Trump withdraws from the Iran nuclear deal. What now?

By John Mecklin | May 8, 2018

Iran-flag-final-smudge.jpgTrump withdraws from the Iran nuclear deal

With his decision to withdraw the United States from the Iran nuclear deal, US President Donald Trump has put the long-term future of the deal in doubt, at the very least. In a televised announcement from the White House, Trump said the United States would reimpose the “highest level” of economic sanctions against Iran and would hold other nations accountable for violating those sanctions. During his truculent presentation, Trump asserted that the Iran nuclear deal—known officially as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA—was “horrible” and “one-sided.” Even if Iran complied with the terms of the “decaying and rotten structure” of the JCPOA, the president claimed, it could move to the verge of creating nuclear weapons in “a very short time” even as it continued to build nuclear-capable missiles and support terrorism across the Middle East and the world. (The president’s claims run counter to the assessments of the numerous international security experts who note that the JCPOA’s intrusive inspection regime and other components would prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons indefinitely.)

As he announced US withdrawal from the Iran deal, Trump threatened dire consequences for Iran if it resumed work toward nuclear weapons. At the same time, he asserted that his administration would work with allies toward a new deal that he was “ready, willing and able” to negotiate with Iran. Iran has previously insisted it will not renegotiate the JCPOA.

In the immediate aftermath of Trump’s decision, it was unclear how Iran, the other five countries that agreed to the JCPOA—Russia, China, the UK, France, and Germany—and the rest of the world would respond over the long term. The Bulletin invited a wide variety of top international security experts to provide comments on Trump’s decision and its potentially wide-ranging ramifications. Their responses are published below, in hopes they will help the international community find the best possible path forward.

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Oliver Meier, the International Security Division of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, in Berlin, deputy head, EXPERT COMMENTARY

From a European perspective, there is one positive aspect about US President Donald Trump’s announcement that the United States will stop implementing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA): Europeans now have clarity about where Washington stands on the Iran deal, transatlantic relations, and the international order.

The Trump administration has thoroughly destroyed any hope of finding a new transatlantic compromise that would ensure Washington’s durable support of the accord. In his speech, Trump ignored Europeans interests in preserving the JCPOA. The president’s announcement “to be working with [U.S] allies to find a real, comprehensive, and lasting solution to the Iranian nuclear threat” sounds cynical. Administration officials made unequivocally clear the United States intends to use its economic might to force Europeans to follow its course of isolating Iran. This administration is apparently not interested in real transatlantic give and take.

Washington’s harsh rejection of diplomacy and compromise puts Europeans in a difficult situation. For the first time, the United States is purposefully violating a binding UN Security Council decision. For Europeans, who see an international order based on the UN Charter as the best basis for addressing international crisis, this is difficult to come to terms with. Their main ally and the country that has been the key architect of the international liberal order has now openly joined other great powers in undermining that very order.

By comprehensively reinstituting extraterritorial sanctions, the United States is misusing its economic might vis-à-vis its closest partners to achieve its narrow, national goals. Because the United States has almost no business ties with Iran, it is threatening to cut European companies out of the US market unless they terminate legitimate and legal trade with Iran. Europeans have always rejected such secondary sanctions as a violation of the rules of international trade.

So what is Europe to do, if it wants to preserve the deal? In immediate reaction to Washington’s rejection of the Iran deal, Berlin, London, Paris, and Brussels routinely emphasized their “continuing commitment to the JCPOA” and appealed to “all sides to remain committed to its full implementation”.

But it is unlikely that such appeals are going to be sufficient to keep the agreement alive. It will be up to Europeans to find out whether it is feasible to create a new balance of interests among the remaining seven JCPOA parties. This is a daunting task, but one that nobody else will be able and willing to undertake.

In the short-term, Europeans will need to shift the focus of their political efforts from engagement with Washington to discussions with the other JCPOA participants.

A dialogue between the France, Germany, the UK, and the EU, on the one hand, and Iran, on the other, needs to establish what measures both sides can and should give or take so that Tehran is assured at least some of the economic benefits it was promised under the JCPOA. Thus, the EU will need to clearly state what measures it can take to fend off US attempts to undermine all legitimate European trade with Iran. This discussion may be helped by the fact that many in Tehran know that Iran has little to gain but much to lose by leaving the accord; any Iranian violation of the JCPOA’s terms would force Europeans to re-impose sanctions, too.

For such economic assurances to be politically viable in European capitals, Iran must address European security concerns. To be sure, Europeans have neglected discussions with Iran of their security agenda for much too long. Now, Tehran and Brussels must urgently sit down to discuss ways to address Iranian missile programs and its role in the many conflicts in the Middle East.

Based on the results of such a dialogue, Europeans will also need to engage China and Russia. For Europe, these are very difficult interlocutors, to say the least. Particularly, Russia’s disregard for international law and its support for the Assad regime in Syria will expose European politicians to accusations of hypocrisy, were they to sit down with Moscow on the Iran deal.

At this stage, however, a transatlantic dialogue with the Trump administration on the future of the Iran deal seems futile. Instead, Europeans should primarily engage those in Washington who oppose Trump’s reckless, nationalistic agenda. Europeans might be accused of “meddling” in US internal affairs. But the EU now needs to look beyond Trump if it wants to preserve the Iran deal, keep the hope of a US return to the JCPOA alive, and lay the foundation for improvement of transatlantic ties in the long-term.

Ian J Stewart, and director of the European Non-proliferation and Security Initiative at the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation, director of Project Alpha at King’s College London, EXPERT COMMENTARY

On May 8, President Trump “withdrew” the United States from a deal agreed by his predecessor to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. US withdrawal was not foreseen when the agreement was drafted, nor was the possibility that the United States might stand in isolation from its closest international partners. Withdrawal also did not mean that the deal ended. Some have argued that the European states might be able to save the JCPOA but that it looks unlikely that they will be able to do so. Ultimately, it is for Iran to decide whether to accept the agreement with more limited benefits or to withdraw—a move that could put the US on the path to war.

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) contained many restrictions that stay in place in perpetuity plus additional restrictions that taper off over time. For example, restrictions on Iranian import and export of arms end after five years, missile imports and export after eight years, and certain nuclear restrictions from eight years on. It was always recognised that for the agreement to be sustainable, Iran’s relationship with the international community would have to improve over time. Indeed, the timescales were predicated, in part, on the basis that they would provide a time in which to improve relations between Iran and the international community

The US decision to withdraw from the JCPOA early does not quite terminate the deal. It does, however, create a situation in which termination seems quite likely, and the American pullout reduces the possibility that the time bought with the JCPOA will be used to improve the relations between Iran and the international community. While withdrawing from the agreement and re-imposing sanctions, the United States stopped short of terminating the agreement by triggering a snapback of UN sanctions. Washington appears to hold this option in reserve. The US also introduced 90- and 180-day wind-down periods before sanctions are re-imposed on various economic sectors, including the Iranian oil and gas industry.

