How a President Rubio Would Undo the Iran Deal

The Republican senator is “not sure” Congress can kill the agreement, which he dismisses as a “piece of paper” that Tehran will disregard and exploit.

Carlos Barria / Reuters

In the course of a long telephone conversation last week, I learned a couple of important things from Senator Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican running for president (one of the Florida Republicans running for president, I should say). Rubio, who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is, with Lindsey Graham, the most fluent of the 3,000 or so candidates for the Republican nomination on matters concerning international affairs and national-security policy, and our conversation gave me a good sense of how the Iran issue would be managed with a Republican—or at least the particular Republican I had on the phone—in the White House.

The full transcript of our discussion can be found below, but I would highlight a number of points. The first is that Rubio made it clear he believes that Barack Obama will have his way on Iran: that Congress will not be able to muster a sufficient number of votes to override the president’s veto of an initial, Republican-led rejection of the Iran nuclear deal—a deal Rubio describes caustically as a “piece of paper that is blocking the pathways” to an Iranian bomb.

“I think the majority of members of Congress are going to vote against it,” he told me. “I’m not sure we’re going to have 67 senators, which would have to include a significant number of Democrats, to reach a veto-proof majority.”

Rubio argued that an Obama victory now would not necessarily translate into what the White House, or the Iranians, would see as a permanent win. He was blunt about what he would do should he reach the White House: undo, in whatever way possible, the deal. He believes it is inevitable that Iran will be caught cheating on its obligations, and when it does, he would be ready to mete out punishment—including to companies that will presumably be rushing into the Iranian market once the deal is finalized.

“There are companies and banks around the world that might be considering making significant investments in Iran, and what they need to know is that if they make a significant investment in Iran and a future administration reimposes sanctions, or Iran violates the deal, or Iran conducts some outrageous act of terrorism around the world and [is] sanctioned for it, your investment could be lost,” Rubio told me. “If you go into Iran and build a pharmaceutical plant, and you invest all this money to build it, and then suddenly Iran does something, and now you’re subject to sanctions if you continue to do business with them, you’re going to lose that investment. And so I do think that it’s important for investors and others around the world who are looking to do more business with Iran to be very conscious about this, because they’re basically gambling that this regime is not violating the deal or doing something new that could impose sanctions.”

Rubio is worried, however, that the world is ready to let Iranian cheating slide by: “Unless you absolutely catch them in a Cuban missile crisis-style situation, with pictures, red-handed, the world’s not going to force it, because there’ll be too many vested interests economically in Europe and around the world arguing against it.” The job of the next president, he said, would be to ensure that the United States, at least, doesn’t allow Iran to reach the point at which it is “immune” to punishment, or even attack by the United States.

Here is our conversation, lightly edited for clarity:

Jeffrey Goldberg: Let me just go right to what is probably the most biting point you’ve made to Secretary of State Kerry: this idea that the Iran agreement might put the U.S. in the position of having to help Iran defend its nuclear facilities from cyberattack or other attacks from Israel. It seems like an outlandish notion.

Senator Marco Rubio: Well, I was just reading out of the text of the agreement, and I assure you that the Iranians interpret it the way that I alluded to, which is that if they come under cyberattack or any other effort to sabotage their program, then not just the U.S., but all the world powers, will have the obligation to assist them technically in defeating those measures. Now obviously Kerry and the administration would say that their reading of this is that we’re trying to protect them from some sort of terrorist group, for example.

I didn’t pose the question in an accusatory way, but I know that it is a part of the deal that Israeli government officials are very concerned about, and I know that the Iranian argument would be that “the U.S. and the other powers are committed now to helping us defeat any efforts to undermine” what the Iranians call their peaceful nuclear-enrichment program. The only country in the world, outside of the countries that signed this deal, that could potentially have the capability to try to sabotage the Iranian nuclear program would be the Israelis. So the point I was trying to get him to answer is this: Does this deal obligate us to help [the Iranians] defeat measures to sabotage their program? And obviously Kerry didn’t answer directly, he just said, “Well, the intention of that is to prevent a terrorist group from getting ahold of this material.”

Goldberg: I’m not imagining a situation where any U.S. administration would even try to get away with helping Iran against Israel in that regard.

