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What Would A Nuclear Deal With Iran Really Mean?


Now let's follow up on our talk with President Obama on his deal with Iran. The agreement is designed to limit Iran's nuclear activity for a decade, with some provisions lasting much longer. There is hope this agreement could spur greater change inside Iran as well as outside Iran across an exceedingly volatile region. The president spoke cautiously about the possibilities in an interview with NPR News this week.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: It is possible that if we sign this nuclear deal, we strengthen the hand of those more moderate forces inside of Iran. But the key point I want to make is the deal is not dependent on anticipating those changes. If they don't change at all, we're still better off having the deal.

INSKEEP: Let's dig a little more deeply into this with William Burns. He served as a top diplomat to Republican and Democratic presidents, including President Bush and President Obama, and led an early round of negotiations with Iran. He's now the president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and he is arguing the U.S. needs a lot more than just a nuclear deal.

WILLIAM BURNS: You have to embed the approach to the nuclear issue and our very strong interest in a solid negotiated agreement in a wider strategy in the region that assumes that at least for some time, we're going to face, you know, threatening Iranian actions from Syria to Yemen and face also I think a very important priority in reassuring our friends and allies in the region who do have legitimate concerns about Iranian behavior which threatens their interest and threatens our interest.

INSKEEP: Well, you just hit on some of the implications here because you were talking about other nations in the region. Do you detect any desire within Iran to pursue different policies there?

BURNS: Right now, I think the evidence that we see in front of us runs in the other direction. In other words, it's, you know, actions on the part of Iran which have tended to help destabilize situations which are already very, very fragile. And so I think we have to be clear-eyed about that. I think it's possible over time that you could see this having a constructive impact on Iranian behavior in the region. But as I said before, I don't think you can assume that as a starting point for a clear-eyed policy.

INSKEEP: Could you imagine a circumstance where an Iranian diplomat, who may well be a professional, may well be someone who thinks of the world not so differently than you think of it, could sit there and say, well, now that there's a nuclear deal in place, Iran's interests are different? Our interests have changed, and we will want to change some of our behaviors in the region.

BURNS: That could happen over time. Certainly the Iranian diplomats with whom I've dealt over recent years are tough-minded but very skillful professionals. I think internally in Iran, you certainly see a thirst, especially on the part of the younger generation of Iranians, for connections with the rest of the world to the global economy. And, you know, over time, I think that can have an impact, not just on, you know, the kind of freedoms that Iranians enjoy at home but Iran's interactions with the region.

But as I said, I don't assume that that's going to happen overnight and therefore in the short term, it's very important for us to reassure our friends and partners in the region. And in a way, I think, you know, that kind of a firm stance in the face of threatening Iranian actions is the best way to help increase the chances that over time, you see a different kind of Iranian behavior, different kind of Iranian choices in the region, much as the effort to build up economic and political pressure through sanctions helped bring the Iranians to reassess their strategy on the nuclear issue.

INSKEEP: This deal is projected to last 10 or 15 years, some of the provisions considerably longer. Let's presume for purposes of this question that the deal works, that Iran's nuclear program is contained for that period of time, that there are no big violations. What's the ideal scenario for what the Middle East looks like 10 or 15 years from now if that happens?

BURNS: I think a lot of the challenges that you see in the Middle East right now are truly going to be generational. You know, people have talked about a Thirty Years' War. And I think it's important to understand that a lot of these challenges are going to play out over a long period of time. But I do think that a strong comprehensive agreement on the Iranian nuclear issue, if it's executed and implemented rigorously, can make a contribution to a more stable region because if you had an Iranian nuclear program that was not subject to the kind of constraints and limitations that we're negotiating right now or if you had an Iran that, you know, had acquired a nuclear weapon, then all the dangers and risks that we were talking about before would be multiplied exponentially.

INSKEEP: What do you mean by a Thirty Years' War?

BURNS: I mean, a lot of the challenges that people and leaderships are wrestling with in the region right now I think are going to take a generation to sort through. You know, challenges of how you organize your political systems, what kind of economic opportunities are created, what opportunities there are for political participation. How do you try to develop a respect for pluralism and tolerance of diversity? How do you address the fact that, you know, you have a state system that a century ago was built up in the Middle East, that in a number of very important respects is crumbling right now? It's just going to take time to sort through those kind of issues. And I do think the United States can make a positive contribution to that. But I think we have to understand that this is a very long-term challenge.

INSKEEP: William Burns, thanks very much.

BURNS: It's my pleasure, Steve. Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: He's a former U.S. diplomat and now president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.