At this point, all paths forward are unattractive to some party. It is not clear which direction events will take, but there appears to be three broad scenarios. The first is that Iran decides to stay in the JCPOA. The second is that Iran withdraws from the JCPOA. The third is that the US triggers UN sanctions snapback.

The US withdrawal was undertaken in a way that leaves open the possibility of the JCPOA continuing. The immediate response of Iranian officials has been to say that the country will remain in the JCPOA if the Europeans—and the other parties—can assure Iran that it will receive the benefits it expected when it concluded the agreement in 2015. The Europeans will work toward this in the weeks months and years ahead, but the reality is that the US withdrawal will result in Iran receiving less benefit than had been expected.

The US continues to be at the head of the global financial system. Almost all commodity transactions are undertaken in US dollars and pass through US banks. There has been talk of setting up an alternative financial system or even a “safe financial channel” with Iran, but for now at least, the reach of US extraterritorial sanctions is long.

This is true even if the European Union uses extreme measures such as its “blocking regulation” to offset the impact of US extraterritorial sanctions on European businesses that might otherwise invest in Iran. While the EU can certainly explore the use of such tools, the reality is that the idea of large amounts of American assets being seized in Europe is not politically sustainable, particularly when the UK is about to leave the EU and will want to conclude a trade agreement with the US. Moreover, even if the European states had the political appetite for such confrontation, the US could simply trigger snapback (as described below), which would immediately see the re-imposition of UN sanctions.

So the bottom line is that Iran could decide to stay in the JCPOA but it would be doing so with a tacit acceptance that it will receive less benefits than it would otherwise. This would be a victory for hardliners in Iran and would undermine Hassan Rouhani’s presidency. It would be an embarrassing climb-down for Iran. But it would mean that war was less likely.

A second foreseeable scenario would have Iran withdraw from the JCPOA and resume its nuclear program. There are a couple of different ways this could happen. Iran could trigger a dispute resolution mechanism in the agreement, but without a realistic expectation. Iran could also simply ignore the JCPOA and resume enriching uranium to 20 percent or stop implementing the IAEA’s additional protocol, which gives increased inspection access. While either scenario might satisfy Iranian hardliners and evoke national pride in the face of US pressure, it is not a sustainable outcome. The US and Israel, fearing the renewed build up of enriched uranium, would doubtless begin to prepare for military contingencies. A diplomatic crisis would ensue.

The third path forward would see the US trigger a snapback of UN sanctions. A plain text reading of UNSCR 2231 seems to imply that the United States has this power, even though President Trump said that the it was withdrawing from the JCPOA. The re-imposition of UN sanctions would put the EU in the impossible situation of having to decide between complying with the UN Charter or complying with a legally non-binding nuclear agreement with Iran. While there is some precedence for European Institutions overruling the UN Security Council, it seems implausible that this path forward would result in anything other than a termination of the JCPOA.

Examination of this path forward does raise a question: Why didn’t the United States trigger UN sanctions snapback on May 8? There are a few possible answers: a concession to the Europeans who visited Washington shortly before US withdrawal; a desire to wind down sanctions, rather than re-impose UN sanctions immediately; a hope that Iran will respond provocatively, which would justify further US action. Ultimately, the likely answer is that the United States wanted to keep some options, should it feel a need to escalate matters further down the line.

A mechanism to resolve disputes was built into the JCPOA when it was negotiated. This dispute resolution mechanism is enshrined in UNSCR 2231, the Security Council resolution that implements the nuclear deal. However, the present scenario was not foreseen when the JCPOA was drafted, and it now seems unlikely that the mechanism will have a role to play. The reason for this is that the mechanism was designed for a scenario in which it was thought that Iran would be the party alleged to be in violation. As the following extract highlights, if Iran were to raise a dispute now over the actions of the United States, Washington would have to vote in favor or abstain in the UN Security Council. Given the thrust of President Trump’s remarks, it would be a high-risk gambit for Iran to use the dispute resolution mechanism under these circumstances.

So what is President Trump’s end game? In his speech this week, he specifically pointed to the possibility of securing a new deal that would encompass missile and regional issues as well as the nuclear issue. Such a deal would, in effect, require Iran to give up its efforts to be a regional power. Such a change in direction for the Islamic Republic is unlikely. As such, many assume that what President Trump really has in mind is regime change.

However, in withdrawing from the JCPOA and seeking to terminate it early, the Trump administration has squandered the time that would have been available for a change in direction in Iran to occur. This leads some to conclude that the United States is building up not only toward a policy of regime change, but a policy of overthrowing the Islamic Republic, possibly through the use of force.

Overall, then, the JCPOA is in a perilous position. While it is not yet terminated, US actions have caused a crisis and could well result the deal coming to an ultimate end. It is important for the European states to bolster the agreement to the extent that they can, even if the tools available to salvage it are limited. Ultimately, it will be for Iran to decide whether to continue with the JCPOA or to terminate the agreement. A decision to terminate, it seems today, would put the United States on a path to war with Iran.

Zia Mian, Program on Science and Global Security, Princeton University, physicist and co-director, EXPERT COMMENTARY

Listening to Donald Trump’s announcement of his decision to withdraw the United States from the Iran nuclear deal (also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA) brought to mind Shakespeare’s line about “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” The idiot is “a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more.” Trump certainly was full of sound and fury. Understanding how to respond to that decision, and the larger structures of thought that are at work, requires more than sifting out the nonsense, half-truths, and falsehoods in Trump’s presentation. It is necessary to pay attention to what Donald Trump did not say.

In Trump’s litany about Iran, and the dangers it poses, and what he aimed to do by way of response, three important silences stand out. There are no doubt other silences worth noting. Still, three are clear.

The first silence: Trump’s greatest fear is that Iran may behave like the United States. For Trump, should Iran get what he called “the world’s most dangerous weapons,” along with “ballistic missiles that could deliver nuclear warheads,” America could be “held hostage to nuclear blackmail “ and American cities “threatened with destruction.” This is all true enough. But one would never know from Trump’s speech that the United States has thousands of nuclear weapons and is the only country to have used such weapons to destroy cities.

If Iran is to be condemned for possibly pursuing this appalling capability, and also be compelled to abandon this quest, what are we to make of the purpose of America’s roughly 4,000 existing nuclear weapons? If the problem is nuclear weapons, beyond supporting the new nuclear ban treaty, what can the world do to eliminate nuclear weapons everywhere, starting with these actually existing weapons?