Rubio: I think the bigger concern is that Iran would say, “We’re under cyberattack. We are demanding that you help us to defeat it or to stop it.” We would then say, “No, we’re not helping you, that’s not how we read the agreement,” and Iran would then say, “Well, then you have violated the deal, and therefore we can get out.” Now is that something they’d do in six months? No. Is that something they might do in six years, as a loophole they would try to exploit? I could see that in the future. They’re going to interpret every piece of this deal in the most flexible way possible for their long-term interest, and they’re going to try to exploit any loophole to their advantage. The Iranians went into this deal with a very clear mandate, given to them by the supreme leader: Get these sanctions lifted without agreeing to anything that is irreversible. Do not agree to anything that is irreversible. I think they achieved this.

Goldberg: Would a President Rubio ever have entered into a nuclear negotiation with Iran?

Rubio: I’m not against any negotiation. Let’s step back, though. These negotiations started after the world had, on numerous occasions, ruled that Iran did not have a right to enrich or reprocess [nuclear material], and that Iran had no legitimate need for an enrichment program given their energy surplus. The world also took the position that because of Iran’s investment in long-range ICBMs, which are only developed for the purpose of placing on them a nuclear warhead, that Iran already had secret elements to those programs. [The Iranians] maintained at least two different sites that had been hidden from the world, and it took years for perhaps the two leading intelligence agencies in the world—the U.S. and the Israelis—to discover [the sites]. So, once the administration said, “OK, we are willing to negotiate with you on the basis that there is an acknowledged right to enrich or reprocess,” that is the moment the negotiations went off-track. I thought that we could have pressed on with additional sanctions that, over time, would have forced these negotiations to a better starting point. But once you cave on that and say, “You’re now going to be allowed to enrich and reprocess and retain your nuclear infrastructure and, in fact, upgrade it to more modern methods,” I thought that was when the negotiations when off-track.

Goldberg: So this started with a cave, from your perspective?

Rubio: If Iran really wanted peaceful nuclear energy, they could have achieved it the way dozens of countries around the world do, and that is they could have imported the enriched material or the reprocessed plutonium and worked from there. The fact that they want to retain their own domestic enrichment capability, coupled with the secrecy around their program, coupled with their sponsorship of terrorism, coupled with their heavy and continuing investments in a long-range warhead-delivery system—all of that is the reason why Iran is different from South Korea, or Japan, or any other country in the world that wants a peaceful nuclear program.

Goldberg: Is there one feature of this deal that bothers you more than any other?

Rubio: I don’t know where to begin, other than to say that I think it is troublesome that Iran will retain a full-scale industrial-enrichment capability using the most modern technology available, albeit—according to the deal—under limited numbers for a time. The Obama administration keeps saying, “They can’t unlearn what they know.” But the truth is, the knowledge on how to enrich, the knowledge on how to build a weapon, this isn’t easy, but it’s easier than building the infrastructure for doing it. You might know technically how to enrich or reprocess, but you need the infrastructure to do it. You need the equipment, you need the centrifuges, you need the facilities. And the fact that [the Iranians] will be able to retain that full scope of abilities that could easily be ramped up in the future to do more is to me deeply troublesome, because they now have a legal right to maintain this infrastructure forever.

Goldberg: Do you disagree with the Obama administration’s assessment that they’ve blocked Iran’s core pathways to a bomb?

Rubio: I disagree, because I think what they have is a piece of paper that is blocking the pathways, and it is a piece of paper that Iran doesn’t feel necessarily binds them in the long-term. Once Iran has rebuilt or added to its conventional capabilities—meaning the ability to inflict conventional damage on U.S. forces in the region—and once companies based in Europe and around the world become heavily invested in the Iranian economy, the ability to go after Iran’s program is significantly diminished, because the price for doing so becomes exponentially high. You know, the price of positioning assets in the region exposes a U.S. aircraft carrier to being blown up. The price of attacking Iran would mean that tens of thousands of precision rockets would be launched against Israel by Hezbollah, not to mention terrorists around the world conducting asymmetrical attacks. Once Iran is able to raise the price of a military strike against them to an unacceptable level, they’re immune. At this point, they can move forward and concoct any excuse they want for needing a weapon.

Goldberg: Let me ask you about the international politics here. If this deal were to go down as you want it to go down in Congress, wouldn’t the Iranians say, “We can’t trust America, they’re out to get us, so we’re going to rush to the nuclear threshold”?

