Member, Committee on Armed Services, and Select Committee on Intelligence, U.S. Senate
Foreign Policy and State Department Correspondent, CBS News
Broad-based international economic sanctions on Iran have significantly impaired its economy and brought the regime to the negotiating table, but the recently concluded interim nuclear agreement remains controversial among many members of Congress. Senator Angus King (I-ME) joins Margaret Brennan of CBS News to discuss the latest developments in the diplomatic effort to peacefully resolve the Iranian nuclear standoff. Senator King warns that recent congressional proposals to impose additional sanctions on Iran could jeopardize the diplomatic progress already made, while also potentially undermining the international consensus that has been vital to the sanctions' success.
BRENNAN: Hello, everyone. Good morning. I wanted to thank everyone for coming here today. It is a great way to start off your morning, and hopefully we'll have a great conversation. We're going to have some remarks from the senator here.
Before we get underway, I want to remind everyone that the conversation is on the record. It is being broadcast as well, and we will give you all a chance—hopefully all—to ask some questions after we finish the question and answer period up here—we'll have some microphones for you. I'm sure you've all seen these and been to these before, so you're old hands at that.
But this is, of course, Angus King, who's going to give us a sense of why he wants to talk right now about Iran, this nuclear deal that has been signed, and his concern about implementation and follow through—some challenges to it.
I'm Margaret Brennan from CBS News—I'm also a term member here at the Council on Foreign Relations. So I am excited to be doing this conversation – my first one as a member. But I cover foreign policy for CBS News and national security, so you'll see me on the road often in places like Geneva, with deals like this being negotiated.
But without further ado, just to introduce the conversation once again, I want to ask the senator to give us a sense of his thoughts, and why we're here today. Angus King, of course, an independent from Maine, on armed services, on intelligence, and has a lot to say about this.
KING: Great. Thanks, Margaret.
Margaret didn't tell you, but she just got back from Geneva, so I appreciate your joining us today.
What I'd like to do, before we get to, hopefully, a lot of questions—and this is a story that's changing by the day—is first start with a little bit about who am I, since this is my first visit with this—with this group. The first thing, in terms of where we are, is that my home town is Alexandria, Virginia. Although I'm a senator from Maine, I grew up in Alexandria. My granddad was the mayor of Alexandria in the '20s. And I went to Maine in 1969 out of Virginia Law School to join Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty. I was with the—remember—some of you remember the OEO and the Legal Services Corporation, and I was assigned to Maine.
Being from Virginia, when I got to Maine, I had a son born in 1970 in the Skowhegan, Maine, hospital, and I learned at that time how hard it is to be from Maine because after my son was born, I was so excited, I went out on the street and said, Oh—I ran into an old farmer friend of mine, Charles Forbus (ph). I said, Mr. Forbus (ph), guess what? I have a son just born in the Skowhegan hospital! He's a native of Maine!
And the old farmer looked at me over his glasses and says, Well, by gorry (ph), just because the cat has her kittens in the oven don't make 'em biscuits.
So I'd learned at that moment that you can't be from Maine even if you've been born there. Went to Dartmouth College—by the way, there are four senators from Dartmouth in the United States Senate right now, I think the largest delegation from any one college—Rob Portman, Kirsten Gillibrand, John Hoeven and myself. University of Virginia Law School—we have three senators from Virginia Law School, Sheldon Whitehouse and Bill Nelson, who was there when I was. Then went to Maine, as I said, worked for Pinetree Legal Assistance in rural Maine.
Then had an interesting experience. This is relevant to what I'm doing now. I came back to Washington for two-and-a-half years and worked as a staff member in the U.S. Senate. I was sworn in as a United States senator 40 years to the day from the day I entered service as a staff member of the Senate in January of 1973. So that's a rich area of discussion in itself, is what the Senate—how the Senate and the Congress has changed during that period. It's really fascinating.
For example, I remember going to conference committees pretty regularly in those days. Now a conference committee—I think there were two or maybe three in the last year.
Practiced law in Maine, went into business, was in the renewable energy business really for most of my adult life—hydropower, biomass, energy conservation, wind power—and spent a lot of time in the energy business. And then was governor of Maine for eight years in the '90s and into 2002 as an independent.
And then retired from politics, taught at Bowdoin and Bates Colleges, worked on some boards, did a variety of things, had no intention or expectation of ever getting back into politics or ever running for anything. And then in February of 2012, Olympia Snowe, to everyone's shock and surprise, announced her retirement, basically because, she said, I'm just sick and tired of the Senate and the Congress not working.
And I thought, Well, maybe I can make a contribution as an independent and try to make the institution work a little bit better. So that was the—that was the beginning of my reentry into politics in the spring of 2012. I was elected in November of 2012 and started in the Senate last year as the world's oldest freshman and was appointed—of course, you know, I—first, my intention was to be a pure independent. Chris Matthews—I was on "Hardball." Chris said—by the way, if you're ever—when you're with Chris, he interviews himself, really.
And you're there—you're sort of the wallpaper. But he said, Angus, why don't you just put your chair in the middle and be a real independent? Don't join any party's caucus and everything. Well, that was fine until I found out you don't get committee assignments except through the caucus.
