Exactly five years ago, Donald Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal in one of the dumbest moves of his presidency—the dumbest when it comes to foreign policy.
This is not a partisan statement. It’s also true that President Joe Biden’s failure to reverse Trump’s misstep ranks as the most puzzling—and may prove to be most catastrophic—decision in his term of office so far.
But Trump’s move on May 8, 2018, set the stage for whatever disasters may come of it. By the time he pulled the plug, Iran was well on its way to dismantling its nuclear program. International inspectors, who were granted full access to suspect sites, said in all of their routine reports that Iran was in full compliance with the deal’s terms.
Now the inspectors are gone, and Iran is closer to building an atom bomb than it ever has been.
Why did Trump abrogate the deal? First, he didn’t much like arms-control agreements of any sort. Second, he particularly distrusted Iran, a view bolstered by his friendship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (ignoring the fact that most Israeli military and intelligence officers supported the deal). Finally, and perhaps most significantly: To Trump’s mind, nothing Obama ever did could be touted as a success, so the Iran deal—a resounding success by all objective measures—had to be pummeled as (in Trump’s oft-repeated words) “the worst deal ever.”
It’s worth recounting here what the Iran nuclear deal—formally called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—did and did not do. Basically, it required Iran to dismantle almost all of its nuclear program; in exchange, the U.S. would lift almost all of its economic sanctions. In the main clauses, Iran had to:
• Destroy all of its uranium enriched to 3.75 percent and limit further enriched uranium to 3.5 percent. (Weapons-grade uranium is enriched to 90 percent.)
• Cut its uranium stockpile by 90 percent (to 300 kilograms, not enough to build one A-bomb).
• Destroy two-thirds of its centrifuges—the devices that enrich uranium—and refrain from building advanced models, which spin faster.
• Export the spent fuel from its research reactors, which could otherwise be reprocessed into plutonium.
• Stop all work on metallurgy related to the casings for uranium or plutonium bombs.
• Allow officials from the International Atomic Energy Agency to inspect all known and suspected nuclear sites with 24 hours’ notice.
The limits on uranium would expire in 10 years (by 2016) but those on centrifuges would last 20 years and IAEA’s monitoring of uranium mines and mills would last 25 years.
In exchange, the U.S. would lift sanctions, which it had imposed when Iran started developing its nuclear program—but it would not lift the sanctions that had been imposed as a penalty for producing ballistic missiles or for sponsoring terrorism.
When Trump pulled out, he reimposed all the economic sanctions—not only on Iran but also on any country doing business with Iran. For nearly a year, Iran’s diplomats tried to find ways around the restrictions—as did several EU countries, though to no avail. (The Europeans weren’t willing to be barred from transactions in dollars for the sake of their paltry trade with Iran.)
Meanwhile, Iran’s leaders continued to abide by the deal’s other terms—they continued to dismantle their nuclear program and to allow intrusive inspections. Finally, though, seeing no way to break through the sanctions, they resumed enriching uranium and, gradually, the other once-banned activities as well. They did so, citing Paragraph 36 of the JCPOA: If one signatory finds that others “were not meeting their commitments,” then, after consultations, it would have “grounds to cease performing its commitments.”
Republicans complained that Iran was violating the nuclear deal. The irony was twofold. First, Iran was only reacting to Trump’s abrogation of the deal, and doing so in a way that the deal allowed. Second, if the deal was as bad as the Republicans claimed it was, why did they see Iran’s violations as so egregious?
Then Biden won the White House. Having been Obama’s vice president, Biden of course supported the accord, as did his top aides, some of whom had been deeply involved in the talks with Iran during Obama’s administration. Many in Congress would have opposed a resumption, but the deal was a “multinational executive arrangement,” not a treaty, so Congress had no formal say in the matter. Another crucial fact: The Iranian leaders who’d signed the deal—President Hassan Rouhani and foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, both reformers, relatively speaking—were still in office. Elections, which would likely (and ultimately did) restore harder-line clerics to power, were scheduled for June. In the five months till then, Biden could have re-initialed the deal or at least reopened talks.
True, around this time, Tehran was stiffening its resistance to resuming diplomacy. European officials tried to get the ball rolling again. Iranians refused to meet with any Americans directly. The EU offered to be an intermediary. Preliminary talks got underway in Vienna, but they soon broke down. The impasse was almost juvenile. Biden officials wanted Tehran to dismantle some of its nuclear program before they lifted some sanctions; Iranian officials wanted Biden to make the first move. A reasonable case could be made that Washington should go first. After all, the U.S., not Iran, had scrapped the deal; Biden was in the process of reversing several of Trump’s executive orders. He could have done the same with JCPOA. But he didn’t. Why didn’t he?
I have asked this question in many quarters over the past two years. So have several other reporters. I have neither heard nor read a persuasive answer. Some officials have said Biden’s plate was full, as indeed it was, but he managed to extend New START—the U.S.-Russian nuclear arms reduction treaty, which Obama had signed in 2010 and which was about to expire—two weeks after Inauguration Day. He could have at least reopened talks on JCPOA with nearly as little difficulty.
It is now nearly impossible to get back on course with the Iran nuclear deal, and it has been for at least the past year. Tehran’s leaders have decided it’s not worth trying to suck up to the U.S., and for good reasons. First, they see no reason to trust Washington; even if Biden were to act in good faith (and, from their point of view, he hasn’t), his successor might not, especially if it’s Trump. Second, they have managed to strike alliances with other countries, notably Russia and China, whose leaders have also figured out ways to bypass U.S. sanctions.
This is another lesson of Trump’s great blunder. His withdrawal from the deal was part of a new policy called “maximum pressure.” As applied to Iran, the idea—encouraged by his then-new national security adviser and secretary of state, John Bolton and Mike Pompeo—was that the renewed sanctions would have one of two effects. In public, they said they hoped to push Tehran back to the table to negotiate a “better” nuclear deal. In fact, though, they knew there was no better deal to be had; their real motive was to devastate Iran’s economy so harshly that the people (or some faction of the elite) would rise up and oust the regime.
It didn’t work. Though its economy is far from robust, Iran is now exporting as much oil as it did just before Trump pulled out of the deal. It is on the verge of becoming a nuclear-armed power, if its rulers want it to be. And if they do, it will be Trump’s fault for pushing them over the ledge—and, to some degree, Biden’s for not doing enough to pull them back.