Sam Nunn Discusses US Withdrawal from the Iran Deal on Bloomberg TV

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MR. DAVID WESTIN, Co-Anchor, Bloomberg Daybreak Americas: We welcome now from Atlanta former Senator Sam Nunn of Georgia who is now co-chair of the Nuclear Threat Initiative.  Senator, thank you so much for joining us.  Great to have you with us, sir.

NUNN:  Good to be with you.

WESTIN: So you and Senator Lugar, who have something of a reputation in dealing with nuclear issues, have written a piece in The Washington Post.  I want to quote from it. In part what you said was: "A successful summit, if it can be achieved, will be only the start of a long and complicated process.  Eliminating a nuclear threat and achieving stability and security on the Korean peninsula would require unconventional thinking and steps that are much broader than denuclearization.  Just as we should prepare for the summit to go wrong, we should also prepare for it to go right."  Fascinating point, we focus on what happens if it goes wrong.  You're saying actually if it goes right that could be just the start of it.

NUNN:  That's right.  Getting rid of nuclear weapons, and North Korea already has nuclear weapons, that's the distinction between Iran -- Iran has got a nuclear program, but not nuclear weapons -- North Korea has nuclear weapons, nuclear materials, chemical weapons and probably biological weapons as well as a very formidable conventional arsenal.  So this is not just denuclearization that has to take place.  If we want stability on the Korean peninsula, it's demilitarization.  And that's going to take time.  The big obstacle will be the North Korean demands for economic relief and the United States demands for immediate disarmament. We’ve got to find a way to parallel those two things.

And I think it can be done.  Senator Lugar and I pointed out that it was done after the breakup of the Soviet Union with three countries: Kazakhstan, Belarus and Ukraine getting rid of all of their nuclear weapons and most of their nuclear material.  So it can be done, it's going to take time and patience.  And what we've got to do is avoid either walking away in despair if we don't get an immediate solution to every problem or predetermining that we're going to have victory and spiking the ball or basically “high-fiving” on the 50-yard line.  It's going to take time.

WESTIN:  Well, going back to those early '90s when you and Senator Lugar really were working on this hard, in some ways it sounds like the North Korea situation is even more expansive and more complicated because after all, we didn't have troops on the border with Kazakhstan at the time.  We didn't have troops that we have in South Korea.  We didn't go in and really save their economy.  Are you suggesting that really we should go in with an agenda that includes helping them economically as well as, as you say it, demilitarization not just denuclearization?

NUNN:  Yes, I think it's going to have to be [carrots] as well as sticks.  And we've had sticks as successful sanctions.  We've got to stick with our allies and our friends like China and South Korea and Japan on that.  We've got to continue to be tough on the sanctions, but we've also got to understand that the North Koreans are going to want economic relief.  Now, the South Koreans are playing a very skillful role here and that's one of the great distinctions between previous overtures of peace from North Korea and now.  And in the past, North Korea has tried to isolate South Korea.  Now South Korea in effect has led the way.  This is very encouraging.

WESTIN:  Are you surprised at how much progress has been made so quickly, at least getting to this summit.  And how hopeful are you going forward?  I mean, is this gold or is this fool's gold?

NUNN:  I think it could be either.  And I think we've got to understand it could be either, and we've got to be prepared for either.  Sticking close to our allies South Korea and Japan is absolutely essential.  Also, I would say our colleagues from China and Russia have to play a role.  So this is going to be a multilateral effort.  It's going to take time.  You don't just get rid of nuclear weapons and nuclear materials by picking them up on an airplane and dumping them into the ocean.  It takes a lot of care to handle them safely to make sure they don't get in the wrong hands.  And particularly, as we go through this, we've got to make darn sure there's not any export of nuclear material that could be used by a terrorist group that does not have a return address and cannot be deterred.  So all of those are factors, but we at least are talking in a very serious way and I think that's a big plus.

MS. ALIX STEEL, Co-Anchor, Bloomberg Daybreak Americas:  Well, Senator, what I find interesting is the different ways the U.S. appears to be going about North Korea and Iran, for example.  I feel like it's the carrot now with North Korea and the stick to Iran.  Do you get a sense of how serious and strict the U.S. will be in enforcing the sanctions that are being re-upped?

NUNN:  Well, it's hard to tell.  If you're talking about Iran now, then I'm not encouraged on that front.  I think that we have inadvertently and unintentionally thrown a boomerang at the Iranians and it's coming back to haunt us because the nuclear agreement with Iran was designed for one purpose, that is to stop their nuclear weapons program.  It has done that.  It has not stopped their missile development.  It was not intended to.  It has not stopped their bad behavior.  It was not designed for that.  And we could have never put together a coalition to squeeze the Iranians economically had we had those goals.  

So right now I'm afraid we are basically taking our eye off -- we being the group of countries that put this together with Iran, it was not a U.S. bilateral agreement with Iran, it was multilateral --  and we have seemed to have forgotten that.  And right now we're going to be focusing more on economic disputes with our allies about secondary sanctions than we are on stopping the other behavior of Iran that is so dangerous to the region and to the world.  So I am concerned that we're heading in the wrong direction.  I hope we can pull it back together.  It's going to take a lot of dialogue with our European allies and our other allies who helped negotiate the deal, including Russia and including China.

STEEL:  Yeah, I'm already seeing some of that.  Some French companies have already been asking for a waiver.  We see Angela Merkel is going to be meeting with leaders in Brussels next week to discuss the sanctions.  What's the bigger risk -- the rift between the U.S. and Europe or an Iran that pulls back from the deal because their economy starts to hurt?

NUNN:  I think those two go together.  The Europeans have declared they're going to try to keep the agreement.  Keeping the agreement, and Russia has said the same thing, means doing business with Iran, because that was the quid for the quo.  And right now doing business with Iran would run into the United States secondary sanctions, which would affect European investment in European countries -- telling the Europeans that in effect if you trade with Iran you can't trade with the United States.  That is a very, very serious strategic error.  And I think it is going to do more damage to the alliance unless it's turned around than anything we've seen in many years.

WESTIN:  Senator, how do you assess the risk that Iran will really reactivate their nuclear program and move forward with some speed?  I mean, President Trump has said they should not do that.  He's warned them there would be severe consequences.  At the same time, if they stay in a deal with Europe, maybe that could constraint them.  So do you think there is a likelihood they will really ramp up their nuclear program now?

NUNN:  Well, I hope they stay in the deal with the Europeans, but we've got to show some skillful diplomacy and economic reality on that.  But I think Jim Mattis said it pretty well when he testified before the Armed Services Committee, our Secretary of Defense.  If you basically -- I'm paraphrasing it, he didn't say this about Iran -- but if you basically throw diplomacy out the door, which we've done by withdrawing from this agreement, you better buy more ammunition for the Secretary of Defense.  We don't need another war in the Middle East.  And right now I hope we can avoid one.  I don't think it's going to be anything immediate, but the Iranians have gotten rid of an awful lot of their nuclear material, it wasn’t weapon-grade, but it could have been converted to weapon-grade.  But they could start back their program, and I hope they will not.

WESTIN:  Okay.  Former Senator Sam Nunn now with the Nuclear Threat Initiative.  Thank you, Senator, so much for being with us today.

NUNN:  Thank you.


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May 11, 2018

Nunn spoke with Bloomberg's David Westin and Alix Steel about the repercussions of the US' withdrawal from the Iran deal.

Sam Nunn
Sam Nunn

Founder and Co-Chair