So I joined the Democratic caucus and was appointed to Armed Services, Rules, Budget, and to prove Harry Reid has a sense of humor, Intelligence. And those are the committees, ironically, when ended up putting me right in the center of everything that went on last year. Syria, the budget, Iran, NSA, Snowden—all of those issues, I've been up to my elbows in right from the very beginning.
And that brings us to today, which—I wanted to talk for a few minutes about Iran. The story is changing literally as we sit here. This morning, there's a Reuters report that the advocates for the new sanctions bill have now—are talking about backing off and having another kind of bill but not necessarily new sanctions. So all my carefully written objections to why we shouldn't do sanctions may be moot as of this morning.
But I want to talk generally about the situation and about the sanctions bill because, you know, things can change on a sort of day-to-day basis. Just before the break last week, I talked to one of the senior senators about this issue, and his comment was, Well, we may back off, but if the Iranian economy improves over the next six months, then we'll be back. That was sort of his standard for what was going on.
So I think it's a very fluid situation. As you know, 59 senators sponsored S-1881, or co-sponsored it, which was the sort of the new sanctions bill sponsored by Senator Menendez. And there was a report over the weekend that they felt they had 75 votes if it actually came to the floor, which would have made it veto-proof.
A similar bill passed the House last summer before the announcement of the interim agreement, so that's a different kind of situation. But still, I don't think there's any doubt that there's substantial interest in this issue and a substantial interest in the possibility of additional sanctions.
You all know—you all know the issue. The basic issue is what's—what's Congress's role in this process while negotiations are under way with regard to Iran? And I'm going to walk through that, although I—it's a funny situation. I developed this position thinking about this issue, talking to people like Carl Levin and Dianne Feinstein and others who I really respect on these kinds of issues back in December.
And at the time, my position, which was opposed to the bill—I was an outlier and a contrarian because all the momentum was in the direction of—of the sanctions. And then over the course of the last several weeks, the momentum seems to have shifted, and the push for new sanctions, as I mentioned, even as recently as this morning seems to have diminished.
I feel good about that. I don't take responsibility for it, but I can tell you that I and others talked to other members of various caucuses about this issue. And I have to say I think one of the key moments was a week ago, on a Thursday, when the Democratic caucus went to the White House to meet with the president, closed-door meeting, no press. There was very little staff there. And it was a—there were a variety of issues. It wasn't—there wasn't any agenda, and the president was talking about the minimum wage and the economy, middle class, and all that.
And one of the senators asked him about Iran, and he gave—he was the most powerful and persuasive I have ever seen him on any subject, on why it would be a mistake to move forward with additional sanctions or even additional sanctions triggered later, as were proposed by the Menendez bill.
I mean, I sat there and thought I don't know how anybody can sit in this room and feel that this is the right course, given his really eloquent—no notes, no teleprompter, no anything, just sitting on a stool—a really powerful statement about, you know, the history of how we got here and what we should do.
And I think that probably had something to do with some of the steam coming out of this issue, not that people were saying, We've got to do this because we've got to be loyal to the president, but I think because he was just downright persuasive. And I think that was—that does occasionally happen around here, and I think this was a case where it did.
But I feel a little funny because I took a position and the world changed, I still have the same position. Some of you remember Mort Sahl from the '50s, the comedian. Mort Sahl once said if you maintain a consistent political opinion in this country long enough, you will eventually be tried for treason. And you know, I sort of felt like I stayed the same and everything sort of—sort of shifted.
Some important things about the sanctions. We've had sanctions against Iran since 1979, in one way, shape or form. But the sanctions that have really bitten, the sanctions that have really changed the face of the Iranian economy are those that went into effect around 2009, 2010 and involved the rest of the world.
Iranian oil exports have gone from 2.5 million barrels a day to 1. That's about a 60 percent reduction. A hundred percent of that reduction is because of reduced purchases by other countries, not by the U.S. The EU reduced their purchases 600,000 barrels a day—China, Japan, India. So it's really important to realize that the sanctions that are biting are the international coalition sanctions, not simply U.S. sanctions.
Now, we've provoked a lot of those by pressure on our allies. There's no question that we've led it. But I think it's really important to realize that unilateral sanctions from the U.S. aren't necessarily going to be the way to change Iranian policy.
The results have really been significant. I mentioned the oil—$100 billion to $30 billion of revenue in—in oil revenue, 50 percent inflation, 20 percent unemployment, 5 percent contraction last year in the Iranian GDP. This is—this is the effect that it's had, and it's really been significant.
And as you know, a new president was elected, and the platform that he had was economic improvement. Sounds familiar. I mean, you run for president, you say, We're going to have more jobs, the economy's going to improve. But he came to the realization that the sanctions were a significant part of the problem, and he had a more open attitude toward trying to—to modify them.
So where are we? You all know. We've got a six-month interim agreement with some very significant—I reread it this morning. There's a good summary on WhiteHouse.gov. If you do WhiteHouse.gov summary of sanctions, you've got the whole long list of—of what they have to do and what we do in terms of the—the giving up of the—easing up on about $7 billion worth of value over the six months.
