President Donald Trump has pulled the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal. The bold — and misguided — decision is intended to remedy an agreement he denounced as “the worst deal ever.” It is instead a blow to U.S. leadership, a rebuke to its allies and threatens to unleash a regional arms race.
Trump has been a vocal and persistent critic of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the multilateral agreement to cap Iran’s nuclear program. The deal was reached in 2015 after years of negotiation among the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, Germany and the International Atomic Energy Agency. Trump dismissed it as a “horrible, one-sided deal,” that was “defective at its core.” He contended it allowed Iran to restart its nuclear program in 2025, postponing rather than permanently ending its nuclear ambitions, and that it did not affect Iran’s other “misbehavior” in the region — its missile program or supporting organizations fighting elsewhere in the Middle East.
His criticisms are accurate. The deal delayed, rather than denied, Iran’s nuclear program and ignored other elements of Iranian bad behavior. He is wrong, however, on everything else. The deal has capped Iran’s nuclear programs and the postponement would allow Tehran to build trust with neighboring countries that would encourage it to give up those nuclear dreams. Significantly, the IAEA has acknowledged that Tehran has complied with the agreement. And while other Iranian misdeeds continue, the deal did not address them. The parties agreed to and accepted mutual compromise.
Why then is Trump so insistent on tearing up the agreement and accepting the taint of international scofflaw? One explanation is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s influence on Trump’s thinking about the Middle East. Netanyahu rejects the JCPOA and believes Iran is an existential threat to his country. Other Israelis disagree: 26 former senior military and security Israeli officials published a joint letter warning that U.S. “abandonment of the agreement would undermine not just the deal, but Israel’s security as well.” Equally, if not more, compelling for Trump is his reflexive antipathy to any of his predecessor’s decisions. That the deal was agreed by Barack Obama is reason enough for Trump to reject it.
U.S. withdrawal could be calamitous. Iran can now move at full speed to acquire a nuclear weapons capability, arguing Washington has abrogated the deal. That would spur the arms race that Trump fears as Iran’s neighbors respond, or, worse, prompt a military strike by regional governments to pre-empt Tehran from doing so.
Iran has indicated that it will work with the other signatories to maintain the JCPOA framework. President Hassan Rouhani reaffirmed his commitment to the deal and announced his intent to negotiate with European countries, China and Russia. That will become more difficult as U.S. sanctions snap back into place over six months and Iran loses the chief incentive for compliance: The prospect of renewed economic relations with other countries, and reintegration into the global economy.
In the meantime, the U.S. has turned its back on allies’ entreaties to maintain the agreement. The leaders of France and Germany went to Washington to try to persuade him to stay in the deal. They, along with Britain’s prime minister, noted the U.S. decision with “regret and concern,” calling the agreement “important for our shared security.” They pledged to continue to respect the JCPOA and urged Iran to do so as well. Many European companies have resumed doing business with Iran since the deal was struck: U.S. sanctions will punish them as much as they harm Iran. So, in addition to undermining a deal that had capped Iran’s nuclear program, Trump’s decision has again demonstrated his contempt for U.S. allies and will raise broader questions about U.S. reliability when making international agreements and the credibility of U.S. commitments to its security partners. It marginalizes Washington in the region, and will strengthen Moscow’s claim that it is a responsible mediator and facilitator of regional outcomes.
Finally, for all Trump’s complaints, he has not described what he wants or how he would get there. He has demanded that the other signatories fix the deal to his satisfaction, without telling them what he wants. It is an immature and irresponsible negotiating technique.
Japan’s reaction to the U.S. withdrawal has been muted. Foreign Minister Taro Kono said Japan supported the agreement, which “helps to strengthen international nonproliferation and the stability in the Middle East.” While the country will “carefully analyze the impact that this announcement would have,” the economic harm will be inescapable. Japan gets around 7 percent of crude oil imports from Iran and there are some 30 Japanese companies with branches in Iran. Japanese exports to Iran of industrial machinery and steel products grew 300 percent when sanctions were lifted. Yet more collateral damage in a misguided decision by the U.S. president.