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Iran threatens to block nuclear inspectors if U.S. does not lift sanctions

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The Iranian government says it will block United Nations nuclear watchdog inspectors if the U.S. does not lift sanctions on the country by February 21st. CBS News senior foreign affairs correspondent and "Face the Nation" moderator Margaret Brennan joins "Red and Blue" anchor Elaine Quijano with more on impending talks and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin's debut meeting with NATO allies.

Video Transcript

ELAINE QUIJANO: Newly installed US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin made unity a focus during his debut meeting with NATO allies this week. A Pentagon statement on the virtual gathering says the Secretary reaffirmed to other defense leaders the United States' intention to revitalize its relationship with the NATO alliance, adding, quote, "our commitment to Article 5 remains ironclad." That's a treaty provision stating an attack on one NATO ally is an attack on all.

For more, let's bring in CBS News Senior Foreign Affairs Correspondent, and Face the Nation moderator, Margaret Brennan. Hi there, Margaret. So what else did Defense Secretary Austin tell his NATO counterparts? And how does the incoming administration plan to change the way the US interacts with NATO?

MARGARET BRENNAN: Well, this is trying to hit the reset button and basically give a warm embrace to our old allies, reassure them that the United States is back. The question is whether they've moved on without us in many ways. Those alliances like NATO that the Defense Secretary spoke to today are looking at the calendar. And they know that there is a big decision for President Biden to make, and that is whether he sticks with a pledge President Trump made and signed with the Taliban, that would take down US troops to zero in Afghanistan by May if certain conditions are met. So the US has some wiggle room here.

But keep in mind, President Biden, just like President Trump, campaigned on a pledge to bring US troops home from that war zone that the United States has been involved in for 20 odd years. There are NATO troops there, international troops alongside American forces. This is not just the US. And for a lot of those international forces, particularly those through NATO, they want to know if the United States is picking up sticks as promised or if they are staying, because that will then impact whether other governments have to pull down their troops simply because of safety concerns.

The US has such a big footprint that it also helps to provide more security for other countries. So for example, I spoke with Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom over the weekend on Face the Nation, and in that conversation, I asked him about the troop presence. And he said he hopes the US stays. This is a politically difficult call for President Biden. So while this Defense Secretary is trying to reassure allies, they want to know what the bottom line is in the next few months.

Is the US staying or going? And if you're staying, what are the numbers? It's not clear yet that General Austin-- former General, I should say, retired General Austin-- has the numbers to actually explain the policy. But he was gathering intel today and input. And that step alone, saying I want to hear you out, is a positive change in the view of many European countries who felt they were being dictated to by the Trump administration. But again, it's the same problem, and it's also the same ask to European countries to pay more for their own defense, so to speak, in terms of spending on their own militaries, to get to that 2% benchmark.

The United States made that demand under President Trump in a really direct way. They made it a more diplomatic way under President Obama. And now under President Biden, they're going to continue asking for it. So it's a different approach to basically the same policy.

ELAINE QUIJANO: Margaret, let's turn to Iran. The government there is now threatening to block nuclear inspectors unless the US lifts sanctions. How might this complicate the Biden administration's efforts to re-engage Tehran?

MARGARET BRENNAN: This is a complicating factor because it's a decision for saying date on the calendar for the Biden administration. The Iranian parliament set this date to the 21st, saying that if sanctions aren't lifted by that time, they will block UN inspectors. They're not saying they'll kick them out of the country, but that they will block access. And that would be yet another pretty significant breach of the international agreement known as the JCPOS, that the United States was a member of and that President Biden says he wants to rejoin after former President Trump withdrew from the agreement.

But basically, the alliance of European powers along with Russia and China all need to be in lock step on this for it to work. Because it has to be a unified front. And that's where this is problematic right now. Behind the scenes, we know that the Secretary of State spoke this morning with his European counterparts to say, we're willing to sit down with Iran and talk. But we're not going to lift sanctions first.

Iran and the US are staring each other down, saying you move first. This offer to talk about talking essentially is a bit of a gift by the US. We're waiting to see what Iran says in response. But this would be a significant opening by the Biden administration, which is frankly still figuring out what its Iran strategy will be here to try to get that nuclear accord piece together when Iran has been cheating and the United States has pulled out a few years ago. So this is definitely news to watch over the weekend. It's a big developing story.

ELAINE QUIJANO: Yeah, this is a delicate moment it sounds like and a really complicated, as you point out, situation. All right, finally, Margaret, a new episode of your podcast, Facing Forward, drops tomorrow. What can we expect?

MARGARET BRENNAN: Thank you for mentioning that. We're excited. Look, Elaine, I know you care about this too. The impact of this pandemic has been so felt in a really acute way by small businesses, by women, and by people of color. Women of color in particular have been squeezed really hard. And we wanted to talk about that and understand what is going on. Because American taxpayers have been pumping in billions of dollars to help small businesses since back in the spring.

And so why isn't it working and alleviating things for those who are getting hit the hardest? So we spoke to the chief operating officer of a company named Gusto about that. And she breaks down for us what they're hearing from the businesses they deal with, with small businesses. Why they either can't get loan forgiveness, why they're having a hard time accessing that money that taxpayers have already forked over, and how they're managing around this. It's an interesting conversation.

It talks about all the things that Americans talk about at their kitchen tables, which is how do you juggle it all-- child care, business, trying to pay the bills, and tries to make sense of the economy coming from that. And it all fits back into the political argument in Washington right now over how to structure this next relief bill.

ELAINE QUIJANO: You know, I'm really glad to hear you're focusing on this, Margaret, because you're right, this is something that matters to so many people. And it would seem like we are at such an inflection point. We keep talking about systemic disparities, racial disparities, gender disparities. In these moments of crisis, these kinds of conversations are critical when solutions are being thought about. So I really look forward to it. Margaret Brennan, always so great to see you. Margaret. Thank you.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Elaine, good to talk to you.