Early and often during his 2016 run for the presidency, Donald Trump vowed to pull Washington out of the Iran nuclear agreement the moment he arrived at the White House.
The pact, brokered the year before by Barack Obama, working hand in hand with the United Nations, had been hailed pretty much around the world as a promising tool to halt Iran’s aggressive pursuit of nuclear arms. But Trump, echoing the view of Israel, dismissed it as “catastrophic,” “disastrous” and “the worst deal ever negotiated.” He vowed, if elected, to make withdrawal by the United States his “number-one priority.”
Unfortunately, Trump succeeded, with results that are rippling across the globe in numerous spots, including Ukraine, the West and the Middle East.
Trump pulled out of the deal on May 18, 2018, less than 18 months after his inauguration. His goal, he insisted, was not to kill the deal forever but to pressure Iran into a renegotiation that would fix its flaws.
To pressure Tehran into going along with his wishes, he reimposed the tough US sanctions that had been in place before the nuclear agreement was reached. Iran’s economy suffered mightily. But rather than give in, its leaders hardened the regime while intensifying efforts to get around the restrictions.
Meanwhile, a new agreement has proved out of reach. And without a new deal, the international community has lost a lot of leverage over Tehran, leaving Washington with just one option in a pinch: military intervention.
Trump promised that his scheme would bolster international security by blunting Iran’s ability to sow trouble in both the Middle East and the West. But the pullout has, if anything, appeared to magnify Iran’s determination, transforming the whole exercise into yet another of the many plentiful diplomatic gifts Trump has crafted that just keep on giving. Ask the victims of the war in Ukraine, increasingly fueled by a defense partnership forged between Moscow and Tehran.
Having freed itself from UN scrutiny by locking out the international monitors and shutting down their surveillance equipment, Tehran now appears to be pursuing nuclear arms as aggressively as ever. And it seems more intent than ever on flexing its military muscle, including its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, to pursue its foreign policy goals.
After Trump left the White House, his successor Joe Biden sought to revive the nuclear agreement by luring Iran into new talks. But Iran has shown little interest in the various proposals Washington has put forward.
With Biden contemplating a second run for the presidency in 2024, the Republicans are salivating at the idea of running against a candidate whom they can portray as having offered risky rewards to woo a confrontational Tehran.
The original nuclear deal, which Obama considered a crowning achievement of his presidency, was reached in 2015 among Tehran, Germany, the European Union and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council — Britain, China, France, Russia and the US. It imposed tough limits and intrusive monitoring on a range of nuclear-related activities over 10 to 15 years and longer to end Iran’s pursuit of nuclear technology and bombs while also encouraging Tehran to be more respectful of international rules and multilateral conventions.
Though it had its limits, the agreement had important strengths. It required Tehran to slash the number of its uranium-enriching centrifuges by about two-thirds for 13 years and to cap its nuclear enrichment activities at levels well below what it needed to yield bomb-grade material. It also ordered Iran to reduce its stockpiles of enriched uranium from around 10,00 kilograms to 300 kilograms for 15 years and to accept a plan for international inspections to verify its compliance.
In return, the pact’s other signers pledged to gradually lift the national and international sanctions that had been imposed on Iran as punishment for its nuclear weapons programs. Once finalized, the deal was enshrined in a resolution of the UN Security Council, giving it the status of binding international law.
That was then.
Before the deal, experts estimated that Iran would have required two to three months to produce enough weapons-grade nuclear material to make a bomb. The Obama White House noted with pride that the agreement increased the breakout time to 12 months or longer if Iran turned its back on the deal.
Just days before the end of Obama’s presidency, on Jan. 16, 2017, the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency announced that Iran had met all the requirements for the pact to take effect. “And with the unprecedented monitoring and access this deal puts in place, if Iran tries [to make nuclear arms], we will know and sanctions will snap back into place,” the White House proclaimed at the time.
But the deal never got the chance to succeed. On Trump’s order, it was buried by Washington only about 16 months after his inauguration — although all the other signers said they were still supporting it and the UN did its best to continue its monitoring activities.
Trump had boasted that after pulling out of the pact, he would quickly reach a new deal that would “solve everything,” according to John Bolton, writing in his 2020 book, “The Room Where It Happened.”