And it's a pretty impressive piece of negotiation. The value isn't all given on day one. It's parceled out over a period of time. And the sanctions—the changes in the imposition on the Iranian nuclear program are really quite significant, talk about dilution of the 20 percent enriched, no more—no more 5 percent enriched, restrictions on the Arak reactor, a lot of other detailed restrictions. But probably more importantly, extraordinary new transparency and access. And that's the key part of this, more than we've ever had before.
And the real question is, Will it—will they do it? And because this is a project that is in at least two steps—maybe more, but at least two steps, we have an opportunity to test the Iranians' good faith, to test whether they are, in fact, going to live up to the commitments made in this interim agreement.
And the terms of the interim agreement really cause a pause in their ability to reach breakout in terms of a nuclear weapon. So it—it's a pretty solid piece of work in terms of the effects on the Iranians, and particularly the transparency to see whether they're honoring the commitment.
"I think it's really important to realize that unilateral sanctions from the U.S. aren't necessarily going to be the way to change Iranian policy."
It also is worth mentioning that the oil sanctions don't change, that that's not part of the deal. The sanctions that have limited the sale of oil are exactly the same. There's not—no opening up.
Now, the proponents for the bill, S-1881, make a plausible case. If sanctions have gotten us this far, won't more sanctions get us further? If you strengthen the sanctions, it'll strengthen the president's hand. It'll give him a stronger had to negotiation and we'll have a stronger agreement at the end.
You know, that—that makes sense. We'll get a better deal. And besides, we can't trust the Iranians. And you know, Reagan said "Trust but verify." I think, in this case, it's verify but verify. I mean, there's a lot of history here, and I think—I don't think trust really is necessarily part of the equation. It has to be verify and verify.
And I want to pause right now, just—my notes say "humility." Nobody knows how these things are going to play out. Nobody knows what's going to happen over the next six months or over the next couple of years. It's a very unpredictable situation.
So I'm standing here with great assurance, giving you my position, but I don't guarantee being right. And I don't think anybody can take that position. I think when you're talking about foreign policy, humility is an important quality, to realize the challenges of predicting, particularly when you're predicting what another country and another culture, another political system is going to do.
But the argument is, Let's strengthen the president's hand. Let's get a better deal. I don't—I just don't think that works. And I think the Congress—and maybe this is old news as of this morning, but the idea of imposing new sanctions now I think is just—is not—not useful. And I think it would have exactly the opposite effect of that which is desired.
One effect might well be the Iranians just plain walk, that the hard-liners—I mean, I—we—I wrote a little piece with Carl Levin, and we said that would—that theory would work if Iran was a politics-free zone. But Iran has internal politics, just like the U.S. or Great Britain or Germany or anywhere else, and there are people in Iran who don't like these conversations. They don't want to give up any part of the nuclear program. They—they are very reluctant to give up what they consider something important to their national pride and perhaps national survival.
So if we change the goalposts, if we say, We're going to, by the way, put in new sanctions—and by the way, the interim agreement has a specific provision that says, No new sanctions. So we would be in violation of that interim agreement, if we imposed new sanctions. It could be argued, Well, it's they trigger six months. Does that count? I'm not sure that—that subtlety would translate very well into Farsi.
The headline in Tehran would be, U.S. Congress imposes new sanctions. And my concern is that would empower the hardliners to say, I told you so. You can't trust the Americans. We're walking away from this. And this is the best chance we've had in a decade or more to do something about this very serious issue of Iran—of Iran having nuclear weapons.
So I worry about the hard-liners, even with a delayed trigger, and that it would undercut Rouhani and take away his ability to make a deal. He's got—he's got to play to his political base, and of course, the Supreme Leader in Iran has immense input on this.
The second reason I think it's a bad idea is that, again, to go back to what I mentioned, this—these sanctions work because of the support of the international community. And if we impose new sanctions and the international—the coalition, the partners that are involved in the sanctions say, Well, that—we wanted this interim agreement, it tends to weaken their support for the sanctions, which, ironically, could end up leading to weaker sanctions in the end. We would end up worse than we started off because the real power of the sanctions comes from the support of the international community.
I think Congress has an important role. I think Congress has an important role being the sword in the sheath, if you will. But you don't have to—you don't have the bare the sword. Everybody knows that Iranians know that Congress is ready to impose new sanctions, is discussing it, is actively thinking about it.
But if they pass it and then the president has to veto it, it just—I think it makes a very difficult situation for our negotiators, and the Iranians say, Well, who does speak for the U.S. government? We have this agreement that went into effect last week, but it's been abrogated, you know, two weeks later. Who are we negotiating with here? Maybe we should—instead of talking to the president or the secretary of state, we should talk to Harry Reid and Bob Menendez or John Boehner.
I mean, I think it raises a legitimate question about who speaks for the United States. So I think Congress has an important role, but I don't think it's to—it's to come in and raise a question about who speaks for the—for the United States government.
"[T]he interim agreement has a specific provision that says, no new sanctions. So we would be in violation of that interim agreement, if we imposed new sanctions. It could be argued, well, what if they trigger in six months? Does that count? I'm not sure that subtlety would translate very well into Farsi."
