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Trump Decries Iran Nuclear Deal as He Fills Cabinet with Advocates Pushing Regime Change in Tehran

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President Trump threatened to attack Iran on Tuesday if it restarts its nuclear weapons program, while at the same time hinting he plans to scrap the international deal to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear arms. Trump made his comments at the White House during a meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron, who had come to Washington in an attempt to preserve the Iran deal. Trump must decide by May 12 whether the U.S. should stay in the deal. Macron said he opposes throwing out the existing nuclear deal but is open to a new agreement with Iran to address Iran’s role in Syria and other issues. But advocates say Trump is likely to leave the deal and that the U.S. is trying to force Iran to be the party that ends up leaving the accord—and that Trump’s National Security Adviser John Bolton and State Department Secretary nominee Mike Pompeo aren’t “seriously interested” in further negotiations. “I think the United States has never abandoned the idea of regime change in Iran,” says Jamal Abdi, the vice president for policy at the National Iranian American Council.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: President Trump threatened to attack Iran on Tuesday if it restarts its nuclear weapons program, while at the same time hinting he plans to scrap the international deal to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear arms. Trump described the deal as “insane” and “ridiculous.” Iran responded by threatening to pull out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, if Trump withdraws from the nuclear deal. Trump made his comments at the White House during his meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron, who had come to Washington in an attempt to preserve the Iran deal. Trump must decide by May 12th whether the United States should stay in the deal, which was agreed to in 2015 by Iran, the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, France and China and the European Union.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: There is a chance—and nobody knows what I’m going to do on the 12th, although, Mr. President, you have a pretty good idea. But we’ll see. But we’ll see also if I do what some people expect, whether or not it will be possible to do a new deal with solid foundations, because this is a deal with decayed foundations. It’s a bad deal. It’s a bad structure. It’s falling down. Should have never, ever been made. I blame Congress. I blame a lot of people for it. But it should have never been made. And we’re going to see what happens on the 12th. But I will say, if Iran threatens us in any way, they will pay a price like few countries have ever paid. OK?

AMY GOODMAN: Earlier in the day, President Trump was asked about what would happen if Iran restarted its nuclear program.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Won’t be so easy for them to restart. They’re not going to be restarting anything. They restart it, they’re going to have big problems, bigger than they’ve ever had before. And you can mark it down. They restart their nuclear program, they will have bigger problems than they have ever had before.

AMY GOODMAN: During his visit to the White House, the French president, Emmanuel Macron, said he opposes throwing out the existing nuclear deal, but said he’s open to a new deal with Iran to address Iran’s role in Syria and other issues.

PRESIDENT EMMANUEL MACRON: [translated] For a number of months, I’ve been saying that this was not a sufficient deal, but that it enabled us, at least until 2025, to have some control over their nuclear activities. We therefore wish, from now on, to work on a new deal with Iran.

AMY GOODMAN: Joining us in Washington, D.C., is Jamal Abdi. He is the vice president for policy at the National Iranian American Council.

Welcome to Democracy Now! So, can you explain? The media is making an enormous deal out of the bromance of President Trump and Emmanuel Macron in this first state visit of the Trump administration. And yet, when it comes to the Iran deal—Macron a big supporter of it—President Trump has called it “insane.” He’s threatening to pull out. Iran is criticizing President Trump and the United States, if they pull out. Can you explain what’s happening here? Is the U.S. closer to remaining in it or leaving this deal?

JAMAL ABDI: All the indications right now are that Trump is planning to leave the deal on May 12th. May 12th is when the next deadline occurs for the United States to continue waiving sanctions, to remain within the constraints of the deal. Macron is coming to town sort of as the last hope. Congress has failed to intervene. Congress actually just approved Trump’s secretary of state nominee, who also supports leaving the deal. And really, I think much of Washington, including opponents of the deal, including even Republicans in Congress who voted against the deal, are sort of looking to Macron, and later to Angela Merkel, to try to save this deal, to try to convince Donald Trump to not abandon this agreement.

And so, what I think we saw was that this bromance was—it gave some hope. I think that this notion that Macron put forward of, you know, “We’re going to get this bigger, better deal,” he’s sort of speaking the language of Trump. And I do think it would be really ironic if, after this president sort of took us to the brink of killing the deal and had the entire world worried about this and worried about going to war with Iran and escalation, and it turned out he really just wanted to take Obama’s deal and rebrand it as the Trump deal, this bigger, better deal.

I think the devil is in the details. What does that mean? Are the parties—you know, right now what we’re really looking at is negotiations among the United States and the Europeans. That’s the easy part. You know, we should be able to be on the same page with these four parties—with Germany, France, Britain and the United States. The difficult part is, you know, at some point, you do need to bring in the other parties. You need to bring in China and Russia and, by the way, Iran, if they are going to be party to any deal.