Rubio: I don’t disagree that the administration has put us in that position. You saw some of my colleagues say that we’ve gone from Iran being the pariah to the U.S. potentially being the pariah—

Goldberg: Right, or Israel, actually. John Kerry referred to this the other day, the pariah idea—

Rubio: Right, I don’t deny that they’ve put us in that position by what they’ve done.

Goldberg: OK, but we’re here.

Rubio: We are. But I think a new administration would have the opportunity to say to Iran, “Look, I understand the previous administration pursued this deal, but let me explain to you our system of government. They pursued it not as a treaty; they pursued it as a political agreement that called on the president of the United States to use a national-security waiver to lift U.S. sanctions. I don’t agree with that decision. I’m going to reimpose U.S. sanctions. In fact, I’m going to go back to Congress and ask them to increase them.”

And I would suspect that between now and the time that this decision happens, we will potentially have multiple opportunities to prove that Iran is already in violation of this deal.

Goldberg: It seems to me that you’re assuming that this deal is something of a fait accompli and that you’re thinking about the next phase—countering Iran. Do you think that this deal is probably going to go through?

Rubio: Well, I think the majority of members of Congress are going to vote against it. I’m not sure we’re going to have 67 senators, which would have to include a significant number of Democrats, to reach a veto-proof majority, but I do think it’s important at this stage to outline what could happen in the future. There are companies and banks around the world that might be considering making significant investments in Iran, and what they need to know is that if they make a significant investment in Iran and a future administration reimposes sanctions, or Iran violates the deal, or Iran conducts some outrageous act of terrorism around the world and [is] sanctioned for it, your investment could be lost. If you go into Iran and build a pharmaceutical plant, and you invest all this money to build it, and then suddenly Iran does something, and now you’re subject to sanctions if you continue to do business with them, you’re going to lose that investment. And so I do think that it’s important for investors and others around the world who are looking to do more business with Iran to be very conscious about this, because they’re basically gambling that this regime is not violating the deal or doing something new that could impose sanctions.

Goldberg: The Obama administration says it will enforce the deal. You don’t believe that?

Rubio: Well, the likeliest way it’s going to happen is there will be some facility somewhere in Iran that we have suspicions about, and the IAEA will go to Iran and say, “We want to see this facility.” And Iran will say, “This is outrageous. We’re not showing you anything.” And they’ll go through a 24-day process back and forth, and ultimately it won’t be a massive thing, it’ll be an incremental thing, and Iran will say to the world, “Are you going to blow up this entire arrangement and allow us to go off and do whatever we want over this small technical issue?” And there will be a series of small, incremental violations like that, that ultimately over time will wear down the enforcement mechanism. And unless you absolutely catch them in a Cuban missile crisis-style situation, with pictures, red-handed, the world’s not going to force it, because there’ll be too many vested interests economically in Europe and around the world arguing against it. So I don’t expect it’ll be a massive breakout. It’ll be an incremental erosion of the enforcement mechanism, to the point where it’ll be fruitless.

Goldberg: They’re too smart for a massive breakout—

Rubio: —Well, I just think in their mind, they figure, “We can game this thing for a while. We still haven’t developed a long-range rocket anyway. You know, we didn’t necessarily intend to have a bomb in the next 48 months anyway. So, let’s go ahead and incrementally wear on this thing while we aim for modern-day centrifuge capabilities, while we rebuild our economy, while we rebuild our conventional capability.”

Goldberg: In the reality that the P5 + 1 [group of world powers] has created for the world, wouldn’t it still be better at this point to have the deal than to have America walk away from the deal and have Iran free to do what it wants to do come September?

Rubio: Well, I would argue that it is not, because you’re about to see billions of dollars of assets held abroad returned. That money can’t be pulled back. Once [the Iranians] get it they’ll be able to do what they want with it. I mean, it isn’t going to be used to build hospitals and roads. I imagine they’ll spend some on domestic considerations, but if history is a guide, they’ll use the money to increase their reach in the region, and that means supporting [Syrian President] Assad, Hezbollah, the 14th of February movement in Bahrain, the Houthis in Yemen, you name it. There are Shia militias in Iraq they will support, and this is not to mention their long-range missile capabilities and their other asymmetrical conventional capabilities that they’ll work on. The view in the region is that Iran is a country bent on regional domination. They believe the ayatollah’s call to be a leader of all the Muslim world, not just Shia Muslims, and they have a view that Iran has a rightful place in the world as a dominant power. And so Sunni Arabs see all this as a direct threat, and they view Iran as being empowered now. They are now the power in the region that has been given global-power status.