I think, finally, this is a pretty simple question of risk analysis, for me. What's the up side and what's the down side? I see very little up side to passing a bill of this nature now. It may strengthen the president's hand, maybe. That's the possible up side. But the down side I view as enormous. If they walk, if the talks end, if the sanction coalition falls apart, that's—we may have missed a once-in-a-generation opportunity to deal with this problem.
And the final point is, there aren't many options to deal with the problem of a potentially nuclear-armed Iran. One is negotiation and the other is military action. The third, I suppose, is to tolerate a military—a nuclear-armed Iran, but nobody seems to want to consider that as an option, and I don't think it should be. But that leaves military force.
And you know, maybe negotiations could start again under different circumstances and we could tighten the noose of sanctions, but we've got this opportunity in front of us. The agreements in the interim agreement are pretty significant. They're not token. And we have an opportunity to test the Iranians' good faith, to test their ability to allow access, to test their ability to actually take concrete steps to step away from nuclear arms. And I don't see much down side, particularly since there's a pause in their development of capability to break out, to allowing this process to play out over the next six to twelve months.
There are going to be ups and downs. There's going to be posturing on both sides. There's going to be difficult negotiations. And of course, the ultimate question will be, What does the final deal look like? And does it—is it something that we really want to—is it good enough to satisfy us and our allies that we've prevented this—the nuclear armament of Iran. But that's going to be part of the discussion over the next six months.
So my view is, as I certainly made clear, that we have an opportunity here and we shouldn't let it slip away. Ronald Reagan said a very interesting thing. He said, Peace is not the absence of conflict. There will always be conflict in the world. But peace is the ability to cope with conflict by peaceful means. And I think we're in a moment now where we have an opportunity to cope with conflict by peaceable means. And I certainly hope that we seize it, and I hope that the Congress is able to play a constructive role in this process.
So that's—I hope I've given you some food for thought, and now we'll have a conversation. Thank you very much for giving me this opportunity.
BRENNAN: Senator, I should have led with you went to University of Virginia Law school.
BRENNAN: Because I'm a UVA grad...
"[T]here aren't many options to deal with the problem of a potentially nuclear-armed Iran. One is negotiation, and the other is military action."
KING: Good for you.
BRENNAN: Key element there in your bio.
I want to follow up on some of what you're talking about. Just to clarify, sounds like what you believe, momentum is slowing on the Hill in terms of this threat to impose new sanctions. Is this bill really on ice?
KING: Well, things change day to day, but I would say, based on the story this morning, based on comments I'm getting on the floor, the momentum has slowed in terms of bringing it forward. I don't see the sponsors withdrawing it or anything like that. My guess is—but—and you know, we're all going—literally, this was a Reuters report this morning that a new version is being drafted that doesn't necessarily involve new sanctions, but will involve some language, you know, keeping the pressure on the administration.
So if I had to bet right now, I would think that it probably won't come to the floor any time soon, but I don't have that directly from Harry Reid, but that's my impression.
BRENNAN: You talked about a change leading to this probably happening around last week. Last week's also when this deal went into effect, last Monday. To a certain extent—maybe this is a cynical view or a cynical posture to pose here.
KING: A member of the press cynical?
BRENNAN: I'm a paid cynic. So when you look at the timing here, hasn't Congress's role really been tactical pressure for the administration because these technical details have been worked out in the past few weeks before the agreement went into effect on Monday?
KING: I think the pressure has helped, for sure. Somebody said that this is a bill that's better threatened than passed. And I think, to some extent, that was the case.
The momentum started to change, I think, when people like Dianne Feinstein went to the floor and made a very strong speech against it, Carl Levin, who's, you know, been very strong on Iran and these issues, and then some of the people in this audience who've made statements, Jessica Matthews's story in The New York Review of Books.
I think a lot of people have been sort of saying, Wait a minute. Slow down. What would be the effect here? Because it—at the beginning, it was, you know, Let's go and—and you know, they got 59 co-sponsors in a matter of weeks, and then it kind of stopped.
BRENNAN: So you're on the Intelligence Committee. You've received briefings on what's actually in this deal. Does this extend Iran's breakout time, the time it takes for them to actually build a weapon?
KING: I've got to be really careful and remember what I know in what context and what I can talk about. But I think it's public knowledge that the terms that—that caused the dilution of the 20 percent enriched, the freezing of the 5 percent, in effect, the freezing of the construction of the Arak reactor does delay the breakout time to some extent.
The other piece of intelligence—and I've seen both classified and unclassified, but the unclassified is the intelligence community does believe that additional sanctions now would—there's a—can't remember if moderate—high likelihood that the Iranians would walk. So there's an intelligence basis for—for that concern, because of internal politics of—in Iran.
BRENNAN: One of the other things you talked about in your remarks there was not just the Iranians walking but part of the alliance breaking up. Is that code for Russia would walk, Russia would start violating these sanctions, China would?
KING: That isn't—that wasn't my intention. I don't know—there—I don't know who might break off, but it's not—I think there's some fragility, and I don't know who it would be, but some of these countries that are backing off of their purchases, it's at some cost to them. It isn't something that they were thrilled to do. And so you know, I don't know whether—I couldn't say whether—Russia is less a player on the oil front because they don't purchase much oil. The EU and China and India are the biggest that changed that equation.
