Trump Announces U.S. Withdrawal From The Iran Nuclear Deal
As expected, President Trump has withdrawn the United States from the nuclear deal with Iran. There was no rational basis for doing so.
As expected, President Trump has announced that the United States will be withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action (JCPOA), the agreement negotiated in 2015 to place limits on Iran’s nuclear research program, to place limits on that program, and to subject Iran to international inspection of its nuclear sites for the first time ever:
WASHINGTON — President Trump declared on Tuesday that he was pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal, unraveling the signature foreign policy achievement of his predecessor, Barack Obama, and isolating the United States among its Western allies.
“This was a horrible one-sided deal that should have never, ever been made,” Mr. Trump said at the White House in announcing his decision. “It didn’t bring calm, it didn’t bring peace, and it never will.”
Mr. Trump’s announcement, while long anticipated and widely telegraphed, plunges America’s relations with European allies into deep uncertainty. They have committed to staying in the deal, raising the prospect of a diplomatic and economic clash as the United States reimposes stringent sanctions on Iran.
It also raises the prospect of increasing tensions with Russia and China, which also are parties to the agreement.
In a joint statement, President Emmanuel Macron of France, Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany urged Iran to “continue to meet its own obligations under the deal,” despite the American withdrawal.
“We encourage Iran to show restraint in response to the decision by the U.S.,” the statement said. Separately, in a post on Twitter, Mr. Macron said the European allies “regret” Mr. Trump’s decision, adding, “The international regime against nuclear proliferation is at stake.”
One person familiar with negotiations to keep the accord in place said the talks collapsed over Mr. Trump’s insistence that sharp limits be kept on Iran’s nuclear fuel production after 2030. The deal currently lifts those limits.
As a result, the United States is now preparing to reinstate all sanctions it had waived as part of the nuclear accord — and impose additional economic penalties as well, according to another person briefed on Mr. Trump’s decision.
The withdrawal fulfills one of Mr. Trump’s oft-repeated campaign promises, and came despite intense personal lobbying by European leaders and frantic attempts to craft fixes to the deal that would satisfy him. In part, Mr. Trump was driven by the conviction that taking a tough line with Iran would help an upcoming negotiation with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, whom he plans to meet in the next several weeks.
Here’s the video of the speech:
None of this is a surprise, of course, since President Trump has made his animosity for the JCPOA clear from the start of his campaign nearly three years ago. Over the seventeen months that comprised the Primary and General Elections, for example, the President repeatedly bashed the agreement, misrepresented what it actually entailed, and claimed that he could have negotiated a better deal without specifically saying what he would have done differently. Throughout the campaign, though, he used the disdain for the agreement that was evident in the Republican base to boost his campaign and to repeatedly attack President Obama, Hillary Clinton, and even some fellow Republicans who were supporting the agreement.While Congress was considering the agreement in the late summer of 2015, Trump co-hosted a rally in Washington with fellow Republican candidate for President Ted Cruz that sought to rally support against the agreement. That effort failed, but it cemented Trump as the principal anti-JCPOA candidate in the race.
After his inauguration, President Trump continued to attack the agreement but initially held off pulling the trigger on a walk away. Last year at this time, for example, Trump decided to lift another set of sanctions pursuant to the requirements of the JCPOA. Later in the year, Trump again stopped short of withdrawing from the agreement but at the same time declined to certify to Congress that Iran was in compliance with the agreement, which many observers saw as the first step in a process that would lead to a full repudiation of the agreement. This decision to decertify compliance came despite the fact that Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson both said on the record that Iran was complying with its obligations and that staying in the agreement was in the national interests of the United States. He also took this step despite the fact that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which is charged with monitoring Iran’s compliance with the agreement, has said each time it has been required to report on the status of the agreement that Iran is living up to its obligations under the agreement. With that step taken, today’s decision seemed to most observers to be inevitable.
Between October and now, America’s closest European allies have both closed ranks in support of the agreement and sought to find ways to save it and get Trump to stop short of completely repudiating the agreement. At the start of the year, the leaders of the United Kingdom, France, and Germany issued a statement of support for the JCPOA. made clear that they did not support the position taken by the Trump Administration and continued to rebuff American efforts to renegotiate the deal even while attempting to negotiate some sort of side agreement that would placate the United States while keeping the core of the JCPOA intact. Outside of this group, both Russia and China have made it clear that they would not support unilateral action on the part of the United States and Iran has made clear that American withdrawal from the agreement could lead to their own withdrawal and would likely increase tensions in the Middle East.
Most recently, French President Emmanual Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel both came to the United States for the express purpose of trying to convince Trump to keep the United States in the deal. Additionally, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who has said he agrees with some of Trump’s criticisms of the JCPOA, wrote an Op-Ed in The New York Times arguing that the United States should stay in the agreement. Those arguments likely fell on deaf ears, though, a fact seemingly acknowledged by President Macron at the end of his visit last month when he said that Trump was likely to pull out of the deal for “domestic reasons.” In the meantime, Macron and Merkel, along with British Prime Minister Theresa May continued to work behind the scenes to try to find a way to save the JCPOA, but those efforts were clerly in vain.
Nothing in Trump’s speech presented any evidence at all that Iran is not in compliance with its obligations under the JCPOA nor did it provide any viable alternative to the JCPOA. This is a stupid, unnecessary, and potentially disastrous decision on his part. Indeed, much as he did in October when he decertified Iranian compliance, most of what the President cited in his speech dealt with matters totally outside the scope of the agreement. This includes issues related to Iran’s ballistic missile program, which is the subject of a completely different set of international sanctions, Iran’s actions in Yemen and Syria, and terrorist attacks that took place as long ago as 1979. While these are important issues, they are completely outside the scope of the JCPOA and were never in contemplation of the parties when the agreement was negotiated. By deciding to pull out of the deal without presenting any evidence to justify it, Trump has ceded all of the leverage going forward to Iran. Additionally, he has potentially thrown into the trash heal an agreement that imposed an international inspection regime that would last until at least 2040. Finally, the Department of Defense, Department of State, and all American intelligence agencies have said repeatedly that the Iranians are in compliance with the JCPOA.Trump ignored them in favor of fulfilling a misguided campaign promise. Only time will tell what the consequences of all this will be.