Bolton, a brash hardliner who served as Trump’s national security adviser in 2018 and 2019, had told the president that the pact was so deeply flawed as to be unsalvageable. It was, he argued, “entirely advantageous to Iran: unenforceable, unverifiable, and inadequate in duration and scope.”
A big fan of regime change as a diplomatic tool, Bolton frequently expressed his view that only military action by Israel or the US — or both — would bring Tehran under control. It seems quite possible that Trump privately shared that opinion, although he did not express this publicly.
As it turned out, neither Trump nor Biden could revive the deal. Bolton undoubtedly felt he had won the argument even though military action has not materialized to date. But it now seems clear that Washington has ended up the big loser, with no new agreement within reach and zero tools to hold back Iran.
While president, Trump had few friends in the international community. An unapologetic UN skeptic with no talent for diplomacy and no interest in multilateral approaches, he proved over time to be an utterly untethered and ineffective policymaker. That, of course, has not stopped him from acclaiming the great job he did restoring the glory he felt Washington had lost during Obama’s presidency.
Unfortunately, his ending the nuclear deal had the opposite effect. It persuaded many of America’s closest allies they could no longer count on the US as a reliable international partner and no longer required its global leadership.
Two of Trump’s biggest cheerleaders on Iran policy had strong UN ties. Bolton’s service as National Security Adviser lasted nearly 17 months, when, depending on who is telling the story, he either resigned or was fired by Trump.
Before that stint, George W. Bush had chosen him in 2005 to be his UN ambassador, under a provision allowing a president to bypass a confirmation vote when the Senate is in recess. But the Senate refused to confirm him, forcing him out of the job after about 17 months, when the recess appointment ran out.
Then there was Nikki Haley, who had been a two-term governor of South Carolina before Trump appointed her UN ambassador in 2017. She held the job for two years despite her lack of diplomatic experience and continuing lack of diplomatic skills.
The Politico news service referred to Haley as Trump’s “Iran whisperer” after she battled back Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis, both of whom wanted to stick with the Iran deal.
Haley, also echoing Israel, simply branded Iran as untrustworthy, citing activity well beyond its nuclear programs. At a key moment in the policy debate, in mid-2017, with Trump’s blessing, she took a high-profile trip to the Vienna headquarters of the International Atomic Energy Agency. There, she pressed the agency staff on Iranian compliance with the pact and concluded that she had “doubts and concerns” about it.
Haley remains proud even today of her role in pressing Trump to withdraw from the deal. Killing it off was among the administration’s “truly extraordinary gains in the last four years,” she argued after Trump’s defeat in the 2020 election. As Biden pursued a new deal in 2021 and 2022, Haley tweeted that the original agreement had been “a mistake, and any new deal with Iran that Biden makes would be a disaster.”
A key Trump argument against the deal had been that it would only delay Iran’s nuclear ambitions and not definitively end them. But looking back at the period 2017 to 2022, we must ask ourselves: Is the world now safer than it would have been with the pact in place? Has anything truly dangerous occurred that the agreement might have helped prevent?
The answers seem clear: A big “no” to the first question and a big “yes” to the second.
Iran these days is eagerly pursuing nuclear technology and bomb-grade materials and has gutted UN monitoring abilities. It is meddling in a variety of national and international conflicts. Its leaders still loudly proclaim death to America and death to Israel whenever possible. And it is aggressively battling its own citizens across the country, arresting thousands of people and killing hundreds as they seek to protect their rights and freedoms from government assault.
Since leaving the nuclear deal, Iran has barred UN inspectors from sensitive nuclear sites and removed monitoring equipment, crippling the International Atomic Energy Agency’s ability to keep track of what Tehran is up to, Rafael Mariano Grossi, the IAEA’s director general, reported to his board of governors in early November.
A decision made by Tehran in February 2021 “to stop the implementation of its nuclear-related commitments” had “seriously affected” the IAEA’s ability to carry out its required monitoring activities, Grossi said. “Iran’s decision to remove all of the agency’s equipment previously installed in Iran for surveillance and monitoring activities . . . has also had detrimental implications for the agency’s ability to provide assurance of the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program.”
Due to Trump’s “reckless decision . . . to withdraw from a deal that was working,” Iran is “very close to having enough fissile material for a bomb,” Robert Malley, the US special envoy for Iran, told foreignpolicy.com in a recent interview. “Weaponizing that takes longer, but it’s much too close for comfort.”