The second silence: There is nothing in Trump’s statement recognizing that today’s world is an international community of states and peoples, the center of which is the United Nations system. The stated purpose of this system, according to the UN Charter, is “[t]o maintain international peace and security, and to that end: to take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace.”

Trump described the nuclear deal as “horrible, one-sided… poorly negotiated ... decaying and rotten ... [and] defective at its core” and claimed that without remedial action “the world’s leading state sponsor of terror will be on the cusp of acquiring the world’s most dangerous weapons.” What Trump did not mention was that the Iran nuclear deal he rejected was unanimously endorsed by the United Nations Security Council.

UN Security Council Resolution 2231 of 20 July 2015 “[c]alls upon all Member States, regional organizations and international organizations to take such actions as may be appropriate to support the implementation of the JCPOA, including by taking actions commensurate with the implementation plan set out in the JCPOA and this resolution and by refraining from actions that undermine implementation of commitments under the JCPOA.” Trump’s action is a clear violation by the United States of this resolution.

What can “[m]ember States, regional organizations and international organizations,” and especially the UN General Assembly and the Security Council, do to assert the legitimacy and mandate of the United Nations in this situation? How can the world hold the United States to account?

The third silence: Trump seems not to consider the possibility of opposition that is so determined, he may not get his way. For Trump, the possibilities and responsibilities of power are his alone: “If I allowed this deal to stand,” he said, things would get much worse, and he alone could fix the problem that is Iran since “[w]hen I make promises, I keep them.” If Iran’s leadership will not submit, “it will have bigger problems than it has ever had before.” There is no doubt in Trump’s mind that eventually Iran will see he was right, and then, “they are going to want to make a new and lasting deal.”

No matter how much he wishes it to be true, Donald Trump, his permissions and commitments, and the power of the American state that he commands cannot shape the entirety of the world’s future. People and their governments everywhere, including American citizens and their representatives, all have a voice, a scope for action. What can they do if they want not to live in Trump’s world? What are the paths for collective, effective resistance and for enabling regime change in Washington?

Siegfried S. Hecker, Stanford University, Center for International Security and Cooperation, EXPERT COMMENTARY

What’s next now that President Trump walked away from what he called a horrible, one-sided nuclear deal with Iran? The Trump administration has not yet presented a coherent new direction for US policy. Unfortunately, we have seen a similar situation play out before, with disastrous results. When President George W. Bush walked away from what he considered a deeply flawed Clinton administration nuclear deal with North Korea in late 2002, his administration was not prepared for the consequences. North Korea withdrew from the Non-Proliferation Treaty, built nuclear bombs, tested bombs, and amassed a nuclear arsenal over the next 16 years that now threatens world peace.

Will re-imposed US sanctions push Iran to follow in North Korea’s footsteps and rush to build the bomb? I think not. However, even if these actions do not precipitate another nuclear crisis in the short term, they will likely strengthen the hold Iran’s hardliners have on their country, intensify Iran’s disruptive actions in the region, strain relations with our allies, and yield greater influence in the region to Russia and China. There are no indications so far as to how the administration will deal with such consequences.

Iran’s decision to agree to and abide by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) indicated its willingness to scale back the nuclear program and put the weapon option on the back burner in return for sanctions relief and regaining a place in the international community. It is not clear, however, if Washington’s re-imposition of sanctions and its push to isolate Iran will change that calculus in Tehran.

Iran, like North Korea, had for decades covertly developed a nuclear weapon option under the guise of pursuing peaceful nuclear energy, but the JCPOA has significantly lengthened the time necessary to break or sneak out to build the bomb. And it has done so with strict verification measures. We can only hope that Iran and the other parties to the deal will continue to abide by it. Regardless, withdrawing from the deal has already alienated US allies and greatly diminished Washington’s ability to limit Iran’s nuclear direction.


Frank von Hippel, Princeton University, Program on Science and Global Security, EXPERT COMMENTARY

Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was right about one thing: President Trump is a moron.

Trump and the people he listens to argue that the agreement Iran made with the United States, China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the European Union was a bad deal. He wants a better deal. Specifically, a Trump Deal would:

  • Limit Iran to a commercially insignificant enrichment program forever—not for just 15 years.
  • Eliminate Iran’s ballistic missile program—although Iran has unilaterally limited the range of its missiles to approximately the range of the Israeli, Saudi, and US fighter bombers in the region that might attack Iran.
  • End the cooperation of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard with armed organizations in Lebanon and Yemen and with the government of Syria.

President Obama decided to focus on the nuclear issue and settled for shrinking and freezing Iran’s nuclear program for 15 years with the hope that, during that period, we could build on the deal. Many of us thought that was a lot better than nothing, and we have had ideas for next steps that would build on the deal. In particular, our idea has been to prevent competing national enrichment programs across the Persian Gulf by putting all enrichment in the region under the control of a multinational organization.

President Trump has not tried to negotiate a better deal himself. Instead, he gave the Europeans and Congress four months to negotiate a better deal. Also, he did not put anything more on the table. Indeed, since he came into office, he has worked to make meaningless the lifting of the sanctions, which is what the Iranians got in the deal.

President Trump also is telling the Iranians that, even though the United States is now formally reneging on lifting the sanctions, Iran had better not ramp its nuclear program back up—or else.

The “or else” is clearly a threat that the United States will bomb Iran’s nuclear and military sites. That is what Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and the leaderships of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates want. They see Iran as a threat even without a nuclear program. Ideally, they would like to see regime change in Teheran.

There is, of course, a precedent for the United States carrying out regime change in Iran. We did it 65 years ago in 1953, after Iran’s first democratically elected secular government nationalized the British-owned oil company in Iran. We replaced that government with a dictator who was overthrown in 1979. Then we backed Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iran and turned a blind eye to Saddam’s use of poison gas against Iran (as well as against Iraq’s rebellious Kurds).

We have forgotten this history, but the Iranians have not. They have their reasons for calling the United States “The Great Satan.”

In 2013, the Iranians elected President Rouhani on a platform to move Iran back toward democracy and to integrate it with the rest of the world. Rather than welcoming that effort, President Trump is confirming, by his actions, the argument of Rouhani’s hardline opponents, who say that they are the ones who can best defend Iran’s independence from the United States.

Of course Iran’s hopes for democracy are not the only ones this president is undermining. Many of us see him attacking our own democracy. Given that, it may turn out in some ways to be a blessing that Trump is not competent but rather, as Secretary Tillerson described him, a moron.

Robert Rosner, chair, Bulletin Science and Security Board, William E. Wrather Distinguished Service Professor in the Departments of Astronomy & Astrophysics and Physics, and the Harris School of Public Policy Studies at the University of Chicago, EXPERT COMMENTARY

President Trump has done as he promised—he’s withdrawn from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the JCPOA, or Iran nuclear agreement) and has ordered the re-imposition of the US sanctions on Iran that this agreement had suspended.

