STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
What do Iran's latest moves mean for a nuclear agreement with other world powers? The country's president says Iran will soon stop complying with parts of that deal. The United States withdrew from the agreement but still expects Iran to keep it. We begin our coverage with NPR's Peter Kenyon, who covers Iran.
Peter, good morning.
PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.
INSKEEP: What is it exactly that Iran would resume doing?
KENYON: Well, President Hassan Rouhani says, first, Iran will immediately begin stockpiling more of its low-enriched uranium as well as heavy water. Then if things haven't gotten better for Iran in 60 days, he says Tehran will return to enriching uranium to a higher level. Now, low-enriched uranium - that's good for things like generating electricity. Highly enriched uranium could be used in a nuclear warhead, so there's a huge difference there, obviously.
President Trump, of course, has long attacked this deal. There's a list of a dozen demands the administration wants Iran to comply with. What Rouhani says today is that Iran is still in the nuclear deal, still supports diplomacy. But if this higher enrichment does resume, that's a real worry because, experts will tell you, the closer a country gets to highly enriched uranium, the faster the process becomes.
INSKEEP: When they say unless things get better in 60 days, what is it that Iran wants to get better in 60 days?
KENYON: Well, they want to have relief from these American sanctions. And they want other countries to step in and fill the void - Russia, China, European countries. And they have been talking about that for some time, but the results on the ground have been pretty unimpressive. So will this cause that to improve? And if so, what kind of response could the Trump administration have? There's plenty of worrying things that could happen. And an important question seems to be, where is this maximum pressure campaign going to lead? And how do you get there safely?
INSKEEP: OK. What kind of response could the Trump administration have? Let's pursue that question. Peter, stay with us as we bring another voice in. Brian Hook is on the line. He is a top State Department policy adviser on Iran.
Welcome back to the program.
BRIAN HOOK: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: How seriously do you take the statement from Iran?
HOOK: Well, Iran is in compliance. They're either in compliance or they're not. And so we're going to have to wait and see what they actually choose to do. We're going to take a very serious look at this.
INSKEEP: Meaning that you don't - the idea of being a little less in compliance - that's not something you're going to accept.
HOOK: I think Iran is engaging in nuclear blackmail, which is what they typically do. This is directed largely at the Europeans. We are out of the deal. The Europeans have stayed in the deal. Iran has been, on a regular basis, threatening to leave the JCP, the Iran nuclear deal, unless their demands are met. But we're out of the deal. Of course, everyone is going to take a close look at this and then decide how much increased risk there is.
INSKEEP: Of course, you still want Iran not to pursue a nuclear weapon and thus effectively to stay in the deal. But is that reasonable to expect Iran to abide by the terms of this agreement when the United States no longer does?
HOOK: Today is the one-year anniversary of when we got out of the nuclear deal. We thought that it provided Iran a very patient pathway for them to develop a nuclear weapon. And so we have launched a campaign of maximum economic pressure that is aimed at the nuclear program, their missile program and all of their regional aggression. So we think this is a better approach than staying inside of a deal that is not going to deny Iran a nuclear bomb.
INSKEEP: I understand. But I'm trying to figure out if you conclude that Iran has lessened its compliance, and if, in your view, that means they're just not complying at all, does the United States take further steps as Iran moves closer to a nuclear weapon?
HOOK: Well, so far, all we have is words. And we need to see what in fact they decide to do. And if there is increased risk of Iran being in material breach where they would then shorten the breakout timeline where they could get a nuclear weapon in less than a year, that would certainly increase the risk to the world to have the world's leading sponsor of terrorism starting to pursue a nuclear weapon.
INSKEEP: What do you make of your maximum pressure campaign if this is the way that Iran has responded so far to that pressure?
HOOK: Well, we recently designated the Revolutionary Guards as a foreign terrorist organization. And Iran's response was to threaten us with more terrorism, which kind of proves our point. This is an outlaw regime that every time the international community expresses its impatience with Iran and says enough is enough, Iran threatens to behave even worse than it otherwise would. We think that when you play under Iran's rules, Iran always wins.
And we have set in place a very focused campaign to drain Iran the revenue it needs to fund its nuclear program, its missiles and all of its proxies around the region. We would like to get to a new and better deal to replace the one that we left a year ago. But in the meantime, we are having a positive impact. And we are trying to make Iran's foreign policy prohibitively expensive.
INSKEEP: You've been on this program before telling us that your goal is to get Iran's overseas oil sales - huge source of revenue for them - down to zero. China has been a key part of that because China, of course, has bought so much Iranian oil over the years. Are they now responding to U.S. pressure to cut off those sales?
HOOK: We haven't seen any evidence of anyone trying to - any country - importing country trying to evade our oil sanctions. And we have now - there's almost 30 countries that were importing Iranian crude oil that are now at zero imports. And given the consequences of noncompliance with that sanctions regime, we expect nations will act in their economic and diplomatic self-interest and comply.
INSKEEP: China's complying, so far as you know.
HOOK: We haven't seen any evidence of China evading our sanctions by trying to import Iranian crude oil beyond levels that we agreed to last year. And going forward, we don't expect it.
INSKEEP: Oh, OK. So they are still importing some oil but less. And you expect that to continue to go in that direction.
HOOK: On May 2, we ended all waivers for the import of Iranian crude oil. And so...
INSKEEP: Oh, meaning China must go to zero...
INSKEEP: And you expect that really to happen.
INSKEEP: One other thing to ask about, Brian Hook. Of course, the U.S. said the other day it's sending an aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf region. It may have been a routine deployment, but the national security adviser paired that with talk about troubling indications from Iran and then Secretary of State Pompeo, your boss, went to Baghdad, the neighboring country. What's going on?
HOOK: We had indications of heightened Iranian readiness to conduct offensive operations against U.S. forces and our interests in the Middle East. So after we received these multiple, credible threats by Iranian regime forces, we repositioned our military assets accordingly. We sent the USS Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group in with a bomber just to send a clear message to the Iranian regime. And that message is that any attack on U.S. interests or on those of our allies will be met with force. We, obviously, are not looking for war with Iran, but we are postured and ready to defend U.S. forces and interests in that region.
INSKEEP: Brian Hook, thanks so much as always.
HOOK: Thanks, Steve.
INSKEEP: Brian Hook of the State Department. Peter Kenyon has been listening in.
Peter, what'd you hear there?
KENYON: Well, it sounds like the administration remains convinced it's on a good path, that pressure can yield to positive results. What I'm hearing from Iran is that hard-liners are taking advantage of this hostility. They're getting stronger. Those who might favor negotiating to help the economy have almost no voice. The hard-liners say, we tried that. And look where it got us.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Peter Kenyon, who covers Iran.
Thanks so much.
KENYON: Thanks, Steve.
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