The other piece—and Mr. Pollack—what's his first name?
KING: Ken Pollack wrote a good piece that, in a sense, we have the high ground now. You know, we're negotiating, and if there's a breach, it's on the Iranians. If we flip that and impose new sanctions in violation of the interim agreement, we lose the high ground and we—and it gives our partners more of a chance to walk. He argues that the most powerful reason not to do this is the breakup of the coalition.
BRENNAN: So with these six months, that time that's been purchased, essentially, you say that has expanded the breakout time—what's gained over that? What happens at the end of the six months?
KING: Well, that's going to be a big question, and I think one of the questions that has to be considered is what—what is success? What's the definition of success? Some of our allies want success to be no nuclear capacity at all, no enrichment capacity at all.
The indications from Iran is that they're not going to accept that. So the question is what between zero and something is going to be acceptable in the agreement, and there are going to be all kinds of other pieces to it in terms of reactors and centrifuges and parts and inspections and all those kinds of things.
There's no certainty here. My position is that we—if we—if we can have a pause, a slowdown of the breakout period, and an opportunity, a chance to get a deal, we ought to take it because the other options are very unattractive. And the—the consensus seems to be that if military force was used, the best we could do is delay it. We couldn't necessarily eliminate the capacity, and if we delay it, then we're back in the same box at some period.
Plus, if—if we—if there are air strikes, whoever does them, it seems to me the chances that they would then forswear the development of nuclear weapons go close to zero. They're going to say, We've got to have them. These people are bombing us. And so we've accelerated that intention.
And right now, it's an open question. The intelligence is unclear as to what the Supreme Leader really wants to do here. There—he's made statements in the past saying this is inconsistent—nuclear weapons are inconsistent with Islamic law.
So I think, you know, in any kind of situation like this, where you're making decisions, you've got to say, Compared to what? And right now, we've got a promising opportunity and compared to what, meaning bombing, delay, almost assured pursuit of a weapon after that—to me, it's a good time to take a deep breath and let it play out.
BRENNAN: And when you were talking about breakout time, you're talking about the capacity to build a weapon, or the ability to weaponize? So there seems to be two different definitions there.
KING: Well, I think it's capacity. I—I take a fairly conservative view on that, and that if you—if they have the—if they have the capacity to do it in a reasonably short period of time, that's pretty close to being able to do it, and that we really need to be looking for an agreement that limits that capacity.
BRENNAN: And so in these negotiations, you think that—that definition of breakout's been extended. By how much?
KING: I couldn't say. Months? I think, as I view it—and again, there are probably people in this room who are more expert than I am on this. But as I view the interim agreement, it delays breakout by the period of the agreement.
BRENNAN: About six months.
KING: And—but it could be two months either way. But I don't think—and I think this is a legitimate question, is, is all this talk just to get a delay to go toward breakout? You know, are we—is it all just a sham?
And the provisions of the interim agreement I think are real and I think do have an effect, assuming they're—they're done. I mean, I think that's a big part of this is, is it going to be effectuated? Is it going to be implemented? Are they going to meet their commitments? And do they allow the kind of access that they're talking about, daily access instead of every two weeks, and you know, instantaneous monitoring? If all of those things occur and we can verify, you know, I think we're not—we're not losing anything by providing this time.
Now, you know, events could prove us—could prove me and others totally wrong, and there may be a lab under a mountain somewhere that nobody knows about that, you know, is working away at it. But given the facts as we know it now, I think we need to take this time.
BRENNAN: And what level of transparency is there with the Hill right now, with people on the committees you sit on, in terms of that follow-through? How regular will you...
KING: There are some Intelligence hearing tomorrow on the—it's the—it's the annual worldwide threat assessment, which I know this is going to be a major thrust. It's an open hearing. So we will talk about that, undoubtedly. And I talked to Chairman Feinstein about this. There are going to be closed hearings on Iran, so we have a full briefing on what—what we know, how we know it, and how transparent the process is.
And I think that's one of the most important responsibilities that we have is to be sure that that's the case, that it's not wishful thinking, that we're not just hoping that they're doing it because as far as I'm concerned, if it's not verifiable, then, you know, doesn't count. That's got to be a place where I think Congress keeps its thumb on the administration.
And as I mentioned, there's a—Congress has a role here. It's just a question of how overt the role is. But I think the pressure on the administration is important. The pressure for verification is important. And you know, we're going to be continuing to ask the questions.
BRENNAN: I do want to get to some questions from the audience. One more before I do that, and that is—and this is more of a policy question. I do want to—as to your personal views, but do you think any of this actually leads to empowering the moderates in a way, the relative moderates in Iran, that could, in theory, lead to a grand bargain? Is there something more to be gained, or are we purely...
KING: Grand bargain? I thought that was with Boehner.
KING: I know what you mean.
BRENNAN: On Syria and other issues that are also of concern to the administration.
KING: I wish I could say yes. I—I don't see this link to Syria. I think Syria's a separate issue. You were just there. Syria's the most complex public policy issue I've ever looked at, with the possible exception of health care. So I don't think there's necessarily a linkage there.