The salient facts are that this step was taken in opposition to our European allies and partners in the agreement, France, Germany and the U.K.; that our European allies—in accord with China and Russia—are not withdrawing from the agreement; that Iran’s first response has been to publicly declare that it plans to continue to abide by the agreement, in concert with our European allies, China, and Russia; and that, as a practical matter, the US sanctions cannot be fully implemented immediately, but rather will take a few months to come into full force.

Clearly, we have entered a period in which it is extremely difficult to predict what is likely to happen next. But unless the United States alters its course over the next few months, one can envisage a few steps taken by our adversaries in response to our withdrawal from the Iran agreement—steps that will not redound to the United States’ favor. Here I want to focus on only one aspect of such retaliation.

Iran’s current posture ensures that the remaining other signatories to the deal—i.e., the U.K., France, Germany, China, and Russia—will have no current reasons to withdraw from the agreement and therefore are extremely unlikely to participate in the reimposed, US-led sanctions. This will generate international stress; according to the sanction rules set down by the United States, it will be put into the position of imposing secondary sanctions on European allies, as well as on China and Russia, if they trade in oil or other proscribed ways with Iran, because if they do, they will be violating American sanction rules.

At minimum, the United States has already managed to anger its own allies and will anger them more if it does indeed impose secondary sanctions on them. It is perfectly conceivable that they may take retaliatory measures in concert with China and Russia. Perhaps the most damaging of such measures—especially in the long term—have already been discussed openly by the Chinese and Russians. These would involve the creation of an alternate international banking system that no longer relies on the US dollar as its principal reserve currency. Eliminating the US dollar as a reserve currency would sharply reduce the effectiveness of US sanctions, which depend on our ability to control international financial transfers, an ability that hinges on the dominance of the US dollar in international trade. The damage of such a shift in international currency flows to the US economy, and to the United States’ ability to influence international trade, would be enormous. And once such a shift occurs, it is difficult to see how the damage might be undone.

The Chinese and Russian push to create a new reserve currency not tied to any one particular nation has a considerable history. That push was motivated by Chinese and Russian frustration with the current reserve currency regime, which has allowed the United States to effectively control the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Indeed, the “dollarization” of the world’s trading system—while largely a boon to the world’s economy—has also been a regular source of concern to other nations, such as Argentina, whose self-inflicted economic difficulties have been exacerbated in part because of the dollar’s dominance. In the past, Europeans have supported the US position on currency policy, which has blocked any significant changes in the current reserve currency system.

But will they continue to support the United States, given how the Trump administration has treated them? Precisely because the dollar is so deeply enmeshed in the word’s trading system, any substantive changes will clearly be difficult to implement, even in the absence of US opposition. But with sufficient motivation, the opponents of the dollar’s role as the primary reserve currency might well win out.

In the post-World War II era, the United States has been a leader in forging positive relationships among nations, and much of our foreign policy posture has been based on such coalition-building. This approach has led to a number of positive international agreements, focusing on trade, pollution, and nuclear non-proliferation, as well as international control of drug trafficking and terrorism. In the case of the Iran agreement, the United States is stepping out alone, without any international partners. It is conducting a diplomatic and economic experiment. The risks of unintentional (and perhaps unforeseen) damaging consequences are very high, and the benefits possibly flowing from that experiment are very difficult to ascertain.

Dina Esfandiary, adjunct fellow, Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), fellow, the Centre for Science and Security Studies at King's College London, EXPERT COMMENTARY

We mustn’t be under any illusion: Trump’s announcement to walk away from the Iran deal achieves absolutely nothing. Rather, it makes everything worse. He discredits the nuclear deal, putting it on the path to destruction and potentially re-opening the doors to an Iranian nuclear program; he puts American credibility on the line; and none of this addresses any international concerns over Iran’s behaviour. This is crisis-creation at its finest.

Trump and other conservatives were concerned about what the deal “gave” Iran: the “sunset” clauses and Iran’s regional activities and missiles. But his decision to pull out of the deal does not address any of these concerns.

Firstly, the deal is a nuclear deal. As such, it addresses Iran’s nuclear program, nothing else. Trump’s statements that Iran was not holding up its end of the bargain and had a path to the bomb were simply false. To date, the International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed (the last count stood at 10 times) that Iran respected its commitments under the deal, as did the European Union. The United States itself confirmed Iranian compliance multiple times. Meanwhile, under Trump, the United States consistently undermined the implementation of the nuclear deal, preventing Iran from getting the carrots that ensured its continued commitment to the deal.

The deal does not cover Iran’s missiles or its role in conflicts throughout the region. Iranian officials indicated a willingness to discuss some of these issues in the months after the JCPOA was agreed, but today such talks are, to say the least, unlikely. Why engage in further discussions when the original deal was not respected? What guarantee do the Iranians have that this time, the United States will be a reliable negotiating partner?

What will Iran do? Its response will be based on a simple cost-benefit analysis. Iran is tired of the nuclear issue; it will not do anything drastic, like pull out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Rather, it will look for ways to stay in the deal, provided the remaining signatories to the JCPOA ensures Trump’s decision can be offset in some way or another. In other words, the EU in particular, along with China and Russia, will have to compensate Iran for the adverse effects of Trump’s decision to ensure that it remains committed to the deal. This means putting in place the Blocking Regulations to isolate its companies from US sanctions or guaranteeing the purchase of Iranian oil and gas. The EU indicated it remains committed to the deal as long as Iran is, but it’s unclear what this means in practice, and whether they have the political will to do something as drastic as implementing their Blocking Regulations.

Trump’s decision to pull the United States out of the Iran deal will not assuage US concerns about Iran’s regional role or its missiles. The decision only serves to create a new crisis on an issue that was shelved more than two years ago. In addition, it impacts US credibility with its allies and its ability to strike future such deals. It is a clear loss for US foreign policy. The question now is, can Europe, Russia, and China do enough to keep Iran on board as the pressure mounts in Tehran to respond forcefully to such a flagrant violation of the Iran deal?

Mark Hibbs, Carnegie’s Nuclear Policy Program, based in Bonn and Berlin, senior associate, EXPERT COMMENTARY

Six decades before the Russian revolution, Karl Marx wrote prophetically that the ghost of communism haunted Europe. In decades to come, the United States and the world might be haunted by a different specter: an anti-American Eurasia reaching from western Europe to the Pacific coast, encompassing China, Russia, and the Shiite Middle East. The powers along this geostrategic trajectory will have very different singular interests, but they will find common ground in their aspiration to reduce America’s influence.

