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Politics & Government

Week In Politics: Iran Nuclear Deal And Presidential Campaigns

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The Iran deal dominated the week in politics, starting with President Obama's announcement Tuesday morning.

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BARACK OBAMA: Today, after two years of negotiations, the United States, together with our international partners, has achieved something that decades of animosity has not - a comprehensive, long-term deal with Iran that will prevent it from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

SIEGEL: House Speaker John Boehner said to get that deal, the administration had conceded Iran's right to enrich uranium. It had loosened its position to keep sanctions in place until Iranian compliance could be verified. Boehner claimed the administration had abandoned its own goals.

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JOHN BOEHNER: And that's why the deal that we have out there, in my view, from what I know of it thus far, is unacceptable.

SIEGEL: So an affirmation of good, tough diplomacy, or a weak agreement reflecting too strong a desire to make a deal? That's the first question for our Friday political commentators, columnists E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution, who joins me here in the studio. Hi, E.J.

E.J. DIONNE, BYLINE: Good to be with you.

SIEGEL: And David Brooks of The New York Times, who's at member station KERA in Dallas today. Hiya.

DAVID BROOKS, BYLINE: Good to be with you.

SIEGEL: David, we're going to start with you - a deal worth walking away from, or worth signing on to?

BROOKS: Well, we certainly signed from a position of weakness. Over the last couple years, the president has said there'd be no - strongly implied there'd be no military option, which he's probably right about. But he's also implied that we had no choice because the sanctions couldn't be held together and that not having a deal was worse than anything. So that was a pretty weak negotiating position, which the Iranians did exploit. It may push Iranians - Iran's capability to have a nuclear weapon back some number of years, but in return, Iran will have $150 billion in trade revenue which they can fund - which they can send to terrorist armies around the country, which they're already supporting. We're accepting their nuclear enrichment program. We don't have anytime, anywhere inspections. We're lifting the conventional weapons bans. It strikes me as indisputable that the administration crossed a lot of red lines that they swore they wouldn't cross in order to get this deal, so I guess I'm a little dubious.

SIEGEL: The energy secretary, Moniz, said on this program that 24 days amounts to any time in the circumstances. Some would dispute that. E.J., is it a good deal, and are there enough Democrats supporting it to sustain a presidential veto?

DIONNE: Yeah, I think it is a good deal and - on balance - and that it will certainly, I think, get enough Democratic votes in the House to sustain the president's veto of the bill to kill it. I would be very surprised if it doesn't. I thought The Economist magazine, which is no left-wing or pacifist organ, had it exactly right. They wrote that a country of Iran's size and sophistication will get a bomb if they really want one, and nothing can change that, but this pact offers the chance of holding Iran back and shifting its course, and the world should embrace it cautiously. And by cautiously, they mean that, yes, we will continue to have to contain Iran. It doesn't mean that we're suddenly going to have wonderful relations with them. I think the problem then is, for opponents, to come up with what would be better than this imperfect deal. You know, they've talked about war, and now they bristle when you say war. Tom Cotton talked about a credible threat of force was the alternative. What does that mean? Don't we have that now? I am struck by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates who said a military strike on Iran could prove catastrophic and haunt us for a generation. I think Gates is right, and that's why unbalances is a good deal.

SIEGEL: Let's hear from David. What do you think about the idea of the alternative to this deal?

BROOKS: Well, you hear the managed decline in E.J.'s answer - nothing we can do to change it, we have no alternative. That's not exactly negotiating from strength. I do think we had an alternative. We could continue the sanctions regime. And it seems to be completely unproven that the sanctions were bound to fall apart. It was not long ago that President Bush and President Clinton increased the sanctions. And if the Obama administration doesn't have people who can figure out how to increase sanctions and tighten the grip on Iran, then maybe they can hire some of the old administration officials for it for them.

DIONNE: Actually, that is deeply unfair, I think, to President Obama. They toughened the sanctions. The reason why Iran came to the table is they were able to get our allies to put much, much tougher restrictions on Iran, which is why Iran came to the table. I listened to...

BROOKS: Well...

SIEGEL: David - let's hear David answer.

BROOKS: If I could finish - you know, well, so there's a sign that sanctions can be toughened, and that would be my alternative. If sanctions can be toughened, as the Obama administration did, and if they produced the results that E.J. suggests they did, which I think they did, then I would continue the sanctions.

SIEGEL: Let's think ahead. I want to think ahead to 2016 for a moment here. This week, one of the announced Republican presidential candidates joined me here on the program, and Lindsey Graham had this to say.

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LINDSEY GRAHAM: If I'm president of the United States, we're going to reimpose sanctions until they change their behavior. And I'll tell every French and German company, if you do business with Iran, you're going to lose the ability to do business in America.

SIEGEL: And he would reintroduce the threat of military force against Iran. There are a lot of Republican candidates out there. Nobody seems to like this deal from what I've heard. Is this a plausible issue in the 2016 race - that Democrats stand for what they see as weak diplomacy or that Republicans, in Hilary Clinton's view, might be trigger-happy? E.J., what do you think?

DIONNE: I think, first of all, reimposing sanctions, given where our allies are - maybe Lindsey Graham could get them there with that with what he said he'd threaten. I don't think so. But I think that the public opinion on this is somewhat ambivalent. On the one hand, you see rather strong support for the idea of a deal because most Americans don't want to go with Iran - don't want to go war with Iran. And yet, they're not all that trusting of whether a deal would work. I don't think this is a great issue for the Republicans outside their base, simply because if tougher sanctions are not a plausible answer, which I don't think they are, and military force is then the only answer, the Americans don't want to go to war again in the Middle East, and a war itself wouldn't accomplish as much as this deal.

SIEGEL: David Brooks?

BROOKS: I think it could be. It depends what Iran does. Even people who support the deal concede that in the short-term, it could be a problem. The supporters - these supporters say, listen, it does push back the nuclear option for Iran X number of years, whether it's eight to 20. But in the short-term, Iran will be a richer country. It will be a more powerful country, and it could fund Hezbollah or many other terror organizations. The Saudis are clearly upset about this. The Israelis are clearly upset about this. So in the short term, we could see a ratcheting up of violence in Syria or other places. And if something really terrible happens over the next year or two, then it will be linked to this deal. And in that circumstance, it could become an election issue. Other than that, I sort of...

SIEGEL: OK, I want to save some time for one other question - so much for Iran. Huffington Post today announced that it's no longer going to write about Donald Trump in its political coverage. It's going to consign him to the entertainment section. It says if you're interested in what the Donald has to say, you'll find it next to our stories on the Kardashians and "The Bachelorette." This is the man who's polling on top in a Fox poll, David. He's the number-one Republican candidate for president. Should he be taken seriously?

BROOKS: No, but if you put him next to Kardashians, it vastly increases his readership because that's what people are actually reading about. You know, he is - he's a joke. He's embarrassing for the Republican Party. The only good thing that's come out of this is that at least some Republicans like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio have had the courage to define themselves against him and stand up for them. Others, like Ted Cruz, frankly, have disgracefully sort of sidled alongside. And so, at least some Republicans are standing up to a guy who, fundamentally, is a joke.

DIONNE: He's a joke who could get a lot of votes. And since we're talking about an outer space candidacy, I just want to want to salute NASA and all cool stuff we're learning about Pluto.

SIEGEL: Congratulations on working that into these conversations.

DIONNE: I had to try (laughter).

SIEGEL: E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post, David Brooks of the New York Times in Dallas today, thanks for talking with us.

DIONNE: Thank you.

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