A Conversation with Thomas R. Pickering, US Ambassador to the United Nations (1989-1992)
By Anna Blue
With the amount of news coming out of Washington this month – from drama surrounding Donald Trump’s decision to officially recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel to the allegations still swirling around Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore – it is not very surprising that little has been heard about the status of the Iran nuclear deal. Considering the White House in October announced that the President would choose not to certify Iranian compliance with the 2015 accord, it is still an important topic with far-reaching foreign policy implications. The United States is already almost two months into the non-binding 60-day period allowed Congress to debate whether to re-impose sanctions on Iran, and there are varying reports about what is taking place behind closed doors to determine the fate of the agreement. The Iranian Foreign Minister stated in September that he ultimately expects the United States to ditch the deal, while officials in Europe feel assured that Congress will find a solution to keep the United States in line with the deal.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson seemed certain when he announced on September 16 that the United States would “stay in the deal,” a smart move given that breaking from the international agreement would damage the US reputation in the world, American credibility in future negotiations, and the dollar’s standing as the number one reserve currency. Yet, there is also some semblance of bipartisan support for reviewing and readjusting the Iran nuclear deal, evidenced by the talks between Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) and Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD), that may indicate differently.
The lobbying for and against one of the most important products of international diplomacy in the 21st century is further complicated by recent current events in the Middle East, including the resignation of the Lebanese Prime Minister, the intensity of the civil war in Yemen, and the increased accusations by Saudi Arabia against Iran. In a recent conversation with Thomas Pickering, former US Ambassador to the United Nations, he shared how Washington’s verdict could affect the deal and how ongoing turmoil in American foreign policy will decide the verdict.
AB: Ambassador Pickering, would you mind describing what you think has taken place (either behind doors or in public) since President Trump announced he would decertify Iran’s compliance with the deal?
TP: I think two or three things. One, Congress has said that they will consider [imposing sanctions]. The bill that Senator Cotton and Senator Corker are working on will introduce the idea of certain trigger points, which would then set off a series of steps that would end the sanctions waiver on Iran. A lot of people have been discussing this with members of Congress and I know that a lot of Europeans have either sent foreign ministers or other senior officials to come and talk to the Congress about the inadvisability of doing anything that would breach the agreement. Senator Corker has said publicly that he doesn’t want to take any action to breach the agreement.
AB: What are the options for the continuation of the Iran nuclear deal now? What would be the consequences of those actions?
TP: If the President does not waive sanctions or Congress prohibits the waiver of sanctions, then one result would be that Iran would go back to its nuclear program and seek to get a nuclear weapon. The alternative would be that the other parties to the agreement would continue to keep the agreement with Iran and Iran would continue to obey it, but the US would be isolated as a result. The US would be unlikely to get an agreement with the international community on additional sanctions to try to achieve a deal which the President has said he wants to get.
AB: How likely do you think it is that Iran would shred the deal if the United States pulled out, as Iranian leaders have threatened to do?
TP: I’m not sure that any of us really know. I think, in part, the statement by the [Iranian] Foreign Minister was to paint the bleakest picture of the results of scrapping the deal, which is very much in his interest to do because I think the Iranians want to keep the deal and they have been keeping the deal.
AB: I see that John Kerry has recently played a role in meeting with European stakeholders to discuss the opportunities surrounding the future of the Deal. Another key player in the negotiations for the continuation of the deal is the Iran Project, which you have long been a part of. Would you describe the advocacy work of the Project?
TP: We have focused very much on the Congress and we are in touch with many members of Congress. Our principle point is that a breach by the United States would not be in our national security interests.
AB: What role do you think the recent and historical antagonism between Saudi Arabia and Iran, especially with the recent Lebanese PM’s resignation, will play?
TP: I think it will further enhance the pressure on the President and the United States to walk away from the deal. The President might, and this is an optimistic view, consider his failure to certify sufficient to meet that need, but I think that is a longshot. Any move to breach the agreement would, in my view, pose a serious security threat to Saudi Arabia in the long-run who clearly don’t want, as their confrontation with Iran is building, a nuclear Iran to contend with, even with the United States on its side.
AB: Do the messages that President Trump sent on his trip through Asia impact the Deal? If so, how?
TP: I think that the US failure to keep the agreement without any plausible explanation would make it harder to get an agreement with the North Koreans, especially one that the North Koreans might trust would be binding on the United States for a long time…we’ve seen two sets of messages [on the trip]: one clearly pushing very hard and another talking about the potential for a meeting between the President and the leader of North Korea.
AB: What news do you expect us to see in regard to the deal in the coming month?
TP: I think there are some signs that it is going in the direction in which the President and the Congress will not do anything to upset the deal. I think there is a good chance that the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defense will stand firmly against pushing the deal aside and perhaps move the process towards the direction of building on the deal… even though we are more than halfway to the expiry of the Congress’ 60-day period, it is still difficult to calculate the outcome. It is much of a roller coaster like many things in this administration.
Ambassador Thomas Pickering served more than four decades as a US diplomat. He last served as Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs in the Clinton Administration. Pickering also served as Ambassador to the United Nations, the Russian Federation, India, Israel, El Salvador, Nigeria, and Jordan, and currently holds the rank of Career Ambassador.
Anna Blue is the US Foreign Policy Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP). She earned her BA in International Relations from Stanford University.