This vision is perhaps extreme, but it came a step closer to reality when President Donald Trump announced that the United States would walk away from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). With one oversized signature Trump dramatically isolated the United States, pitting it against most of the countries on the map from the Atlantic to the Pacific and then some.

The president did this by brushing off and then uniting in opposition nearly all of America’s allies, at a precarious time when a US leadership vacuum is already encouraging its partners to hedge their bets. This week, for instance, leaders of South Korea and Japan are huddling with China to consider a collective defense against Trump’s overtures toward a trade war. On May 8, Trump threw caution to the winds on an issue with enormous strategic gravity. He did this without an apparent Plan B. The first trial will come when European countries ponder how to defend themselves against renewed US secondary sanctions. They may ultimately challenge the United States’ leadership in global financing governance. Iran will have many cards to play, and it will play them while Washington is preoccupied with the task of limiting damage among its partners in NATO, in the European Union, at the IAEA, in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and elsewhere.

Make no mistake: This has not happened because Trump suddenly descended on Washington like a dark meteor. Former Obama administration officials bitterly resent that the JCPOA had became hostage to “Trump’s base.” But the current President’s election was an epiphenomenon that followed from decades of slow-motion cultural, economic, and political decay and disarray in America. This process generated two polarized and increasingly self-referential and intolerant factions that are embroiled in a culture war.

The polarization factored hugely in Trump’s decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal. Beginning in 2013, the Obama administration carried out a secret negotiation to put an end to the crisis over the Iranian nuclear program. Republicans fought tooth and nail to deny him congressional support. They also counted on the Pavlovian response of lawmakers who for years had unanimously and repeatedly passed sanctions against Tehran that carried no political risk because the US had no relations with Iran.

Especially in light of uncertain prospects that the JCPOA would lead to desired results and outcomes—rigorous implementation by Iran of a legally-binding International Atomic Energy Agency Additional Protocol, the establishment of a solid verification base line, and détente in the region that included long-term Iranian nuclear restraint—expectations for the JCPOA should have been carefully managed. That didn’t happen. Instead, right off the bat cheerleaders for the Iran deal following negotiators’ optimistic talking points, awarded it an A grade, and naïve and disingenuous demonizers just as promptly gave it an F.

Into this breach the president stepped on May 8. Trump may have Israel and Saudi Arabia on his side. But without the hint of any strategic contingency planning by the White House, it would appear that the United States can expect to pay for the Iran decision in spades—from western Europe to the Pacific, including especially in Iran, where strategic adversaries aiming to pare US influence will seek and may find new opportunities to do so.

Seyed Hossein Mousavian, Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University, associate research scholar, EXPERT COMMENTARY

Trump’s reneging on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is a severe blow to nonproliferation in general because the agreement represents the highest standards of nuclear transparency and verification ever negotiated. In his belligerent speech announcing the decision, Trump referred to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s theatrical presentation last week, which sought to raise questions about Iranian compliance with the JCPOA. What Trump did not mention was that Iranian compliance has been verified in 11 meticulous IAEA reports since the deal went into effect in January 2016 as well as by the UN secretary general. Trump’s action not only undermined the responsible international bodies that deal with nonproliferation but also admonishes America’s closest allies, who strongly pushed for him to remain in the agreement.

Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA eliminates any chance to build on the agreement and regionalize its principles. Such an effort, together with novel ideas on nuclear regional cooperation, would have been a major step towards making a Middle East nuclear weapons free zone a reality.

Trump has also eliminated prospects for constructive US-Iran diplomatic engagement for the foreseeable future on other issues related to weapons of mass destruction, and on regional conflicts. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had held open the potential of greater cooperation with the United States if the JCPOA were fully and properly implemented. A few months after the deal was reached, in November 2015, Iran was invited to the Geneva process for Syria peace talks for the first time, shortly after which the first cessation of hostilities to the conflict was reached. Now, Trump’s overt hostility greatly undermines efforts to reach political solutions to the region’s many pressing conflicts.

By trying to undo the JCPOA, Trump discredits the notion of US-Iran diplomatic engagement and radicalizes Iranian policies. Indeed, Trump has officially declared a regime-change policy towards Iran, as his speech made clear, setting himself on an all-out confrontational path against Iran. A dangerous new US-Iran escalation will now ensue, and it will have the real potential of resulting in a devastating war that will make the costs of the Iraq War pale in comparison.

Kelsey Davenport, Arms Control Association, director for nonproliferation policy, EXPERT COMMENTARY

Trump’s decision to reimpose sanctions on Iran clearly violates the multilateral Iran nuclear deal, known officially as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). While the move is unsurprising—given Trump’s failure to recognize the nonproliferation value of the deal and frequent threats to walk away—it is dangerous and irresponsible, and it risks manufacturing a nuclear crisis that the international community cannot afford.

There was no legitimate reason for Trump to reimpose sanctions. For the past two years, the nuclear deal has verifiably restricted Iran’s nuclear program and subjected it to intrusive monitoring and verification. Even critics of the deal, such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have admitted that there is no evidence that Iran is in violation of the agreement.

Trump’s main criticism—that the deal paves the way to an Iranian nuclear weapon in 10 years—is based on a flawed analysis that discounts the value that the permanent monitoring mechanisms and prohibitions put in place by the deal possess. They are a bulwark against nuclear weapons development.

By violating the deal, Trump has only isolated the United States and undermined Washington’s credibility. His “plan B” —to negotiate a “better deal” with Iran— is completely unrealistic. After this clear demonstration that the United States cannot be counted on to implement an agreement in good faith, Trump will be hard pressed to gain any support for sanctions, let alone new talks. As a result, Trump is inciting a proliferation crisis, rather than working with allies to develop a long-term diplomatic strategy that would build on the agreement in the years ahead and address Iran’s malignant activities outside of the accord.

Despite Trump’s reckless decision to reimpose sanctions, it would be premature to declare the nuclear deal dead. The JCPOA is a multilateral agreement endorsed by the UN Security Council and Washington’s P5+1 partners—China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United Kingdom—which have pledged to implement the deal, irrespective of US actions. And these states and the European Union have powerful tools at their disposal to block the secondary effects of US sanctions.

It will be critical that these states move quickly to insulate legitimate business from US sanctions, demonstrating to Iran that there is still an incentive—trade with Europe and other developed economies—to continue abiding by the nuclear commitments made under the accord. Failure to ensure that Iran has international trading opportunities will make it more likely that Tehran will respond to Trump’s violation by breaching the nuclear limits. While Iran is unlikely to dash for a bomb, Iranian officials have left the door open to restart uranium enrichment to 20 percent uranium 235, a level of fissionable material currently prohibited by the deal. If Iran choses this path it would destabilize the region and increase the risks of conflict.

