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Risch has tough talk for European allies on Iran, says Trump-Kim summit offers promise with ‘2 strong personalities in a room’

Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, arrives for a vote on Gina Haspel to be CIA director, on Capitol Hill, on Thursday, May 17, 2018 in Washington. (Alex Brandon / AP)
By Betsy Z. Russell Idaho Press-Tribune

Idaho Sen. Jim Risch, who serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, offered a full-throated defense of President Trump in an interview with NPR this morning along with tough talk for America’s European allies on Iran, and said he believes the looming summit between Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un has the potential to bring far more progress than the Obama Administration was able to make on the Iran nuclear deal, and could lead to a binding treaty to be ratified by the U.S. Senate.

“It is obviously going to be a meet and greet to start with,” Risch told NPR’s Rachel Martin. “And then secondly a discussion of what are the general objectives that each of us want to reach.” Asked how Kim can be convinced he’s safer without nuclear weapons, Risch said, “I don’t think there is a magic answer for that. I think that is a feeling that he gets based upon what the parties are going to give and take. I think part of the thing that made that dramatic change was the fact that we had laid some things on the table that gave him that security, and said … it is not going to be the policy of the United States to have regime change.”

“Those are the kinds of things that I am sure he stopped and thought, ‘You know, there is a couple of ways I can go here,’” Risch said. “And one of them is after the indications that we had given that there would be almost certainty to the end of his regime. He probably rethought this and thought maybe there’s a different direction they can go.”

When Martin asked Risch what evidence there is that Trump is the personality who can bring Kim around, Risch retorted, “I think first of all that’s part of the issue: There’s a tremendous hate and vitriol against President Trump from the other side in this town.”

Martin noted that it’s Trump himself who’s suggested that.

“I understand,” Risch responded, “but my point is that this hate and vitriol is such that they criticize everything he does, no matter what. They’re looking for ways to put a negative spin on what’s happened. It’s hard to do that. This thing has been a series of positive steps. Has there been a few speed bumps? Yes. But this, nobody has been able to do this before.”

“My favorite is the other side saying, ‘Oh, we disagree with this, he shouldn’t have met with him,’ da da da da da. … OK, so how has it worked before? It hasn’t worked at all before. This has never been tried,” Risch said. “Because of the stakes here, what is wrong with giving the opportunity to these two strong personalities to get in a room and see if they can’t reach an agreement?”

Martin noted that while the personalities may be different, the levers for change remain the same, including sanctions, and they haven’t worked in the past.

“It has not worked in the past,” Risch said, but added, “it has certainly brought pressure on him. We always argue amongst ourselves, exactly what is it that made them turn and go the exact opposite direction from where they were going? Was it the economic sanctions? Was it the realization that they had a person in the White House who when he says something, he means it? They were headed in a direction that was going to be a certain end to the North Korean regime. What is it that made the change? Who knows? But what we do know is one man makes that decision in North Korea, and he has the ability to resolve this.”

Martin noted that Risch brought up the Iran nuclear deal, and said European leaders have been scrambling this week to try to save the deal, and sent a letter to top U.S. administration officials this week asking for exemption from U.S. sanctions so they can keep doing business with Iran. “Are you concerned about losing the support of America’s closest allies at such a delicate time?” she asked Risch.

He pooh-poohed that idea. “Well look, they parade in here every day,” he said. “They’re our friends, they’re our allies. Sometimes friends and allies have a disagreement. We have a very basic disagreement on this. If they want to do business with Iran, they’re absolutely free to do that. Iran makes up about 1 percent of their economy in Europe. … I don’t think they should be exempted from the sanctions. Indeed there are secondary sanctions that are going to take place. They need to listen carefully when the president says something.”

“They’re going to have a very difficult decision to make,” Risch said. “But at the end of the day, if you’re a banker over there, are you going to do business with Iran, or are you going to do business with the United States? Because that’s the choice that you’re going to have to make. It’s unfortunate that they’re in that position. We said at the time that this was a very, very bad deal. At that time, President Obama should have sent that to the United States Senate for ratification as a treaty — probably wouldn’t have been ratified, and we wouldn’t be in the position that we’re in right now.”

“I always have to re-explain to our European allies,” Risch said, “they always come in here and say, ‘Well, America has this agreement.’ No, America does not have this agreement. Barack Obama had the agreement.”

That prompted Martin to ask Risch why Kim would sign off on a deal with Trump, if a subsequent president could simply overturn it.

“Excellent question,” Risch responded. “The president and I, sitting just like this, one on one, told me he wants this to be a treaty ratified by the United States Senate. The vice president of the United States, one on one, sitting here like this, told me that, and so did the Secretary of State. All of them are committed to seeing that they get an agreement that they can bring to the United States Senate and have it ratified as a treaty. That is not only good for us, but it’s also good to North Korea, because they will then have a treaty that they can rely on.”

When Martin asked about the possible downside — what happens if the Trump-Kim summit fails, and the risk that the U.S. would launch a military strike against North Korea — Risch was dismissive. “I think that’s speculation that’s unnecessary at this point,” he said. “The parties are going in the right direction, and instead of talking about failure, what we ought to do is talk about success. Failure here has consequences that are very, very serious. I don’t think the North Koreans want to go back to where we were, I know we don’t want to go back to where we were. And if the parties do what I’ve suggested, and that is get mutual objectives and work in good faith, there is absolutely no reason we have to go back to where we were.”