Trump To Keep Iran Nuclear Deal, For Now

During the campaign, Donald Trump promised to undo the nuclear weapons deal with Iran. Now his Administration is signaling that, at least for now, the deal will stay in place.

Iran Nukes

During the campaign for President, Donald Trump was one of the harshest critics of the deal that the United States and other nations had reached with Iran to limit the Iranian nuclear weapons research program, claiming like most of his fellow candidates on the Republican side that it was a bad deal that would put cash in Iran’s pocket while simultaneously guaranteeing that their nuclear program would survive. Now that he’s President, though, he’s taking a far different position on the agreement:

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration signaled on Wednesday that it would not, for now, jettison the Iran nuclear deal, despite the president’s harsh criticism of the agreement during the campaign.

Facing a deadline of Thursday, the administration said it was waiving sanctions against Iran, as required under the deal. To have done otherwise would have violated the accord, freeing the Iranians to resume the production of nuclear fuel without any of the limits negotiated by the Obama administration two years ago.

But while acknowledging that the deal would remain in place, the administration imposed modest new sanctions against several Iranian individuals and four organizations, including a China-based network that supplied missile-related items to a key Iranian defense entity.

That appeared to be an effort to mollify Republican critics of the deal, which President Trump has called a “disaster” and said he would have negotiated far more skillfully.

“The U.S. and its partners will continue to apply pressure on Iran to protect the human rights and fundamental freedoms for everyone in Iran,” said Stuart E. Jones, the acting assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, who will be traveling with Mr. Trump to the Middle East at the end of the week.

The Trump administration has said that it is continuing to study the Iran nuclear deal, leaving a door open to leaving it at some point.

But three months into the administration, Mr. Trump has softened his criticism — just as he has decided so far not to scrap the North American Free Trade Agreement, or pull out of NATO, or impose sanctions on China over currency manipulation.

“From the very beginning, it’s been clear they couldn’t renege on the deal without cause,” said Gary Samore, President Barack Obama’s top nuclear adviser in the first term, who helped organize the pressure campaign on Iran that ultimately led it to the negotiating table.

If Mr. Trump had made good on pledges to scrap the arrangement, “the U.S. would have been entirely isolated, and no one else would have resumed sanctions,” said Mr. Samore, who is now the executive director at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard.

The announcement came two days before Iranian elections, and just before Mr. Trump’s first overseas trip as president.

His first stops are in Saudi Arabia and Israel, both of which opposed the deal but now concede it is working, at least so far.

A unit inside the National Security Council has been working on ways to counter Iran, but it is unclear whether it had proposed a far harsher approach.

At a moment when Mr. Trump is consumed by troubles at home and viewed with suspicion by allies, however, there was no appetite in the White House for a breach with Iran.

Leaving aside the fact that the Trump Administration is currently distracted by the seemingly endless series of revelations related to the investigation into Russian interference in the election and Trump campaign contacts with Russia, there quite simply isn’t any good reason to back out of the deal, and no indication that the United States would have any support from its international partners if it tried to renege on the deal. For one thing, all of the available evidence indicates that Iran is complying with its obligations under the deal with respect to halting certain forms of research, turning over raw materials used in the program, and allowing international inspectors to have access to its research facilities to ensure compliance with the terms of the deal. Because of that, it’s unlikely that Trump would be able to obtain agreement from any of the American allies that were involved in the talks that lead up to the deal, much less from Russia and China. Additionally, the lifting of sanctions in connection with the deal has created a tremendous boom in business between Iran and the outside world, including several American companies that have begun taking advantage of the lifting of sanctions. Were the United States to try to reimpose those sanctions, it would likely be opposed by the rest of the world and by business interests here in the United States. Finally, with Iran facing elections tomorrow, reneging on the deal would likely have enhanced the position of the radicals in Iran who are opposed to the deal and undermined the position of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who was key to the success of the negotiations in Switzerland that led to the deal.