Trump’s decision has nonproliferation consequences beyond Iran. Trump is about to sit down at an important summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to discuss denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. Violating the Iran deal undermines US credibility in those negotiations and sends a message to Kim Jong-un that even if an agreement is reached and North Korea abides by its terms, there’s no guarantee that Washington will fulfill its commitments. This is a dangerous precedent to set and risks this historic opportunity to de-escalate tensions with North Korea.

Martin B. Malin, Project on Managing the Atom at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, executive director, EXPERT COMMENTARY

The coming weeks and months will be consumed with discussion of how to manage the consequences of President Trump’s unilateral withdrawal of the United States from the nuclear agreement with Iran known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Today, however, it is important to take stock of the damage.

The US withdrawal cedes both the high ground and the initiative to Iran. President Rouhani has already announced Iran will attempt to negotiate a continuation of the JCPOA with its remaining members, and most of the other parties have already expressed their willingness to maintain the arrangement absent the United States. The United States will shoulder the blame if the JCPOA collapses, and in the meantime has no seat on the Joint Commission to steer the agreement’s implementation.

Keeping the JCPOA intact won’t be easy. Opponents of the deal in Iran, who warned in 2015 that the United States could not be trusted, have been vindicated. The whole notion of engagement with the West has been discredited. For many Iranians, news of a possible breakthrough with North Korea suggests that nuclear weapons confer far more negotiating leverage than does an enrichment program, and Iran no longer has even much of the latter. Unless Rouhani can demonstrate continuing and sizable economic benefits from remaining in the JCPOA, internal politics may force him to suspend elements of the nuclear constraints under the deal, leading to its collapse.

Trump’s move will also increase tensions in an already smoldering Middle East. If Iran exits the deal, ramps up enrichment, and reconstitutes other elements of its nuclear program, the use of US military force against Iran, possibly coordinated with Israel and Saudi Arabia, will become a very real possibility. It is unlikely the violence will be confined to Iranian territory.

The resumption of US nuclear sanctions on Iran will deepen the divide between the United States and Europe. European banks and businesses will cancel current contracts to avoid US penalties (undercutting the viability of a continuation of the JCPOA by the UK, France, Germany, China, Russia and the EU). But European governments, angered by the prospect of sanctions on their companies, will begin to look for ways to retaliate against an intolerably unreliable and increasingly malevolent United States. Retaliation could take the form of EU political and economic sanctions against the United States, along with efforts to indemnify European companies from losses due to US sanctions enforcement. The impact of such measures will not be immediate. But the transatlantic political crisis—against the background of US protectionism, Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, and Trump’s earlier equivocation on US commitments to NATO—will have broad repercussions.

If the JCPOA collapses, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) may too face an untenable situation. Israel and possibly other member states will spur the agency to investigate allegations of previously undisclosed weapons-related activities in Iran. Iran will bar IAEA access to the very sites, people, and information it previously enjoyed. And the United States will sideline the IAEA, apparently seeing no value in IAEA reports that do not advance US efforts to bring about Iranian political capitulation. As the nuclear crisis deepens, the UN Security Council will be rendered powerless by opposing interests among its five permanent members.

Finally, Trump’s decision demonstrates that the United States cannot be trusted to keep its promises. No country, friend or foe, will be able to continue to take US assurances at face value. With US credibility in tatters, it is hard to imagine how the Trump administration will succeed in negotiating new trade agreements or burden-sharing with allies, let alone the denuclearization of the North Korea.

Lawrence J. Korb, Center for American Progress, senior fellow, EXPERT COMMENTARY

It is clear from his reckless decision to pull out of the Iranian nuclear deal, as well as his statements during the campaign and since coming into office, that President Trump does not understand the purpose of arms control agreements.

The purpose of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), i.e. the Iran deal, was to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. While the United States, the other five signatories to the deal, and most of the international community would like Iran to make other changes in its national security policy, these other actions, like developing ballistic missiles or helping keep Assad in power in Syria, are not part of the nuclear deal. Can one imagine what would have happened if the US had pulled out of the Strategic Arms Limitation Agreement (SALT I) and the Anti-ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty with the former Soviet Union, which were negotiated by the Nixon administration in 1972, when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979 or continued to oppress their Warsaw Pact allies?

The president also expressed concerns that some of the provisions of the Iran deal have expiration dates. For example, the Iranians agreed to sharply curtail the quantity and quality of the enriched uranium it produces “only” for the next 15 years.

But almost all arms control agreements do have expiration dates. The Strategic Offensive Reduction Treaty (SORT) negotiated with the Russians in 2002 by the George W. Bush administration expired in 2012. The New START Agreement, negotiated by the Obama administration, expires in 2021. Ironically, Russian president, Putin, offered to extend it for five years, but Trump, seemingly unaware that New START had an expiration date, declined. Moreover, in the arms deal, the Iranians not only shut down most of their nuclear production facilities and shipped most of their stored fuel out of the country, but agreed never to develop nuclear weapons and to allow the inspections to continue indefinitely.

The real issue for Trump or any American president is whether keeping the Iran agreement enhances the security of the United States and its allies. By unilaterally withdrawing from the agreement Trump has weakened American security in at least five ways, something his secretary of defense and the Republican chairman of the House Arm Services Committee warned him about.

First, allowing Iran to develop a nuclear weapon would destabilize the Middle East and the world by possibly igniting a nuclear arms race in the region. Even the Israeli military (as opposed to Prime Minister Netanyahu) believes that getting out of the agreement undermines Israeli security.

Second, Trump’s action increases the influence of Russia and China, nations that the Trump national security strategy claims are now the major threats to the security of the United States. There is no doubt that the Russians will now work more closely with Iran in Syria and that the Chinese will move more forcefully into the Iranian oil market.

Third, Trump’s unwillingness to follow the advice of its major European allies—that is, Germany, the United Kingdom, and France, which urged the United States to stay in the deal—will make it more difficult to work with them to make modifications to the deal or on other issues, including Syria, Yemen, and Crimea.

Fourth, coupled with Trump getting out of the Transpacific Partnership (TPP) and the Paris Climate Accord unilaterally, abrogating an arms deal that was working will undermine the United States’ ability to preserve the liberal world order that it helped establish and that has prevented a major war for the past 70 years.

Fifth, Trump’s snapping back sanctions will undermine the power and influence of Iran’s moderate president, Hassan Rouhani, and increase that of the hardliners in the Iranian political system who were opposed to the deal. Their opposition was based on the claim that Iranians could not trust Americans to keep their part of the bargain. Moreover, there is no doubt that Trump’s decision will also have a negative impact on the Iranian economy, which is already in poor shape, further increasing the influence of the hardliners.