And so, I really think right now this is more about trying to convince Donald Trump away from the brink on May 12th, try to buy some time, try to put some ideas in front of him for what is possible. But as far as actually salvaging the deal and getting this bigger, better deal, I think there’s a lot of work that remains to be done. And I don’t know if this is actually something that is achievable at this point in time.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to play you two clips of the Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. This is Zarif in the interview with Face the Nation, the Iranian foreign minister saying his country may resume the nuclear program if the U.S. pulls out of the landmark 2015 agreement. He was interviewed by the Face the Nation host Margaret Brennan.

MOHAMMAD JAVAD ZARIF: We have put a number of options for ourselves, and those options are ready, including options that would involve resuming, at a much greater speed, our nuclear activities. And those are all envisaged within the deal. And those options are ready to be implemented, and we will make the necessary decision when we see fit.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You’re ready to restart your nuclear program, if President Trump puts sanctions back on Iran, even if the rest of the world says, “Don’t do this”?

MOHAMMAD JAVAD ZARIF: Obviously, the rest of the world cannot ask us to unilaterally and one-sidedly implement a deal that has already been broken.

AMY GOODMAN: And also on Face the Nation, the Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif was asked about National Security Adviser John Bolton and Trump’s pick for secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, who is just about to possibly be confirmed by the whole Senate.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Pompeo has spoken in the past about striking Iran. John Bolton, the president’s new national security adviser, has said the goal should be regime change in your country. Do you think that, as national security advisers, they’re going to be honest brokers with the president, presenting him with these diplomatic options?

MOHAMMAD JAVAD ZARIF: Well, is that is a diplomatic option? I think that has been—

MARGARET BRENNAN: Well, that’s what I’m saying, though. Are they—does this, their appointments, make military confrontation more likely, or do you still see the possibility to negotiate?

MOHAMMAD JAVAD ZARIF: Well, I think the United States has never abandoned the idea of regime change in Iran. Now they are more explicit about stating it. But the point is, they’re used to dictators in our region who rely on them, as President Trump said, who cannot live without U.S. support for two weeks. That’s the type of regime that they’re used to, and that is why they so readily talk about regime change. They have not been able to impact the decision of the Iranian people over the last 40 years.

AMY GOODMAN: If you can respond to that, Jamal Abdi, the Iranian foreign minister?

JAMAL ABDI: Well, there’s a lot to sort of deal with there. I do think this issue of regime change is really fundamental to this conversation. I don’t think that John Bolton or Mike Pompeo are seriously interested in negotiations. When Mike Pompeo was in Congress, you know, there were many lawmakers who opposed the Iran deal. There were very few, if any, who talked openly about military operations against Iran as being preferable, and who so sort of disingenuously opposed the agreement. With Donald Trump and the people around him, the adage was: He doesn’t want to kill the deal anymore; he wants to fix the deal. I think this is extremely disingenuous. I don’t think this is actually about fixing anything. The deal is working. The IAEA has verified in 10 separate reports that Iran is indeed complying with this deal, is not building a nuclear weapon, has put these constraints in place.

And so, when we look at the debate around the negotiations that led to this deal, the opponents of those talks weren’t really criticizing the substance of the talks or offering any sort of alternative, because, really, there was no alternative that was acceptable to them. This was about trying to impose sanctions and, you know, weaken Iran, until the time was right to actually engage in violent regime change. And, you know, if U.S. impose Iraq-style regime change is the end goal, there is no amount of talking between the parties that is going to achieve that goal. So I think what we have now is really not an attempt by at least, you know, Pompeo or Bolton or Trump to try to, quote-unquote, “fix this deal.” This is really about trying to present the United States as—or trying to salvage this notion that the United States is the reasonable actor in this play that we’re watching unfold, and to try to force Iran to be the party that ends up leaving the deal, because the deal itself is the obstacle, the negotiations are the obstacle, if the goal is violent regime change. So, that’s where we are.

And, you know, I think that the Europeans are trying to present this bigger, better deal—and maybe Trump is reachable. I think that, sort of in a vacuum, you look at what has been presented—you know, the U.S. on the brink of killing this deal, and then you have this bigger, better deal that is being presented—in a vacuum, that—you know, diplomacy is a good thing. Diplomacy is always a good thing. Diplomacy is much better than the other options.