Much of this goes to show just how different it is to be a candidate for President as opposed to actually being President. As a candidate, Trump was free to join his fellow Republicans in denouncing the Iran nuclear deal as the ‘worst deal in history,’ as he described it on more than one occasion. This is especially true given the fact that polling at the time showed the vast majority of Republican voters opposed the deal, something that likely remains true to this deal. Now that he is President, though, Trump must deal with the realities on the ground and the fact that reneging on this deal would do irreparable damage to the ability of the United States to negotiate agreement with anyone in the future since it would be impossible for them to know if they’d have the rug pulled out from under them when a new President takes office. Additionally, this decision also seems to be a demonstration of the extent to which Trump’s foreign policy advisers, including Defense Secretary Mattis, Secretary of State Tillerson, and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, have apparently managed to moderate many of the positions that Trump had taken on the campaign trail. As noted in the linked article, since taking office Trump has held off on moves such as formally calling China a currency manipulator, pulling out of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and pulling out of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Whether or not that moderation continues or not remains to be seen, but for the time being the fact that Trump hasn’t’really done anything crazy in the foreign policy arena is one of the few saving graces of the past 119 days. How long it lasts is another question.

FILED UNDER: Middle East, National Security, US Politics, World Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Tony W says:

    the fact that Trump hasn’t really done anything crazy in the foreign policy arena is one of the few saving graces of the past 119 days.

    So this is now the bar for presidential behavior? Sad!

  2. CSK says:

    @Tony W:

    Yeah, I know. We’re supposed to celebrate because he hasn’t started WWIII.

    Given Trump, that’s probably the most we can ask. Though it’s very early days yet…

  3. gVOR08 says:

    Boy, Doug, you’re just full of Trump’s broken promises today. Wonder if the base will ever notice.

  4. CSK says:


    The hardcore Trumpkins appear to be split into two factions: those who scrabble around frantically defending him over whatever promise he breaks and whatever asinine destructive thing he says or does by assuring us that “he’s playing eight dimensional chess,” and the faction that doesn’t care what he says or does, or how many promises he breaks, as long as he continues acting like a boob and an oaf and a boor, because that’s why they voted for him.

  5. David M says:

    Well, this is actually reassuring for now, as the alternative would be pushing/encouraging Iran to develop nuclear weapons.

  6. DrDaveT says:

    Shorter Trump: “Who knew Obama had reasons for what he did!?”

  7. SenyorDave says:

    @CSK: I’d settle for two dimensional checkers at this point. The idea that anyone believes he plans ahead is scary.

  8. CSK says:


    They have to defend him in some way, because they’ve spent the past two years slobbering and drooling over him. This is what is left to them: trying desperately to promote the notion that he’s a strategic genius.

    I’m reminded a bit of the ardent Palinistas, who insisted that Sarah Palin had assiduously studied and mastered the writings of Sun-Tzu.

  9. Slugger says:

    Can someone tell me why we are in opposition to Iran? I know that there is some bad history between us, but we have done some things that they didn’t welcome such as overthrowing their government, shooting down a passenger plane, and arming Saddam Hussein’s Iraq during their war. At this time, they are contending with Saudi Arabia for regional control. I don’t see why the House of Saud commands our fealty.

  10. Kylopod says:

    Much of this goes to show just how different it is to be a candidate for President as opposed to actually being President.

    It’s even worse than that. There were people who opposed the deal because of X, Y, and Z, and there were people opposed to the very idea of making any deal with Iran. Trump didn’t fit into either category. He didn’t argue that a deal with Iran was inherently a bad idea, he simply said he’d make a better deal–but without specifying what it would consist of or why it would be better. So Trump’s campaign rhetoric wasn’t simply wrong-headed and unrealistic, it was utterly devoid of any content beyond putting faith in his allegedly awesome deal-making powers.

  11. Hal_10000 says:

    Ten bucks says that Republican support for the Iran deal starts surging.

  12. gVOR08 says:


    Can someone tell me why we are in opposition to Iran?