Goldberg: Do you think that the Israelis in retrospect should have gone forward in 2010, 2012 with a preventative strike [against Iranian nuclear facilities]?

Rubio: What held the Israelis back for years has been the promise that we would never allow Iran to cross the line of immunity with the program—that the U.S. had a military capability capable of reaching the current program and setting it back by a couple years. Therefore Israel did not have to take action because we had a weapons system that went further than theirs, and therefore it extended the line of immunity further than what they thought it was. I think with this new dynamic, that changes the Israeli calculus as well.

None of these issues is easy, because obviously I think Israel has a right to act in its self-defense, which it did in the past when it struck facilities in Syria and in other places. It’s not clear exactly what would have happened as a result of that attack. I think that such an attack would have been successful. You would have seen an immediate response from the region. If the attack had not been successful, many of these other nations, including Sunni nations, would have had to condemn it, because the street would have demanded it, and it’s not clear what they could have achieved militarily.

Goldberg: Do you believe that there is a non-Israeli military solution to this problem? I mean, the United States obviously has great capability, but do you think that would, in the worst-case scenario, provide a solution to the problem?

Rubio: Well, it’s the last option, but it most certainly is one that needs to be on the table and that needs to be credible. People need to actually believe that it could happen, and part of it is capability and part of it is willingness. I’m not sure there was ever a time when the Iranians feared that Barack Obama would take military action against their facilities. You know, the administration will argue that the Iranians will come back [from a military attack] and rebuild their program in a way that’s even more fortified, but I can tell you that, for example, in 2003 the Iranians responded to the Iraq invasion by stopping their program, because they feared that they would be next. And so we have seen in the past that they have responded to what they believed was a credible threat. We can acknowledge that their pain threshold is pretty high. I mean, the Iraq-Iran War only ended when the number of casualties became so high that it undermined the Iranian regime’s grip on power. And so I’m not arguing that their pain threshold is not quite high. But I think having a credible threat, one they believe the U.S. would actually use, is something they would respond to. But I don’t think they believe this president was ever willing.

Goldberg: John Kerry has said that Israel would be blamed, and [it would] lead to further isolation for Israel, if this deal doesn’t go through Congress. Some Israelis read that like a threat, but you could also read that as a correct analysis of the situation.

Rubio: I read that as an administration that’s insensitive to the reality that Israel finds itself in, because even if you believe that to be true, there are consequences for the secretary of state saying that. If you honestly believe that, then you could share that with them in private channels directly and forcefully. But to acknowledge that publicly is a threat to Israel’s security, because it only further emboldens Israel’s enemies to believe that there’s some sort of daylight between the U.S. and Israel—that they can probably get away with more aggressive action against Israel.

Goldberg: I think it’s clear that President Obama considers ISIS a main threat to United States national-security interests in the Middle East. Do you agree—no matter what you think of Iran—do you agree that ISIS poses a more serious challenge to the United States and its allies in the Middle East?

Rubio: We live in a new world where you can’t really make a choice like that. I mean, they both pose a very serious threat, but they’re very different. Iran poses a more traditional geopolitical threat—a nation-state seeking to become the dominant power in the region in a way that undermines our allies and our capabilities in that region, and undermines stability. ISIS poses an ideological threat backed up by the ability to not just conduct terrorist activity, but to take over territory and to hold territory through military means, and the desire to spread that ideology to take action against the West here in the homeland, across Europe, and across the world. They both pose very serious threats. They’re both different, but they’re both real. And you add the threat that [Russian President] Putin poses to stability in Europe and the increasing threat that China poses to stability in the Asia-Pacific region, and you start to realize how complex the 21st century geopolitical order has become.

Goldberg: Do you agree with the assessment you hear in some circles that the Obama administration wants to withdraw from the Strait of Hormuz, from the Gulf, from the South China Sea? Do you find evidence that they’re interested in turning over regional security issues to other powers?