In talks to revive the nuclear deal, Washington has been playing a “good faith role” while continuing “to put pressure on Iran, to try to enforce our sanctions, to make sure that they are sanctioned for their support for terrorism, for the human rights violations, for the ballistic missile program, and for their nuclear program,” Malley said.
“Iran has rejected countless opportunities to come back into the deal,” so Washington is preparing for a future with or without such an agreement, he said.
Tehran’s reluctance appears to reflect the views of its new hardline president, Ebrahim Raisi, elected in mid-2021 with help from the domestic anger stirred by Trump’s dumping of the nuclear deal. “The Americans are after destruction and want a destroyed Iran instead of a strong Iran,” Raisi said during a recent visit to Tehran University.
But does the Iranian public still share that tough stance? In a growing wave of protests that began on Sept. 16, vast crowds led by Iranian women seeking to assert their rights and religious freedoms have taken to the streets in an extraordinary display of antigovernment sentiment. The unrest was triggered by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while she was in the custody of Iran’s morality police; she had been detained for improperly wearing her head scarf.
Protests have so far hit 161 Iranian cities, leading to the arrest of more than 18,400 people as of mid-December, according to Human Rights Activists in Iran (HRANA). To date, 495 protesters have been killed in the demonstrations, including 38 women and 68 children under 18 years old, HRANA reports. Two protesters have been executed and a dozen others sentenced to death as of Dec. 16, the group says, as protesters have taken to denouncing Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as a murderer.
Responding to Tehran’s brutal crackdown, the membership of the UN Economic and Social Council (Ecosoc) voted on Dec. 14 in an unprecedented move to kick Iran off the Commission on the Status of Women for the rest of its four-year term, ending in 2026. (The Ecosoc membership votes on the commission’s 45 members.) The resolution, put forward by Washington, was approved 29-8 with 16 abstentions.
Iran’s UN ambassador, Amir Saeid Iravani, places blame for the current impasse between Iran and the US squarely on Trump’s withdrawal. “Stop fooling the international community; stop deception!” he told the Security Council during a Dec. 19 briefing on the agreement’s status. During the briefing, US Ambassador Robert Wood blamed Tehran for rejecting all efforts at compromise in the deadlocked talks aimed at resuscitating the deal. But Iravani strongly disagreed. “Your baseless allegations against Iran cannot change the fact that only the US is responsible for the [deal’s] current status,” he said.
Despite the outside pressure, Iran has been actively expanding its military cooperation with Russia, Washington’s longtime superpower rival and a longtime nuclear power as well as a permanent member of the Security Council. Following Moscow’s full invasion of Ukraine in February, the ties between the two allies have begun developing into “a full-scale defense partnership” that threatens the Middle East and the rest of the world, US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said this month.
Support has been “flowing both ways,” Kirby added. Russia is seeking to collaborate with Iran in areas like weapons development and training and may also begin providing Iran with such advanced weapons as helicopters and air defense systems, he said. Iran, for its part, “has become Russia’s top military backer,” he said. It is already supplying Russian forces in Ukraine with drones and military trainees and recently disclosed it had agreed to provide it with ballistic missiles as well.
The two countries’ relationship took off in 2015, when Tehran joined Moscow’s campaign to help embattled President Bashar al-Assad cling to power during the devastating civil war that has raged in Syria since March 2011.
According to the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Office, 306,887 Syrian civilians were killed during that conflict’s first 10 years, about 1.5 percent of the country’s pre-war population. The fighting has driven more than 12 million Syrians from their homes, whether to other parts of Syria or to other countries, according to international estimates. Stemming from that collaboration, the partnership between Russia and Iran has grown much closer this year, as embodied in a July meeting in Tehran between Khamenei and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
There is an obvious but crucial lesson in diplomacy here: An international agreement, even a flawed one, is always better than no agreement at all.
Irwin Arieff is a veteran writer and editor with extensive experience writing about international diplomacy and food, cooking and restaurants. Before leaving daily journalism in 2007, he was a Reuters correspondent for 23 years, serving in senior posts in Washington, Paris and New York as well as at the United Nations (where he covered five of the 10 years that Sergey Lavrov spent in New York as Russia’s senior UN ambassador). Arieff also wrote restaurant reviews for The Washington Post and Washington City Paper in the 1980s and 1990s with his wife, Deborah Baldwin.