After President Donald Trump had warned he would cancel the nuclear deal with Iran, administration officials spent months trying to negotiate an agreement with European allies on how to strengthen the JCPOA to satisfy the president’s concerns. As columnist Bret Stephens noted, “the same people who previously claimed the deal was the best we could possibly hope for suddenly became inventive in proposing means to fix it” (New York Times, May 8, 2018).
The Europeans were unwilling, however, to make significant changes in the agreement, and were particularly opposed to reimposing sanctions that would threaten their business opportunities in Iran. Consequently, on May 8, 2018, Trump announced the United States would be exiting the nuclear deal, making good on a campaign pledge to undo an agreement he repeatedly criticized as the worst deal ever. “The Iran deal is defective at its core,” he said. “If we do nothing, we know exactly what will happen. In just a short period of time, the world’s leading state sponsor of terror will be on the cusp of acquiring the world’s most dangerous weapons.”
Trump also announced the U.S. would reimpose sanctions lifted as part of the JCPOA and that “no new contracts” with Iran will be permitted. The U.S. Treasury Department said it would halt transactions in Iranian government debt or currency, and purchases involving the country’s automobile sector within 90 days. Deals involving Iran’s oil and energy sector, shipping and ports, would be banned within 180 days. Individuals and entities that were delisted from sanctions will be re-designated. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin specifically said the administration was revoking licenses for Boeing and Airbus to sell aircraft to Iran. Mnuchin also declared, “Our objective is to, again, eliminate transactions and eliminate access to their oil industry” (Washington Post, May 9, 2018).
One objective of the sanctions is to bring Iran back to the negotiating table and allow the international community to forge a deal that will prevent Iran from building a nuclear weapon and stop its other destabilizing activities. The day after withdrawing from the agreement, Trump warned if Iran resumed its nuclear program, there would be “very severe consequences” (Politico, May 9, 2018).
After Trump’s announcement, French President Emanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and UK Prime Minister Teresa May issued a joint statement expressing “regret and concern” and stating their intention to honor the terms of the agreement. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said that the deal remains in place despite the American withdrawal (Yara Bayoumy and Brian Love, “Europeans scramble to save Iran deal after Trump reneges, Reuters, May 9, 2018). An official statement from the Chinese Foreign Ministry urged the international community to defend the deal.
European Union leaders also met with their Iranian counterparts to reassure them they would do what they could to protect the JCPOA from the effects of the sanctions. Trade between the European Union and Iran skyrocketed following the signing of the JCPOA, from $9.2 billion in 2015 to $25 billion in 2017. Trump, however, warned that “any nation that helps Iran in its quest for nuclear weapons could also be strongly sanctioned by the United States.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo added later: “We understand that our reimposition of sanctions and the coming pressure campaign on the Iranian regime will pose financial and economic difficulties for a number of our friends. Indeed, it imposes economic challenges to America as well. These are markets our businesses would love to sell into as well. And we want to hear their concerns. But we will hold those doing prohibited business in Iran to account” (Remarks at the Heritage Foundation, May 21, 2018).
The decision to withdraw from the deal was met with widespread criticism from many foreign policy experts, former Obama administration officials and some nuclear proliferation analysts. A poll published by Politico also indicated the American public was split on the decision (40-37 percent opposed pulling out in response to one question but, when worded differently, respondents approved by a 42-40 percent margin) and most felt it made both the United States and Israel less safe (Politico, May 2018).
Meanwhile, America’s Middle Eastern allies expressed enthusiastic support for the U.S. announcement. Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE, and Bahrain all pointed out the flaws in the agreement and hailed Trump’s decision (MEMRI, May 9, 2018).
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani expressed his desire to stay in the deal and continue negotiations with the European Union, China and Russia. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted that he would “spearhead a diplomatic effort to examine whether remaining JCPOA participants can ensure its full benefits for Iran.” He said the outcome of those talks would “determine our response” (Washington Post, May 9, 2018). The Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, subsequently said Iran would resume its nuclear activities unless the Europeans agreed to “safeguard trade” and protect Iranian oil sales from U.S. sanctions by purchasing Iranian crude. He also demanded that the Europeans promise not to seek negotiations on Iran’s ballistic missile research or its regional activities (Washington Post, May 24, 2018).
Despite the U.S. withdrawal from the agreement, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) still has “both the right and the obligation to ensure the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program” based on United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231 and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Iran also “has a binding legal obligation to grant the IAEA access to all relevant sites, materials, equipment, documents, and personnel to resolve outstanding questions about the military dimensions of Iran’s past nuclear activities” (FDD Memorandum, May 21, 2018).