Rubio: Not everywhere. I think they’re rhetorically committed to stability in the Asia-Pacific region. I think [the] TTP [trade deal] was an important part of our commitment to that. Some of the reinvigoration of NATO that is now going on, particularly in the Baltic states, has been a positive development. I do think this president was elected on the fundamental promise that he was going to get us out of Iraq and Afghanistan to do a deal with Iran. And I think the Middle East in particular is a place where this administration wants to be less engaged, and the results are evident, that this withdrawal from the region has led to a chaotic matrix that has led to growing instability in that part of the world and to implications elsewhere. The problem with the “Asia pivot” is that even if we’re rhetorically pivoting, and in some respects if you can pass TPP you can even pivot economically, you may not have the resources to pivot militarily to the region. You still need the assets. You still need the naval assets in order to back up our security agreements and security assurances that we’ve made to our allies at a time when the Chinese are increasing their asymmetrical capabilities.

Goldberg: How many aircraft carriers do you think we should have?

Rubio: Well, I don’t know if there’s a magic number. I think 12, at least. I mean, the problem that we have in Asia today is that three months out of the year we have no aircraft carriers. January, February, and part of March we’re in port for service, and there isn’t a backup carrier in the region. We used to count on one that rotated out of the Mediterranean that provided coverage during that time, but the bigger problem isn’t just the number of aircraft carriers; the bigger problem is the ability to position them, because China has developed and continues to develop shore-based rockets that are capable of knocking out an aircraft carrier: a $4-million rocket that can destroy a $4-billion ship. It pushes us even further out of range. So you can have 20 aircraft carriers—if China can blow them up, you can’t bring them in there anyway. You got to push them further out, and so it impacts your ability to project power in the region. The positive development has been the Japanese are moving quickly towards the ability to provide for collective self-defense, and that’s a force multiplier—a very capable military force—that I think could add to our presence in the region. The South Koreans have their own capabilities. But the Philippines basically [has] no military capability. They’re doing some nominal improvements right now, but they’ve got a long ways to go to even be able to protect their own territory, much less participate in projecting into the region.

Goldberg: Do you think that President Obama, his foreign policy and his view of America’s place in the world—are these aberrational, more a product of delayed trauma from Iraq and 9/11, or do you think he’s moving where the country itself is moving, in terms of its role in the world and in terms of America’s self-conception and the waning of the ideas animating American exceptionalism? I mean, the things you’re talking about don’t resonate very much—especially when talking about the Middle East—with an American public that seems tired of all of these Middle East conflicts in particular.

Rubio: Well, go back to 2007, 2008, 2009. There was significant fatigue in this country about both Afghanistan and Iraq, and that was understandable. You had a tremendous loss of life, and people who had been injured and maimed in attacks there on behalf of the liberty and security of people who oftentimes didn’t seem like they wanted us there. And you married that sort of sentiment that was around, I think, up until ISIS began beheading people—you married that sentiment to a belief system the president has, which holds that a lot of our problems in the region were caused by us being too engaged, because we were telling people what to do—

Goldberg: For supporting the wrong allies? For supporting the wrong people?

Rubio: Right, and if we would just mind our own business, this theory goes—and in particular force the Israelis to work out a deal with the Palestinians—that somehow the region would become more stable. And so you married that belief to fatigue, and that leads to this foreign policy we now see. What happened since is you’ve seen the fatigue go away as ISIS began beheading people, and you’ve seen the implications of this retreat from the region, which is that it leaves behind a vacuum, a vacuum that has led to chaos. It’s led to chaos in Iraq, it’s increasingly leading to chaos in Afghanistan. ISIS is now fighting with the Taliban to become the premier Islamist group on the ground. You’ve seen the chaos in Libya. You’ve seen the chaos spreading to other parts of North Africa as well. And so you’re seeing the results of that play itself out in chaos, but ultimately they’re forcing this president back into the region.

This is the guy who was going to get us out of these conflicts, but now he has been pulled back in, and he’s trying to do it in the most limited way possible. But this is ending up making it worse, not better, because what’s happening now in Iraq is people are looking at these limited air strikes and saying, “This is not American power. We know what American power really looks like, and this isn’t it.” This is a cosmetic show of force that ultimately shows you’re not truly committed to defeating these people, and this has undermined our credibility with Jordan, with the Saudis, with the Egyptians, with others.