In his remarks Trump gave no indication that he has a Plan B for dealing with Iran or the other five countries that signed onto the JCPOA. Does he want regime change? Or is he just trying to undermine Obama’s legacy?

Sharon Squassoni, Elliott School of International Affairs, the George Washington University; Bulletin Science and Security Board member, research professor at the Institute for International Science and Technology Policy, EXPERT COMMENTARY

President Donald Trump finally pulled the plug on US participation in the Iran nuclear deal in a statement at the White House. Facing a requirement to continue to waive sanctions under a 2012 defense authorization law by May 12, Trump decided to keep his campaign pledge to abandon the Iran deal. Undoubtedly, his two newest advisors—National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo—bolstered his confidence to take this dramatic step.

For Trump, getting out of the Iran deal is the political equivalent of firing someone on “The Apprentice.” It is a short-term action completely divorced from any consideration of long-term consequences. In this case, however, the long-term consequence may not be what he fears, which is a resurgence of Iranian bad behavior, including development of nuclear weapons. Instead, it will be a far greater negative development for global security—the growing and ultimate irrelevance of the United States.

Despite Trump’s visceral dislike of the Iran deal—known officially as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA—it had benefits for all.

Already, press reports indicate that Iran will work with European countries, and Russia and China, to continue to implement the accord. This is the surest way to diminish US authority and leverage. Russia and China have little use for American efforts to rewrite the rules of the game, and Europeans, while they traditionally side with the US, may at this point be a little skeptical of Trump’s vision. Macron, reportedly, has been consulting with Iranian officials just this week.

Ironically, the very commodity that brought Iran to the negotiating table—oil—will be the undoing of American influence. The set of sanctions that Trump will first reimpose means big costs for big oil companies. Those sanctions affect third parties that do oil business through the Central Bank of Iran and have US banking business. Between 2012 and 2015, oil purchases from Iran fell, but then rose again to pre-sanctions levels after the Iran nuclear deal took effect. In 2016, Asian buyers (China, India, South Korea, and Japan) bought 85 percent of Iran’s oil exports, and European buyers purchased the rest. India is poised to significantly increase its oil business with Iran. What will these US allies and competitors (including China) do now?

Iran has huge incentives to stay in the deal. After all, oil accounts for more than half of all of its exports. The Europeans, Russia, and China will also have their own incentives to continue implementing the JCPOA. China, Japan, and South Korea rely on Iran for between six percent and 10 percent of their oil imports. The question is whether they can find an unobtrusive work-around US third-party sanctions on Iranian oil. Using oil trading firms like the Swiss-headquartered Vitol might be an option.

For his part, President Trump offers little that would replace the JCPOA. He has been stark in his criticism of the Iran nuclear deal but his prescriptions of how to fix its “terrible flaws” are essentially unworkable. For example, his proposal in his January 12, 2018 speech that the deal be changed to require Iran to “allow immediate inspections at all sites requested by international inspectors” is impractical and demonstrates ignorance about the basic operations of inspections.

Similarly, it’s unclear how he would ensure that Iran “never even comes close to possessing a nuclear weapon.” For verification experts, possession of a nuclear weapon is the very tail end of a long developmental process, and most experts would prefer that the line be drawn much earlier on—say, for example, at Iran’s ability to produce material for use in a nuclear weapon. Likewise, Trump’s requirement that a new deal eliminate the “expiration date for the JCPOA’s nuclear restrictions on Iran” is unrealistic and seems to presume that Iran will forever be a pariah state.

The purpose of the JCPOA was not to perpetually punish Iran but to start a process of building transparency and, hopefully, trust on all sides that would lead Iran to conclude it was better off without nuclear weapons than with them. President Trump’s other requirements—subjecting Iran’s development and testing of missiles to “severe sanctions,” and having the United States and its allies take stronger steps to “confront Iran’s other malign activities”—have already been acted upon and do not require any changes to the JCPOA.

If Iran and other JCPOA partners find a way to continue implementing the deal, President Trump may ultimately be ushering in the denouement of US influence in the nuclear nonproliferation realm, and perhaps beyond.

William H. Tobey, Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, senior fellow, EXPERT COMMENTARY

The decision to leave the JCPOA is a blunder. The deal has significant flaws, notably a relatively brief duration and a failure to compel Iran to make a complete and correct declaration of all relevant nuclear activities—the bedrock of any effective verification system. Withdrawing from the agreement, however, only compounds those problems, shortening the duration and abandoning mechanisms to investigate and respond to compliance issues.

Ironically, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent bombshell revelation of Iranian deceit regarding its nuclear weapons development program offered an opening to improve and enforce the JCPOA. The United States and its allies could have taken Israel’s intelligence coup to the Joint Commission established by the deal, seeking a reinforced mandate for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). So armed, the agency could have investigated the revelations of undeclared equipment and facilities and, if confirmed, required them to be removed or rendered unusable.

Instead, the US withdrawal may lead to the worst of all worlds: an unconstrained Iranian enrichment program; a debilitated sanctions regime; and, a NATO Alliance riven by yet another fracture.

Where we go from here is unclear. The United States cannot expect much help from Russia or China, Tehran’s biggest oil customer. Last week in Washington, President Trump snubbed personal appeals by leaders from Britain, France, and Germany, so allied enthusiasm for restoring sanctions may well be limited. Iran has already announced that it will try to undermine the case for sanctions by continuing the deal with the remaining signatories. President Trump declared a willingness to deploy secondary sanctions against foreign companies that trade with Iran. Some will comply; others, with limited US interests or sovereign protection, will not. All will chafe at the unilateral US action.

Israel’s late foreign minister Abba Eban famously observed that his adversaries “never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” Sadly, the United States seems to be embracing that style of opportunism.

Graham Allison, former director, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs , Douglas Dillon Professor of Government, Harvard Kennedy School, EXPERT COMMENTARY

Today, President Trump announced his decision to withdraw from the Iranian nuclear agreement. If summarizing my reaction in a tweet: bad choice. If given a few more characters: bad for the US, and bad for our ally Israel, which stands much closer to this front line.

Yes, Prime Minister Netanyahu will applaud. But the individuals who shoulder responsibility for Israel’s survival and security have been crystal clear: This will most likely lead to an outcome that is much worse not only for the United States, but also for Israel. As Chief of the General Staff Gadi Eizenkot, who commands the Israel Defense Forces, stated bluntly recently: “Right now the agreement, with all its faults, is working and is putting off the realization of the Iranian nuclear vision by 10 to 15 years.”

On this issue, Eizenkot’s judgment is not exceptional. It reflects the virtually unanimous view of the “security barons” who have led Israel’s military and intelligence services. Last week, 26 former top-ranking military and security officials published a joint letter warning fellow citizens: “American abandonment of the agreement would undermine not just the deal, but Israel’s security as well.”