Daniel Larison touched on that question in a piece written before Trump’s announcement:
Iranian hard-liners will be pleased by Trump’s decision, since it lets them claim vindication and accuse their domestic opponents of making the mistake of trusting the U.S. Hard-liners in the U.S. and Iran feed off of each other, and when they are in the ascendant in one country it boosts hard-liners in the other. Armed conflict between U.S. forces and Iran and its proxies is going to become more likely as a result of this decision, and that could escalate into a larger war faster than anyone expects. Once the U.S. is out of the deal, it won’t be long before we hear the usual drumbeat for military action against Iran.
Reneging on the nuclear deal doesn’t serve any American interests and does significant harm to several of them. Other states will be less willing to trust the U.S. to honor its obligations. That will raise the costs of every negotiation the U.S. conducts with other governments during the current administration. Every government that cooperated with the U.S. to secure the deal will remember how Trump simply threw away a major diplomatic achievement for the sake of spite and ideology, and they will be less inclined to cooperate with Washington the next time their help is needed.
Withdrawing from the JCPOA is a huge unforced error and self-inflicted wound whose full costs we won’t realize until later, and it represents a serious setback to the cause of nonproliferation. Trump is walking away from a deal that got the U.S. almost everything it wanted at virtually no cost, and he is doing it mainly because it allows him to repudiate his predecessor’s work. It is a perfect example of putting petty self-interest and pique ahead of the interests of the United States, and it has absolutely nothing to do with putting America first.
As did Cato analyst Emma Ashford:
[B]y blowing up the nuclear deal today without offering any clear strategy or plan for an alternative, Donald Trump is opening Pandora’s Box, increasing the risks of escalation and bringing us gradually closer to conflict with Iran.
Initially, it probably won’t look that bad. The President’s decision today may not even look like an absolute withdrawal from the deal. Even if he declines to waive sanctions, penalties will not kick in for 180 days, and Trump or his advisors may well suggest that European states can continue to negotiate during this period.
Yet the act of refusing to waive sanctions itself will deter companies from investing in Iran, and there is little chance that Iran will agree to the additional sanctions and restrictions that the Trump administration is now proposing as unilateral amendments to the deal. Otherwise, the Trump administration has given no indication of any diplomatic follow-on steps they will take with regard to Iran’s nuclear program.
Nor has the administration given any indication that they intend to have a broad public discussion on military action against Iran, though it is clear that many members of the administration – from new Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to National Security Advisor John Bolton – favor such an approach. Instead, the steps that Trump has already taken, such as increasing troops in Syria, and his decision to withdraw from the deal generally raise the risk of escalation and conflict with Iran or Iranian proxies throughout the region.
Conflict between the US and Iran may not happen; we could get lucky. But Trump’s choice to withdraw from the JCPOA today – and his choice to move to a more confrontational approach to Iran – raises that risk substantially. If US troops come into conflict with Iranian proxies inside Syria, broader conflict could easily result. Likewise, escalation is possible if US allies like Israel decide to take matters into their own hands and strike Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Outside of the Middle East, the decision to withdraw from the JCPOA could have serious consequences for American interests around the world.
The most immediate impact could be seen in the ongoing negotiations that are supposed to lead up to a meeting between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un as well as future negotiations regarding the issues on the Korean Peninsula, including the North Korean nuclear agreement. Not without some merit, this announcement could lead the North Koreans to conclude that the United States cannot be trusted to live up to the agreements it enters into. Creating this impression will only make an already difficult process toward solving the six-decade-old issues on the Korean Peninsula even more difficult.
Outside of North Korea, this announcement is likely to further erode the relationship and its European allies. The Trump Administration has already helped to erode that relationship thanks to the decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accords and the statements that have been made in the past about NATO that has called America’s commitment to the alliance and its collective defense principles into doubt. Additionally, it’s worth noting that the most immediate impact of the sanctions will fall on European companies, financial institutions, and other entities. This means that the Trump Administration’s action today will end up further poisoning our relationship with those nations, and place those nations in the difficult position of either adhering to American demands vis a vis Iran or staying in an agreement that they clearly believe is in their interest and which they clearly want to preserve. The consequences of that for our future efforts to gain support from the U.K., France, or Germany for their cooperation in other areas seem rather obvious.
Finally, what the President has done here is to destroy in a ten-minute speech a movement toward international unity about the need to put international pressure on Iran because of its nuclear program that has been in the works for the better part of the past decade. Both the George W. Bush and Obama Administration spent considerable diplomatic capital attempting to get not only our European allies but also Russia, China, other nations, and the United Nations on board in support of the idea that a nuclear-armed Iran is something that would dangerous for the entire Middle East and for the world as a whole. Reconstructing that kind of coalition is going to be difficult if not impossible. Meanwhile, he has placed the diplomatic advantage in Iran’s lap. They can choose to react to this by considering the agreement null and void and resume their research program, or they could decide to call the American bluff and continue complying with it in an effort to prevent the Europeans from reimposing their own sanctions. The logical course of action for Iran for now, of course, would be to stay in the JCPOA and thus further isolate the United States.
Whatever the consequences of today’s decision may be, we’re about to find out.