I do think—you know, Iran is an ancient civilization, a pretty modern country, and you know, we've been estranged from them since '79 and no—there's not going to be a normalization of relations overnight by any means, but this could be a step toward opening up of that country somewhat more to the West and a moderation of their politics. But I don't—I don't see, you know, regime change any time soon there, and that's an unrealistic expectation.
BRENNAN: Well, I do want to get to the audience now. We have microphones. If you would just say your name and affiliation and stand up.
KING: Somebody's going to...
BRENNAN: ... front row.
QUESTION: Thank you. Morning. Richard Downey (ph) from Delphi Strategic Consulting. And thank you very much for interesting comments and discussion.
I wanted to ask you to clarify something you just touched on briefly. You mentioned that the success of the sanctions was really due, after 2009, 2010, to the—the international community really following through on this. And you also mentioned that the—it's all about verifying. Trust doesn't really work, that we really have to ensure that the Iranians follow through on what they've promised.
But when you addressed the Kenneth Pollack article, you just sort of glanced by—I wonder, do you believe that as we move through this process that the—that the international community will weaken its—its strength in terms of focusing on this? And can we—can we gather that same kind of power in sanctions later on, if the Iranians do renege on what they promised to do?
KING: That's a very good question, and I think there is concern that the—that opening—opening the door to the easing of the sanctions can create a slippery slope and we're—it's going to be very hard to put it back together.
I think if you focus, though, on what exactly the opening of the door is, it's pretty limited. It's not a change in the—in the oil limitations, for example. It's—it's—of the $7 billion of sanctions relief, $4.5 billion or $4.2 billion is the freeing up of Iranian frozen assets that—you know, that they—from their oil from previous years. So it's not that there's this huge opening, although I have heard that there's a lot of interest in Teheran, there are a lot of foreign companies that are trying to get ready to do business, and those kinds of things. And I think that's something that we have to keep an eye on.
But if we—it seems—the question is, what makes the international coalition sticking together more or less likely? My sense is that us imposing additional sanctions now in violation of the interim agreement, that they, after all, helped negotiate, would undermine that more than the modest reductions in the sanctions that are going to go over the six months. I mean, that's—that's a—that's a judgment call.
And I think it's a legitimate question, but their commitment, I think, rests at least in part on their view that, Hey, we did what you wanted us to do. It's had the effect you wanted. We got to the table. They're making some movement. Let's keep going. That—that—you know, and it—you know, and it's—I can't speak for the Chinese or the Japanese and what their motivations are, but that's my sense, is that it's more likely to hold if we honor the interim agreement than the contrary.
BRENNAN: But to follow on that, I mean, in Davos last week, we were standing there with Secretary Kerry, and on another stage, Rouhani standing up there saying Iran's open for business. Come look at what we got. Come see our oil fields. That's a bet that six months from now, there's going to be an ability to invest or that there are enough cracks to the regime to allow for it.
KING: Well, listen, I want them to be motivated to make a good deal. I mean, that's—I mean, you got to declare—sometimes, you got to declare victory. I mean, if we get a solid, verifiable deal that solves this problem, then we've achieved what we wanted to achieve. The purpose of the sanctions was to keep Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and that should be the—that's the goal.
BRENNAN: On this side of the room, do we have questions? And here in the middle, can we run a mic , second row.
KING: Don't have to only talk about Iran, by the way. If you want to talk about the farm bill, I can do that, too.
QUESTION: As a fellow property tax payer and neighbor in the town of Brunswick...
QUESTION: ... I just want to welcome you to (inaudible)
KING: You're a great American.
QUESTION: ... to the council.
QUESTION: Gordon Adams (ph), American University. Couple of quickies. One is, you—I wonder what the advantage—this seems to be a very strong moment that your remarks suggest here, where both sides in this negotiation actually are playing good cop/bad cop. On both sides of this, there is, Watch out for these conservatives behind me be because they're going to derail this agreement if you give them half an opening. On our side, watch out for these folks over here with sanctions in the Senate because they're going to derail this negotiation. Does that make it more propitious or less propitious to actually get a deal? There's a curious symmetry there.
The other question was, I wanted to push back a little bit on the question of other issues because there is this broader agenda with Iran, which is support for terrorism and meddling in Syria and meddling in Iraq and other issues that are of importance to us.
Could you be—give us just a little bit more on why you think it makes sense to sort this piece out separately from that broader discussion.
KING: I didn't—I didn't mean to imply that it should be sorted out. I just—I think what I—I hope what I communicated was that I'm not sure we're going to be able to join them. There's a difference. I'm not saying we should explicitly—if we can settle some of these other issues and do something about, you know, Hezbollah and Hamas and—and support for Syria, all the better, and the other—export of terrorism and those kinds of things.
That—that would be a great result. I'm just not sure that that's achievable, given the scope of what's being discussed. Might be possible. Part of that is going to depend upon how the international partners feel about those other issues and whether they're willing to stick with some level of sanctions in order to achieve a larger—a larger result.