On what grounds can one reject the reasoning and conclusions of these professionals? Do General Eizenkot and his colleagues have illusions about Iran’s nuclear ambitions? Are they unaware of the evidence in the “atomic archive” that Bibi presented as a “revelation” in his recent theatrical performance? Are they soft on Iran?

Not on your life. But they have wrestled with the specter of a genuine existential threat to the state of Israel—something they see as 1,000 times worse than all of security challenges Israel faces from Iran today. That would be today’s Iran armed with nuclear weapons.

Before the agreement, Iran’s nuclear program had advanced to less than a year away from its first bomb. The agreement not only halted that advance, but rolled it back a decade, and imposed on Iran the most intrusive inspection regime ever negotiated—to prevent the Iranians from cheating, for fear of being found out. Trump’s decision gives Iran an option to escape this penalty box. Bad choice.

Abbas Milani, co-director, the Iran Democracy Project at the Hoover Institution, Hamid and Christina Moghadam Director of Iranian Studies at Stanford University, EXPERT COMMENTARY

The much-rumored and long-expected announcement by President Trump that he will order the United States to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal—officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA­—is arguably the worst policy option for addressing problems in what was the least-bad possible deal when it was signed. Contrary to what candidate and then-President Trump often repeated (with his penchant for hyperbole), it was not the worst deal in history.

There are some remarkable similarities between the slings and arrows being launched at this agreement here in the US and back in Iran. When it was signed, presidents in Iran and the United States both oversold the agreement, promising more than they could deliver. Conservatives here and in Iran were also, from the outset, ready to pounce on the deal—sometimes based on false claims about what it does or does not do, sometimes claiming that their side had made too many concessions. Ironically, in words that almost echo Trump’s language, Iranian conservatives called the JCPOA the most shameful one-sided deal Iran has signed in its modern history—a Torkmanchay, the 1828 agreement forced on a defeated and demoralized Iran by Russia, a pact synonymous with Iranian defeat and colonial arrogance. In Washington, as in Tehran, the opponents of the deal missed no opportunity to undermine it, demonize its negotiators, dampen or limit its potential positive impact, and create or use an excuse to overturn it. The ironic structural similarities between enmities against the JCPOA here and in Tehran has, under the complicated contours of current realities, particularly in Iran, taken on new ominous turn, with far reaching, even historic strategic consequences.

Much discussion of these consequences has focused on what might happen to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to regional arms races, to US relations with allies, or to relations between the United States and North Korea. In reality, the most important consequences must be sought in the realities and balance of forces in Iran. There, the economy is reeling under double-digit inflation and unemployment, a 50-percent fall in the price of Iranian currency in the last two months, a massive flight of capital from Iran’s fledgling markets, a financial system on the verge of collapse, a water shortage of almost Biblical proportions, and most important of all, an increasingly disgruntled population more and more militating against regime corruption, incompetence, cronyism, costly and regional adventurism. For the first time, that population is also defiantly finding Ayatolla Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, responsible for failed policies.

In these troubled times, for Khamenei and his allies, the US scuttling of the JCPOA will be a god-send. It will give them—as it has already done—bragging rights, allowing them to plausibly declare that they were right in their opposition to rapprochement with the US. It might give the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC, the excuse to seize power outright and establish a military government. It will certainly give the IRGC a chance to busy giddy minds with allegations of foreign intrigues. In other words, the US pullout from the Iran nuclear agreement will afford the Supreme Leader and his allies yet another scapegoat to blame for their own failed policies and dogmas. Iran will not leave a US-less JCPOA, but the conservatives there will milk the US pullout for all they can to isolate any opposition to their failed regime.

Yet more potentially dangerous is the effect of the US action on the regional role and power of Russia and China. Here in the United States, the media have been preoccupied with covering the apparent Russian meddling in US politics. In Iran, however, Russia has been increasing its power and presence. Russian planes now have the right to use Iranian bases to fly missions. Iran quietly announced recently that it will henceforth try to replace English with Russian as the primary foreign language taught in Iranian schools. Khamenei has long quietly favored an Iranian pivot to Russia. Talk of the US withdrawal from JCPOA was enough for him, and his allies to propose such a move more openly. An Iranian pivot toward Russia—and away from the West—will have far reaching, perhaps historic consequences.

No less critically, China, with investment capital on hand, waits patiently on the horizon. A further weakened Iranian regime and economy might have no place to turn, but to China.

The imprudent policies of today, including a unilateral withdrawal or undermining of the JCPOA, might well come to dangerous roost, long after Donald Trump ceases to be president of the United States.

Joshua H. Pollack, editor of the Nonproliferation Review, senior research associate at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, EXPERT COMMENTARY

Today, ahead of a self-imposed deadline of May 12, President Donald Trump announced his decision that the United States should essentially exit the Iran nuclear deal. The president’s contempt toward the Iran deal—officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA—mirrors his attitude toward another signature element of his predecessor’s legacy, the Affordable Care Act. Furthermore, his brinkmanship of the last few months over the JCPOA—meant to compel America’s European partners to “fix” the deal to his liking by a specified date—resembles nothing so much as his decision to unravel the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. In both those cases, he has put Congress in the political hot seat.

It’s a safe bet that Trump understands none of these complex policy matters in any depth. In each case, he has condemned an Obama-era law or policy in hyperbolic terms, while foisting responsibility for a replacement on whoever is invested in the outcome. After all, a blackmailer can hardly afford to care about his hostages.

So far, this policymaking-as-psychodrama has yielded approximately nothing in domestic policy. How will it play out in the case of the Iran nuclear deal, for which there has been no shortage of voices proposing a “fix?”

It would have been wiser to defer any decision on leaving the agreement indefinitely, because no better deal with Iran is forthcoming. The leverage that helped to bring about the JCPOA depended on a broadly multilateral front against the export-dependent Iranian economy, assembled painstakingly over many years. While America’s European partners, especially France, have sought to find some rhetorical middle path that might appease Washington, Trump has shown no interest in fig leaves. Now, if Tehran chooses to continue upholding the terms of the deal, it is unlikely that the Europeans—or any of Iran’s other major trade partners—will return to imposing sanctions. The deal is likely to continue in some form, only without the United States.

It follows that Trump’s decision to reimpose sanctions means only a major unforced error by the Iranians—an unnecessary decision to follow the US out the door—would spare the United States from isolation and loss of leverage.

Iran’s nuclear ambitions may not be a solved problem in any ultimate sense, but President Obama succeeded in putting the issue in abeyance for a generation. That achievement won’t be improved upon in the foreseeable future. It should not have been discarded so lightly, or at all.

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