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Council On Foreign Relations President Richard Haass On Diplomacy With Iran


Congress wants to better understand the Trump administration's Iran policy. The House Foreign Affairs Committee called Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to appear at a hearing today, and he was a no-show. So instead, they called on a handful of other witnesses.

Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations and a veteran diplomat, did appear. He joins us now. Welcome to the program.

RICHARD HAASS: Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: So one of the things you've said is that the Trump administration's maximum-pressure campaign against Iran, quote, "had much more of an effect than people predicted" and implied that that could lead to a new nuclear deal with international support. What have you seen from Iran that indicates that's the case?

HAASS: What we've seen is the contraction of the economy by an estimated 10%. We've seen people come into the streets. If you remember several months ago, the reason they were protesting was over the hike in gasoline prices.

CORNISH: But they've also backed away from some of the aspects of the nuclear agreement, right? I mean, right now, Germany, France, Britain - they are actively trying to get Iran to kind of get back in compliance.

HAASS: Well, sure. And I believe the Iranians are backing away, in part, because this is their way of pushing back against these economic sanctions. They're basically saying, you're going to cause us economic pain. We're going to cause you pain using tools we have. We'll go after tankers. We'll go after Saudi oil installations, what have you. My point is simply, though, that if the Iranians feel the heat enough, if they worry about the future of their country, of their so-called revolution four decades afterwards, they might be - I emphasize the word might here - be amenable to a deal. There's a precedent here.

If you remember, at the - towards the end of the Iran-Iraq war, the then-ayatollah, the then-supreme leader, made the argument that, this is like drinking poison to me, but I will accept this deal. I will make a compromise because I need to preserve the revolution. And I think it's just possible that we could be arriving at such a point again.

CORNISH: And you also said that you think the U.S. would have significant multilateral backing for a proposed new agreement with Iran, and we heard Boris Johnson make a similar plea, suggesting the deal be replaced with a Trump deal. But is there such thing?

HAASS: Well, I called the JCPOA the Joint Plan of Action 2.0. You essentially extend some of the durations of the constraints on Iran, on centrifuges, on uranium enrichment. You would include ballistic missiles, which were not included in the original 2015 deal. And in exchange, you would get a degree of sanctions relief for Iran. So...

CORNISH: These are suggestions you are making. Is this something you've heard from the administration?

HAASS: No, this is something I made today to the House. I've made it previously to the administration. The administration hasn't been interested so far. I think they are still hoping that they can bring down the regime. I think that's an unrealistic hope. And I think...

CORNISH: So what we're seeing is the case that the U.S. essentially has not provided a diplomatic alternative to Iran - right? - when it comes to this process.

HAASS: That is correct. If you look at what the secretary of state and others have said, they say, in principle, we favor diplomacy, but in reality, we've not put forth anything that is fair or reasonable to Iran.

CORNISH: In our last minute, what does that mean? I mean, as a former diplomat with your experience, do you have the sense that the administration has a strategy in dealing with Iran? I mean, Mike Pompeo did not attend the hearing today, so he can't hear from them.

HAASS: I believe they have more of a hope than a strategy, and that is regime change. And if and when that doesn't materialize, then I'm hoping they may reconsider. And the fact that the Europeans are taking a fairly robust posture vis-a-vis Iran might give them grounds for thinking, hey, maybe this could work, particularly since, again, we're seeing pushback against the government in Iran.

CORNISH: Richard Haass, president of the Council of Foreign Relations, thanks so much for your time.

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