Your comment about both sides have the—I liken it to a used car deal, where there's always a guy upstairs. You know, you negotiate with the salesman, and he says, Well, I'm not sure. I've got to check with the guy upstairs. I've never been sure whether that person really exists. But that's a—that's a common function in any negotiation.
And I think, clearly, the president's hand is strengthened by the fact that Congress is—is behind the curtain here, and everybody knows that they're prepared to move forward, for example, if the—the deal doesn't get to the proper place, there's a lack of verification, I can tell you it's not going to take long for—for that bill to come to the floor. I mean, if Harry Reid says it's coming to the floor, it's going to come to the floor and it's going to get its—going to get, you know, solid support.
But—so I do think that the people in the background do have an important role to play. I often have thought—going back, you know, to Vietnam and—and you know, foreign policy in the last 50 years, one of the fundamental mistakes we as Americans make is to assume that everybody else in the world thinks like we do, that they—and they—and they don't. They have different cultures. They have different values.
And you know, I can remember in college hearing speeches from the Bundys about this rational policy on Vietnam and how we were going to squeeze them and ratchet it up, and they were going to have to give in. And I remember George Mitchell talking about Saddam and he was going to have to give in because his economy shrunk by .2 percent. That—it just doesn't necessarily work that way.
And so I think we have to understand and try to put ourselves into the shoes of this other society in terms of what—you know, what's going to be—what's going to be possible.
But you know, this moment of a nuclear Iran—and one of the—Jessica Matthews (ph) makes the point that usually, when one country in a region goes nuclear, it—they do it in clumps. And if Iran develops a weapon, Saudi Arabia and Turkey and perhaps Egypt are going to feel like they have to. And then we're—you know, then we've got a—you know, it's 1914 all over again with nuclear weapons and the Middle East is the Balkans of this century.
So this is a—this is a really important moment, and all the dynamics that are employed, but the key thing is we're talking for the first time in 10 years, 12 years, and in reality, 34 years, 35 years. And I just—we can't—we just can't let this moment slip away.
I used to teach about the Cuban missile crisis, and to me, the elements of the Cuban missile crisis were four—an existential threat, a credible threat of force, some kind of sanction, which was the quarantine, and negotiation. Put those together and you can solve the problem. And I think this situation is very similar.
And if it hadn't—you know, if nobody—anybody studies the Cuban missile crisis, if they hadn't kept talking, you know, it would have been a disaster, you know, there's no word for it. Catastrophe is too mild a word. And these moments come and go in history. And we've got to seize this one, in my view—not naively or blindly or, you know, acquiescently, if that's a word, but realistically, with our eyes open, understanding the risks, and understanding the importnace of verification.
BRENNAN: Question here in the front, and then here on the side.
QUESTION: Allen Went (ph), formerly with the State Department. Senator, in the past, we have been concerned that IAEA inspection procedures in Iran were simply inadequate to detect any violation of Iran's commitments. What's different this time that satisfies us that the inspection procedures will be intrusive enough to detect any Iranian violations?
KING: Well, I don't—I don't have a specific sort of intelligence-based answer to that, except that we have a period to test that. I mean, we're going to find out in a matter of weeks how much access they have and how often they can get in, what the monitoring is going to be, what the real-time streaming video monitoring is going to be, what facilities they get to.
And I think this is a continuing process. It's not now and in six months. I think it's—there's a—it's a—it's a process whereby we can try to determine, A, the level of verification, B, whether it's sufficiently rigorous, and C, whether the Iranians are—are playing straight with us. And at any time along that process, we'll be able to say, Wait a minute. This isn't working.
So I can't tell you today that they have 42 inspectors where they used to have 24. I don't know that. I do know that inspection is a key part, maybe the most important part of the interim agreement.
BRENNAN: Here on the side.
QUESTION: I'm Morton Halperin (ph) from the Open Society Foundations. Senator, as you know, the Armed Services Committee on which you sit did a very important study of detainee treatment, and then that report was released and helped educate the American people. Now the Intelligence Committee, on which you also sit, has completed another report, and I wonder whether you support declassifying and releasing that report.
KING: I could give you the answer as of today. Probably, but I'm still not fully convinced. There were some limitations with the Intelligence Committee. This is a study done of torture, basically, and what—what we did in the early part of the century. There were some limitations to that study. Nobody was interviewed. It was all documentary. And you always get a—I'm not sure you get a fully accurate picture when you're looking at documents and don't—don't do interviews with the individuals involved.
I'm—my judgment is going to be based upon whether I think it's—it will be helpful to the country and to the dialogue. I've seen it. I've read it—not all 6,000 pages, but I've read a good deal of the—of the substance of it. And my inclination is to vote to release it, but I'm reserving judgment. I'm sure we're going to have a vigorous debate in the—in the committee.
Unfortunately, as you may know, the committee broke up on partisan lines, and the Republican members essentially didn't—they pulled their staff back from participation. So it wasn't a true joint report, which I think is unfortunate.
So I'm going to—I'm going to listen to the debate. I realized a couple—about two months ago in an Intelligence Committee meeting, I'm the deciding vote. There are 15 members. There are 7 Democrats, 7 Republicans and me. And we had an amendment on something, and I voted no, and I realized I'd swayed—you know, I'd decided which way it went. That was—that was a little disconcerting. I killed an amendment by Jay Rockefeller and apologized, he said, That's all right.