  13. Tyrell says:

    Now, this deal certainly was not great or perfect. I criticized some aspects of it. But it is better than nothing, it puts Iran on notice, and it gives the US and other countries a foot in the door if they try and pull something.
    I had hoped that President Trump would keep Sec. Kerry on for a while. I am as guilty as anyone about pitching fastball criticisms of Kerry, but he does have good experience, seems to be a nice, friendly person, is a pragmatist, and I think that he and Trump could have worked well together. He was also in Vietnam. We need some people in the White House with real combat experience.
    One person said that “Secretary of State Kerry got bamboozled by the Iranians in that nuclear deal.”
    I would add that he got flambéaued and flummoxed, shaked and baked, sliced and diced, frizzled and frazzled, roasted and toasted, parched and starched, , flimmed and flammed, scorched and torched, flipped and flopped, stomped and clomped. He got taken to the cleaners and hung out to dry.
    Forgive my brief waxing poetic.

  14. Moosebreath says:


    “Ten bucks says that Republican support for the Iran deal starts surging.”

    This may be a good test of Cleek’s Law. Since Democrats still support the Iran deal, the issue for Republicans is whether it is more important to oppose the deal just because Democrats support it, or to rally around the decisions of a Republican President.

  15. David M says:


    Ten bucks says that Republican support for the Iran deal starts surging.

    As infuriating as this would be, I kind of hope your right. With Trump in office, a ridiculous partisan reversal like that is probably the best outcome we can hope for.

  16. Matt says:

    @Slugger: We’re still mad that Iran dared to reject the government we installed for them. TO add insult to injury Iran even took hostages while overthrowing the brutal dictator we installed!!!!!!

    Seriously though I’m pretty sure most of the hatred stems from Iran’s refusal to kiss our ass.

    @Tyrell: Once again the performance artists who’s just barely enough in touch with reality that people can’t tell if you’re serious or not.

    Your commentary on Iran is utterly ignorant of the realities involved.

  17. SC_Birdflyte says:

    Interestingly enough, I was in a “Great Decisions” discussion group yesterday, discussing the very issue of nuclear security. The consensus was that, while the Iran nuclear deal wasn’t perfect, it was holding up so far. North Korea and Pakistan were evaluated as much more troublesome.

  18. Franklin says:

    NAFTA, Paris, Iran deal, Obamacare … these were all thing supposedly going the way of the dodo bird. Even with the “progress” on dismantling Obamacare, my belief is that the majority of Obamacare provisions will remain intact if the bill gets through the Senate.

    Of course, it’s hard to get things done when you’re too busy creating new scandals every day.

  19. Franklin says:

    @Franklin: Daryl’s Other Brother covered this more comprehensively in the thread about moving the embassy to Jerusalem.

  20. Ben Wolf says:

    @Tyrell: The agreement with Iran was not about nuclear weapons. It was and is an attempt to test Iran by giving it an opportunity to end its isolation and craft a new balance of power in the Middle East so the U.S. can end the war.

    Though I’ve been very critical of his administration, the deal showed he had not only learned the lessons of Libya but also developed a very sophisticated grasp of geopolitical strategy. We won’t know the results for many years to come: if it works Obama will become one of the great statesmen of history, and if it fails he’ll be derided as a fool.

    Either way, to take that kind of risk with your legacy is a bold move. We gotta respect that.

  21. gVOR08 says:

    @Ben Wolf: Not many people realize that it took way more guts for Obama to largely stay out of Syria than it did for Trump to bomb Syria.

  22. Just 'nutha ig'nint cracker says:

    @Slugger: I think the reason is spelled o-i-l and pronounced among Trumpers as “ahl.” The Saudis are seen by some to be a key player in our ability to manipulate the global oil supply when we, for example, want to get hooks into Russia by devaluing a major hard currency source for their government.

    I’m not sure that it actually works, but I have heard the argument as recently as last the last time gas prices dropped and stayed down as demand increased.