AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Now to Iran and the temporary deal struck this past weekend to curb its nuclear program in exchange for easing sanctions worth some $7 billion.
President Obama has called the sixth-month deal a first step and says it's the most significant and tangible progress made on Iran since he took office. Some members of Congress don't see it that way and are calling for sanctions to be tightened. Among them, Georgia Senator Saxby Chambliss, top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, and he joins us now. Welcome to the program, Senator.
SENATOR SAXBY CHAMBLISS: Thanks, Audie. Good to be with you.
CORNISH: Now, for nearly a decade, the international community has imposed sanctions on Iran to get it to the negotiating table over its nuclear program. Now that that's happening, why not support this deal?
CHAMBLISS: Well, the problem with this deal, Audie, as I have told the president, the sanctions are working. They're doing exactly what we wanted them to do. And now, what the president decided is that we can't get the whole deal in one set of negotiations and we need to do it in a two-step process. The problem is what we've done in this first step, this initial six months, is we have given the Iranians relief from sanctions and, in doing that, we got nothing basically in return.
The Iranians are going to continue to be able to enrich uranium. They're not in compliance with U.N. resolutions today. There's no requirement for them to get into compliance with U.N. resolutions. And why in the world when sanctions are working against the people that we want to impact most, i.e., the Iranian people, in order to get them to put pressure on their government to not move in the direction of production of a nuclear weapon, now is the time to tighten sanctions, not ease those sanctions.
CORNISH: Now, the White House is also arguing that this is targeted and limited sanctions relief, that there would still be billions of dollars worth of sanctions that are still in place. I mean, what would have been a worthwhile first step agreement in your eyes?
CHAMBLISS: Well, that is true that there will still be sanctions in place. But, really, all we're getting out of this is the stockpile that the Iranians have today of uranium that has been enriched to 20 percent is going to be basically diluted and done away with. The problem is, though, that they still have a huge stockpile of uranium that's been enriched to 3.5 percent, and it's not going to take that much more at the end of the six months to enrich it from 3.5 to 20 percent. Plus...
CORNISH: And it sounds like this doesn't mean that you buy the argument that this is buying more time, that this, in a sense, freezes the program, at least for another six months and that that could make a difference.
CHAMBLISS: No, there's no way it freezes the program. They still are able to manufacture and produce uranium up to the 3.5 percent enrichment phase. If they have a centrifuge that becomes inoperable, they can repair it. They can continue to operate that. Now, it is true that the facility in Iraq, which is a heavy water plutonium facility, cannot proceed with construction. But, you know, this is a six-month deal and that particular facility is a long ways from being completed.
So I think it's very important - and I think what you'll see when the Senate goes back in session that there will be a bipartisan effort to increase sanctions and to tighten those sanctions to tell the Iranians, look, OK, the White House has negotiated this deal with you. But at the end of this period of time, here's what's going to happen to you. And you, by golly, better comply with the terms of those sanctions.
CORNISH: Senator Chambliss, while Iran will still be allowed to enrich uranium under this agreement, it'll be at a relatively low level, do you believe Iran has no right to enrich uranium at all?
CHAMBLISS: I think not only should we have denied them the right to enrich uranium at this point in time, we should have demanded that they began dismantling their enrichment program and the physical facilities where they do that...
CORNISH: As a first step.
CHAMBLISS: As a first step.
CORNISH: Now, if it's clear that being able to enrich uranium at low levels for energy was actually key to this deal, I mean, is it now preferable to have Iran enriching at low levels with intense monitoring than to have Iran disengage from talks altogether and enrich as much as it likes?
CHAMBLISS: Well, it doesn't take much of a facility to enrich uranium to 3.5 percent, both for utility production purposes as well as for medical research purposes. They certainly don't need the facilities they have at Natanz and at Fordow, where we know they do this. It certainly doesn't take the enrichment of plutonium to weapons-grade for them to be able to utilize that plutonium for medical research or for production of electric utilities.
So, you know, now is the time, while we had them in a position of having all the leverage on our side to begin dismantling of the facility at Iraq, which is their heavy water plutonium production facility, as well as - why does it take 20,000 centrifuges to manufacture 3.5 percent uranium or enrich it to that point? That simply does not make practical sense.
CORNISH: Senator Saxby Chambliss. He's the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee. Thank you so much for speaking with us.
CHAMBLISS: Audie, good to be with you today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.