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Iran Debate Intensifies


President Trump says he's not seeking a fight with Iran. Yet a strike force group has been ordered into the Persian Gulf. And non-emergency embassy staff in neighboring Iraq have been told to leave. U.S. intelligence says they have evidence Iran is mobilizing its forces. Congress complains they haven't been able to see that intelligence. Susan Rice served as President Obama's national security adviser. Before that, she was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Ms. Rice, thanks so much for being with us.

SUSAN RICE: It's good to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: The president called the war in Iraq the most stupid mistake in U.S. history. He campaigned as a non-interventionist. The New York Times says he told his aides this week, specifically the hawkish ones, he doesn't want a conflict with Iran. Do you think there's some confusion about U.S. policy?

RICE: Within the administration?

SIMON: Within and I guess to the world, too.

RICE: Certainly to the world and arguably within the administration. I mean, this is an entirely strange process. If the president of the United States does not want to risk a war with Iran, then he needs to get a grip on his national security team. John Bolton, my successor as national security adviser, and Secretary Pompeo seem to be driving the train hard and fast towards a potential conflict. It's worrying. And so I hope President Trump will exercise some leadership over his team if that's in fact a war he wishes to avoid.

SIMON: But he's been pretty specific about saying he doesn't want intervention overseas and ridiculing the people who do, including sometimes Mr. Bolton. He says, I'm the one who has to hold him back.

RICE: But President Trump is the commander in chief. He cannot be completely oblivious to a decision to go down to essential personnel in our embassies and consulates in Iraq. These are very consequential decisions. And if in fact he is worried about the direction that things are headed, then he needs, as he typically does, to step in and change course.

SIMON: What effect do you think the ratcheting up the sanctions against Iran is having, especially on the Iranian people?

RICE: Well, it's clearly having a very significant impact on the Iranian economy and therefore on the Iranian people. But it's not leading us any closer to accomplishing our core objectives. The Iran nuclear deal had successfully cut off every one of Iran's pathways to a nuclear weapon, verifiably so. And now that the deal is crumbling under the weight of our withdrawal and the ratcheting up of sanctions, we don't have the ability to be confident that those restraints will remain in place. Meanwhile, the other concerns we've had across many administrations with respect to Iran's behavior - its support for terrorism, its missile programs, its human rights abuses - are no closer to being resolved under President Trump's approach. Arguably, we've strengthened the hard-liners.

SIMON: How would you put a diplomatic solution into place if there is one?

RICE: It's quite difficult at this point. I mean, first of all, if we want to have a diplomatic solution, we have to adhere to the diplomatic solutions that we ourselves have negotiated and ratified. And by that, I mean returning to the Iran deal. You can't - if you're the Iranians - seriously contemplate a negotiation with this administration without some assurance that it will adhere to the commitments it makes. So I think what we need to do is begin by lowering the temperature, recognizing that we have long had concerns about, you know, Iranian-backed militia in Iraq and the potential for an incident in the Strait of Hormuz. These are things we've lived with for decades, and we know how to manage. There are ways to de-escalate that are quite obvious, and then we can talk about returning to the diplomatic path.

SIMON: Susan Rice, U.S. national security adviser under the Obama administration, thanks very much for being with us.

RICE: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.