President Trump has been criticized for lacking even a shred of cohesion in his decision making, but there has been one unifying theme over his first 15 months in office: torching the legacy of Barack Obama. The latest of his predecessor’s accomplishments set for incineration is the Iran deal, which Trump announced plans to abandon today. The withdrawal comes after months of campaigning from experts, administration officials and the international community to preserve the deal, which Trump has been decrying as “one of the worst” ever since the 2016 campaign. The president wasn’t swayed, remaining convinced he can renegotiate a better arrangement despite Iran’s refusal to do so.
While announcing the United States’ removal from the “decaying and rotten” agreement Tuesday afternoon, Trump said it’s “fine” that Iran is refusing to negotiate a new deal, and that he will be ready to talk when the nation does decide to discuss new terms. In the meantime, Trump says he will work to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, and that if the regime resumes its development of a weapons program, “it will have bigger problems than it has ever had before.”
He continued: Today’s action sends a critical message … the U.S. no longer sends empty threats. When I make promises, I keep them.”
Negotiated in July 2015, the deal, officially dubbed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, stipulated that Iran rid itself of nuclear fuel if the United States waived sanctions that had been crippling the nation’s economy. As part of the deal, a UN nuclear agency would monitor Iran’s fidelity to the agreement and, thus far, the agency has determined that Iran has complied. After 10 years, restrictions on research and development would lighten, and after 15 years, Iran would be able to produce nuclear fuel, but not in service of a weapons program. Along with the lack of a provision preventing Iran from testing ballistic missiles, this “sunset clause” has been pointed to by Trump as one of the principle reasons the deal is a “disaster.”
Most supporters of the deal have acknowledged its flaws, but have advocated working to amend the terms rather that starting from scratch. Trump’s insistence on blowing the deal up may prove problematic, though, as Iran has stated that it is not willing to start negotiating an entirely new deal. This leaves the United States with no agreement, and leaves the rest of the world – the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, and China all signed onto the deal, as well – fearing the worst. “We would open the Pandora’s box,” French President Emmanuel Macron recently told German paper Der Spiegel of the impact of the U.S. pulling out of the deal. “There could be war.”
Here are three immediate takeaways from Trump’s decision today.
1. Iran is now free to build a nuclear bomb
Since the deal took effect in October 2015, the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency has kept close tabs on the degree to which Iran has upheld its promise to suspend its nuclear weapons program. The nation’s former uranium enrichment plants are monitored constantly, dust samples are collected that are then analyzed for traces of nuclear activity and tips are investigated as to sites of suspicious activity within Iran. This element of oversight was a lynchpin of the agreement, as it has ensured there is virtually no way for Iran to even begin developing a nuclear weapon. Secretary of Defense James Mattis has called the verification process “robust.”
The IAEA offers an unprecedented degree of transparency into the Iran’s nuclear capabilities, an invaluable safeguard considering Iran’s history as an untrustworthy adversary. With this safeguard removed, Iran would be free to renew its nuclear weapons program, and the United States would have no way of monitoring whether they are developing weapons. As some have pointed out, this could pave the way for an invasion.
The Iran deal provides substantially more provision for verification of denuclearization & ongoing monitoring of such than will exist in this new post-Iran-deal reality. Watch arguments for war in the coming months take the shape of “we can’t be sure Iran isn’t building a bomb.”
— Spencer Ackerman (@attackerman) May 8, 2018
Part of what has emboldened Trump to renege is the departures of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster – who both encouraged the president to uphold the deal – with Mike Pompeo and John Bolton, respectively, who have both been critical of it. Bolton was involved in an eerily similar situation 15 years ago before the United States invaded Iraq.
15 years ago, Bolton + Netanyahu justified their demand for a confrontation with Iraq by claiming the weapons inspectors there were being duped. Now they’re peddling the same story about the inspections in Iran. Why can’t America learn from its mistakes?https://t.co/JraoV4kb4c pic.twitter.com/gNHHzywuB5
— Peter Beinart (@PeterBeinart) May 8, 2018
Iran’s capability to build a bomb would also incentivize other Middle Eastern nations to pursue nuclear weapons programs. “What has been gained from the nuclear deal? Imagine all the mutually contaminating civil wars and internecine conflicts that rage across the Middle East today. Then turn the dial and add the possibility of a regional nuclear arms race triggered by Iran dashing for a bomb,” wrote British foreign secretary Boris Johnson in a recent op-ed for the New York Times. “That is the scenario which the agreement has helped to prevent.”
2. Trump’s decision will likely alienate allies
Though brokered by the Obama administration, the Iran deal is very much an international accord, and the implications of Trump’s refusal to waive sanctions on Iran come the May 12th deadline will be wide-ranging. In recent weeks, representatives from the United Kingdom, France and Germany have all visited the U.S. in an effort to convince Trump to preserve the deal, acknowledging its flaws but pleading with the president to consider working to fix or amend the agreement rather than dissolving it entirely. Boris Johnson even attempted to appeal to Trump by saying that a Nobel Peace Prize could be a possibility if the president were able to fix the Iran deal and negotiate something similar with North Korea.
France, Germany, and the UK regret the U.S. decision to leave the JCPOA. The nuclear non-proliferation regime is at stake.
— Emmanuel Macron (@EmmanuelMacron) May 8, 2018
Though Trump has removed the United States from the deal, allies in Europe have committed to upholding it, and the reinstatement of sanctions may result in tension between the U.S. and those it relies on most. It could also cause a rift with China and Russia, who have also encouraged the United States to remain in the deal, warning of the geopolitical insecurity that would ensue should the deal be scrapped. As was the case when Trump removed the United States from the Paris Accords last summer, scrapping the Iran deal would be a significant blow to its standing as an international leader.
3. The abandonment may hinder an impending deal with North Korea
Reimposing sanctions on Iran would be Trump’s most consequential foreign policy maneuver yet, but a meeting with Kim Jong-un looms large. For Trump to pull out of a deal that by all accounts, Iran is complying with, it could make North Korea wary of entering into a similar deal with the United States.
“North Korea could not claim the U.S. abrogates agreements without cause and would be more likely to negotiate and end to its nuclear program,” wrote the National Coalition to Prevent an Iranian Nuclear Weapon, a bipartisan collection of over 100 national security veterans, a in a letter published last month. “Efforts to limit nuclear proliferation would be strengthened.”
Trump has used every superlative in the book in criticizing the Iran deal. If he wants to broker an agreement that would result in the denuclearization of North Korea, he’s going to have to devise something even more advantageous for the U.S. than the Iran deal that North Korea will also agree to. This seems far fetched, to say the least. “The man who wrote The Art of the Deal has staked out a position that the Iran deal was the worst one in history,” Robert S. Litwak, author of Preventing North Korea’s Nuclear Breakout recently explain to the New York Times. “And now he has to show that he can do much better, with a far harder case.”
Trump ran on his dealmaking prowess, but there have been few examples of it through his first 15 months in office. Hopefully, for the sake of humanity, he’s just been saving up all his negotiating acumen for his upcoming meeting with Kim Jong-un. He’s going to need it.
Along with his Tuesday afternoon announcement that the United States would remove itself from the Iran deal, Trump told the nation that newly minted Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was on his way to North Korea to work on the terms for the president’s upcoming meeting with Kim Jong-un. “Plans are being made, relationships are building, and hopefully a deal will happen,” Trump said.