But if the United States is not actually upholding the current deal, if we are not in compliance, if we have not maintained this trust that if you do a deal with us we’re going to live up to it, why on Earth would Iran subject itself to new negotiations? Particularly if they’re new negotiations aimed at reopening a deal that took years to broker, that involved a very systematic give-and-take and sort of this perfectly balanced formula in terms of what the parties were giving up, why would Iran entertain—or why would anybody that was involved in the deal, frankly, entertain the notion of blowing that up, restarting that process with a United States that has proven that, based on the political whims of the country, it is willing to renege on agreements? So, I think that there’s a little bit of wishful thinking going on right now.

All that is to say, you know, when the Iranians struck this deal, when the Iranian foreign minister talked about this, even when Obama, at the time, when he talked about this, this was viewed as potentially the beginning of more negotiations. There are many more issues to be resolved between Iran and the U.S., between the parties in the region. You see a proxy war in the region going on between the Saudis and the Iranians. So there’s a lot to discuss. There’s a lot of diplomacy to be had. But this nuclear deal was supposed to be the foundation, and we are now seeing that foundation severely eroded. And so, the first step would need to be to actually start adhering to the deal.

AMY GOODMAN: Jamal, I want to turn to John Bolton, President Trump’s new national security adviser, speaking last year in Paris to members of the Iranian exile group MEK.

JOHN BOLTON: The declared policy of the United States of America should be the overthrow of the mullah’s regime in Tehran. The behavior and the objectives of the regime are not going to change, and therefore the only solution is to change the regime itself. And that’s—and that’s why, before 2019, we here will celebrate in Tehran. Thank you very much.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that was John Bolton last year. Jamal Abdi, your response?

JAMAL ABDI: Well, John Bolton was delivering a speech to this organization that has been described by the State Department, by Human Rights Watch, by Rand, as a cult-like organization that has engaged in terrorism. And Bolton actually was taking speaking fees to speak for this group, when they were considered by the United States government to be a foreign terrorist organization.

This MEK, I think, it’s extremely dangerous. I mean, they now have access to the White House. This is an organization that has abused its members, that has had operations inside of Iraq to try to go into Iran to wage these violent campaigns. And if this is the party that the Trump administration is investing in, as sort of their Iraqi National Congress, their Ahmed Chalabis, as was the case in the lead-up to the Iraq War, you know, I don’t think this is going to resonate at all with anybody inside of Iran. The MEK is a reviled group. They fought alongside Saddam Hussein.

And so, you know, I think that it’s very scary that John Bolton is now in the White House and he’s aligned with these people. And I think it’s very scary what they may be willing to do in order to frustrate U.S. interests with Iran, and potentially try to take the United States into a war of violent regime change against Iran. Frankly, it’s terrifying.

AMY GOODMAN: Very quickly, today the Supreme Court is taking up the issue of the third travel ban of President Trump, known as the Muslim ban. Among the countries that are—whose citizens are forbidden to come here is Iran. Your thoughts on the significance of this?

JAMAL ABDI: Well, it is interesting, you know, I mean, if you look at in the context of the nuclear deal, that, two years later, Iran thought they were going to be integrated in the global economy and that diplomacy was going to yield all these benefits. And now we’re on the verge of this deal collapsing. Iran is not getting sanctions relief. And then, ordinary Iranians, who have no connection to the Iranian government or any of these issues, are now banned from coming to the United States.

So, I am hopeful that the Supreme Court will strike this ban down, will find that this is a ban that was—really, it was a matter of taking the political rhetoric that Donald Trump engaged with on the campaign trail, that was, you know, anti-Muslim and full of hate, and trying to apply a policy that fit into that rhetoric. And that, you know, violates the Constitution and should be struck down.

That being said, the administration has many tools to enforce these bans. And we already are seeing this administrative Muslim ban unfold outside of the parameters of the Muslim ban. So, even if the Supreme Court does strike this ban down, there’s going to need to be a lot more that is done, particularly from Congress, to try to rein in this administration and get some accountability about how it is implementing these policies, that even when the ban was temporarily suspended by certain court orders, the administration was still able to block people from coming to this country from Muslim-majority countries, because of all these administrative tools that are operating in a black box that Congress has failed to hold accountable. So, you know, whether it’s this Congress or, hopefully, the next Congress, the real sort of death knell of this ban is going to have to take place when the political will is summoned in Washington to actually dismantle that ban. But the Supreme Court would be a good start.

AMY GOODMAN: Jamal Abdi, I want to thank you for being with us, vice president for policy at the National Iranian American Council.

Coming up, we’ll speak with a woman in Texas who had a miscarriage and was forced to choose whether she’d let the hospital bury the remains in a shared grave, or arrange for a “private burial.” We’ll look at this case and how Vice President Mike Pence pushed similar laws in his home state of Indiana. Stay with us.

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