeli information discoveries - for example, that Iran had a structured nuclear weapons program through 2003. And there's no evidence of that structured program since then. There have been certain elements that we would question. But fundamentally, the weapons program as an organized activity, if you like, ended after 2003.

The - today, because of the extraordinary inspections that take place, including inspections that can go in places that Iran has not declared to have nuclear activity, then that's what gives us confidence that today, Iran still does not have that - a program restored. But the issue is if they move away from those inspection regimes, then we lose a lot of insight. We, the international community, lose a lot of insight into what's going on.

And that could be yet another slippery slope towards a bad outcome - a bad outcome meaning both conflict with Iran but also the potential for sparking a nuclear proliferation events in the region.

MARTIN: I - what I hear you saying is that there's a lot we don't know about Iran's intentions in this area. But I am going to ask you to speculate to the degree that you feel comfortable doing so about whether this recent escalation changes the nuclear negotiation landscape.

MONIZ: Well, first of all, there really is no nuclear negotiation going on. So the issue would be to revive it. I certainly don't think these events in any way helped that to happen right now - with one caveat, which would be, frankly, a very bad outcome for the United States if the - if our allies - in particular in Europe, who clearly have not expressed (laughter) any degree of enthusiasm over the recent events, to put it mildly - if they crank up their efforts in order to implement the Western responsibilities in the Iran agreement, that could in some sense regenerate activity on the nuclear side but create even more stress that we have with our allies, who we need for many, many issues beyond Iran.

We can't forget that there are issues with Russia to deal with, with North Korea to deal with, et cetera. So we need solid alliances. I certainly hope the administration is working to communicate with them. But that is another of the uncertainties as to how things will go forward in Iran on nuclear. In the immediate term, I think the issue is to see, what is their next step? And will that step now be a very large one and one that is much harder to reverse in the context of the Soleimani events?

MARTIN: We have to leave it there for now, Mr. Secretary. Thanks for joining us.

That's Ernest Moniz. He's the former secretary of energy under President Obama, and he's the CEO of the Energy Futures Initiative. Thank you so much for joining us today.

MONIZ: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.