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Iran Expert Norman Roule Discusses Trump's Decision To Leave Nuclear Deal


More now on our top story today - President Trump's move to exit the Iran nuclear deal. It amounts to arguably the most consequential national security decision of Trump's presidency thus far. And here to help us parse what it might mean for Iran is a man who spent his career tracking Iran for the CIA. Norman Roule was mission manager for the director of National Intelligence, the point guy on Iran until his retirement this past October. He is here in the studio with me now. Norman Roule, welcome back.

NORMAN ROULE: Thank you for having me. It's a pleasure to be here.

KELLY: So what does Iran stand to lose from the move announced today, from a U.S. exit from the nuclear deal?

ROULE: This is a very dangerous and difficult time for Iran. Their economy has been stalling. And indeed one of the great successes of the nuclear deal is that by lifting sanctions, which the Iranians had claimed were the reasons that Iran was enduring economic problems, the Iranian people saw that that wasn't the case. And indeed it was just the mismanagement of their own government. So at this point, with new sanctions coming on Iran again, this will just put additional pressures on their economy. It will threaten their political stability at a very important time.

The supreme leader is considering succession, and what he needs is a stable political environment. I think there will be some other impacts. They will have to make difficult choices in the inside to include on how they fund their external activities. So I think you may see conversations inside in that regard.

KELLY: What is the risk that this may embolden hard-liners in Iran?

ROULE: Well, certainly hard-liners in Iran will say, see, we told you, you can't trust the Americans. The countervailing point to that in fairness is that the hard-liners haven't exactly been awfully compliant or willing to engage the West in recent years. Iran...

KELLY: You're saying they were plenty bold already.

ROULE: They were plenty bold already, and indeed they're in malign activity in the region. They're a threat to not just the citizens of Israel and Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, the thousands of Americans and other foreign nationals of those countries, detained Americans - it's off the charts in every other area. Nonetheless, I do firmly believe that hard-liners will be very unlikely to seriously engage the United States in the near term because they will say you can't trust America.

KELLY: Go to the central issue, the core of this, which is Iran's nuclear program. Does a U.S. exit from the deal free Tehran to restart its currently mothballed nuclear program?

ROULE: Not necessarily. Were I...

KELLY: Why not?

ROULE: ...The Iranians, I would play the victim after announcing a period of defiance and looking for ways by which I can show my own strength. I would attempt to keep the Europeans, the Russians and the Chinese on board. So I wouldn't want to do too much that caused these potential economic and financial players to leave my side.

KELLY: The White House says the goal now is to cut a better deal. Will Iran cut a better deal? I mean, do you see them being willing to walk back and sit down again at the negotiating table?

ROULE: Certainly not at this point. Iran will need to see multilateral economic pressure, political isolation. They will need to see how the region will respond. They'll need to get a sense of what the U.S. military commitment to the region will be. And effectively, what the president has done is he's rearranged all the pieces on the game board. And it's going to take quite a while for everyone involved to see what this actually means to include the Iranians.

KELLY: Help me just understand how Iran sees this - and understanding that there are many and complicated political players and factions in Iran, as in any country. But Iran's president, Rouhani, is playing this down, suggesting not much will change. Iran could stay in the deal. We'll weather this.

ROULE: He fibs. This is a significant problem for Iran. And in fact, one could see the impact of this beginning or accelerating the existing erosion within the regime that could lead to the end of the Islamic Republic. The revolution has been dying for many years, and further economic pressures are just going to make the lives of Iran's leadership much more difficult.

KELLY: What might the impact of today's decision by the White House be for ordinary Iranians just trying to live their lives?

ROULE: The average Iranian is eating less meat. He is less frequently employed. His children have a much darker future, and this will just compound to that.

KELLY: It sounds as though bottom line - and understanding you're an intelligence officer, not...

ROULE: Former.

KELLY: Former intelligence officer, not a policymaker. But if I'm hearing you right, you see more risks than potential opportunities with today's development.

ROULE: No. I would say that it remains unclear as to what's going to happen in coming days because much depends on the speed, scope and scale of these sanctions, what the Iranians decide to do and how Europe decides to cooperate. But this definitely will make it more likely that confrontation will appear between the United States and Iran, just as it may make it more likely that the regime itself will continue to erode. What I don't believe it will mean is in the near term - in the very near term - the Iranians will march towards a nuclear weapon because that would just bring the entire world against them.

KELLY: Norman Roule, thank you.

ROULE: My pleasure.

KELLY: He is a 34-year veteran of the CIA. He retired last year as the DNI's mission manager for Iran. Norman Roule is one of many voices we're hearing today weighing in on President Trump's decision to leave the nuclear deal. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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