So I am going to have a—I take very seriously this—this vote, and it's one that I'm—as I say, I'm leaning toward yes, but I'm not fully there yet. And the decision for me is, will it—will it contribute to the public dialogue and understanding, or will it distort it and not be an accurate picture. That's—that's where I am. Thank you for the question.
BRENNAN: We have time for probably two questions. If you could keep them succinct, that'll help us. Here in front.
QUESTION: Hi. I'm Stephen Colpack (ph) from Lincolnville, Maine. I wanted to ask you...
KING: If you're from Lincolnville, Maine, what the hell are you doing here?
QUESTION: I came—I came to see...
KING: Lincolnville, Maine, is one of the most beautiful places on earth.
QUESTION: I came to see you, Senator.
QUESTION: Totally different subject. You mentioned that Senator Snowe stepped down because she was frustrated by the partisan politics. We were very proud to elect you as an independent from Maine, and you talked about just now your—how that's actually come in handy a couple of times. How's it going for you, the bipartisanship?
KING: Well, first I should say I'm having a great time. I mean, I just have to admit that. It's frustrating at times, but I told my wife a few weeks ago I've been preparing for this job all my life, I just didn't know it.
And it is frustrating. I mean, but there have been opportunities where we've been able to nudge people. And in fact, the highlight and the lowlight of last year was the same time, the shutdown. The low point was the shutdown. It was so ridiculous, so avoidable, so predictable, so you know, harmful. The highlight was we formed this little group with Susan Collins, 14 of us, that actually negotiated a settlement. It was bipartisan. We had 7 Republicans, 6 Democrats and me. And we negotiated a settlement, and Susan went to Mitch McConnell and said, We've got a deal, and if you and Harry don't work this out and announce something by 3:00 this afternoon, we're having a press conference.
And lo and behold, they finalized their deal. Now, I'm not prepared to take credit for it, but I feel like we did make a contribution to moving that process forward. And here's something really interesting. After that happened and it got out that we had this little group, we started getting applicants to join. We started hearing from other senators saying, We'd like to join that group.
And in fact, we were supposed to have a meeting this morning, but it's been postponed because of an Armed Services Committee meeting. But we're now going to tackle some of these issues of amendments, of process, and work—and unemployment insurance as trying to work from the center out.
If that works, it will have all been worth it, even the $6 million they spent to try to defeat me . And so you know, I feel—it's still a very partisan place, but the interesting thing is it's not partisan personally. The relationships are there. It's very positive relationships. And so I'm feeling—I'm fired up. It's—it's—it's amazing.
And particularly for somebody who was there as a staff member 40 years ago, I keep expecting somebody to walk onto the floor of the United States Senate and say, What the hell are you doing here? You know? People say, Good morning, Senator, and I do this. It's an amazing experience.
And I walk to work. I live east of the Capitol and walk to work down Maryland Avenue, and the sun is rising and lighting up the dome of the Capitol, and to look up and see that and say, That's where I get to go to work. It's humbling. It's really an amazing opportunity. So I'm—I'm having a good time. Mostly. My wife, if she were here, would say, He loves it.
BRENNAN: Back of the room I think there was a question. Here, can we run a mic?
QUESTION: Hello, everybody. (inaudible) from Voice of America. Senator, some opponent of Assad's regime claimed that the nuclear deal with Iran caused America's silence against Iran's assistance for the survival of Assad. How...
KING: For the survival of what? I'm sorry.
QUESTION: Assad regime.
BRENNAN: Bashar al Assad.
QUESTION: How in your perspective nuclear deal affect America's position towards Syria?
KING: I haven't—I haven't seen that. Reporter Margaret would be a better person to respond because she just came back from Geneva, where—and was with Secretary Kerry. But I don't—I haven't heard of any talk of, Hey, we're—we're working on this nuclear deal, therefore we're going to take the pressure off Assad. I—I—now, you know, I'm not in these meetings, but I have no knowledge of that being the case. We want—our policy is to get Assad out, to have a transitional government and to try to do something for the humanitarian catastrophe that's taking place in that country.
I was there—Carl Levin and I went in the summer to Turkey and Jordan, to the refugee camps, and it's—it's an awful, awful situation. And what the Assad regime does in terms of how they—their tactic of just bombing a town down to rubble is inhumane in the extreme.
But I haven't—in answer to your question, I haven't seen any evidence that there's a linkage, that somehow, behind the scenes, the deal is, We'll do the nuclear thing if you'll leave our guy, Assad, alone. If that's what you're suggesting, I haven't seen any evidence of that.
BRENNAN: So we've hit the witching hour here...
KING: Thank you.
BRENNAN: ... of 9:30. So I know there are more questions, but we're going to have to leave it there. Just to remind you all, this was on the record and...
KING: Oh, I didn't know that!
BRENNAN: You didn't see me furiously scribbling down notes?
BRENNAN: Thank you very much, Senator, for your time.
KING: Thank you, Margaret. A real pleasure.
BRENNAN: Interesting conversation.