In his remarks, Trump panned the Obama-era deal as "one-sided" and suggested that Iran is "pursuing" nuclear weapons — something that neither American intelligence agencies, foreign governments nor the international monitors charged with inspecting Iran's nuclear facilities believe.
One person who has suggested the existence of an ongoing Iranian nuclear-weapons program is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The Israeli leader gave a televised address last week detailing supposedly explosive revelations about Iranian deceit, but his findings detailed Iran's activities well before the Iran deal took effect in 2015. Even so, Trump's address seemed to piggyback off Netanyahu's. “We cannot prevent an Iranian nuclear bomb under the decaying and rotten structure of the current agreement,” he said.
Trump pointed to the Islamic Republic's role as a sponsor of militant groups throughout the Middle East and promised to reinstate key sanctions on Iran that had been waived as part of its agreement. By doing so, critics fear, he is dooming a landmark agreement that is widely seen as effective — and setting the stage for Iran to make an actual push toward an atomic device.
"Many experts believe a collapse of the agreement will trigger a suspension of the unique, wide-ranging access accorded to the U.N. nuclear watchdog over the past three years," wrote my colleague Joby Warrick. "In effect, by rejecting the deal as inadequate for preventing Iran from getting the bomb, Trump could make it harder for U.S. officials to detect a secret Iranian effort to build nuclear weapons."
The potential for Iranian deceit makes the agreement all the more necessary. “The Iranians lie. They cheat,” said former CIA director Michael V. Hayden to Warrick. “That’s why you need to have the best possible verification regime in place.”
European officials made that argument over the past few months. French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and others urged Trump to preserve the JCPOA, as the nuclear deal is officially known, while they worked to collectively to address other points of contention — chiefly Iran's ballistic missile program, which is not covered by the agreement, as well as its destabilizing role in the region.
But instead of building a united front with Europe, Trump may be driving a wedge between Washington and its traditional transatlantic partners. In a joint message, European leaders said that they would attempt to stick to the deal, no matter Trump's decision. And Iranian officials said they would engage in talks with the deal's remaining signatories in a bid to keep it going.
"We believe that Europe, Russia and China would continue the deal with Iran, leaving the U.S. isolated and weakened in handling challenges like North Korea," read a statement from the European Leadership Network signed by more than 100 senior European diplomats and politicians. "For the United States to withdraw from the JCPOA would be to shoot itself in the foot."
"In a democracy, there will always be changes in policies and priorities from one Administration to the next," said former president Barack Obama in a rare public rebuke of Trump. "But the consistent flouting of agreements that our country is a party to risks eroding America's credibility, and puts us at odds with the world's major powers."
In his announcement, Trump seemed to suggest he would be open to a new phase of diplomacy with Iran. But it's hard to see what that would entail or how he could achieve a better result than Obama, whose diplomats cobbled together a multilateral program of sanctions that brought Tehran to the table.
After manufacturing this crisis, Trump will not have such widespread support. "It took 30 years of diplomacy and an unlikely confluence of factors to get Iran to agree to the JCPOA’s limits on its nuclear program," wrote Nicholas Miller, a nonproliferation expert at Dartmouth University. "Attempting to achieve a better deal without any of these favorable conditions would be quixotic at best."
Trump did receive hearty cheers from two places: Israel and Saudi Arabia, Tehran's chief antagonists in the region and two countries that reviled the Obama administration's attempts at rapprochement with Tehran. In this instance, the geopolitical agendas of Washington's Middle East allies trumped those in Europe.
In his announcement, Trump also expressed solidarity with the Iranian people, mentioning the protests that have erupted in various Iranian cities out of anger with the country's tanking economy. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, the embattled and increasingly humiliated proponent of engagement with the West, is now facing blowback from hard-liners who were long opposed to making any deal with the United States.
"The pitched battle between political moderates and hard-liners is so perilous that there is even talk of a military takeover," wrote Thomas Erdbrink, the Tehran bureau chief of the New York Times. He added that Trump's move tipped the scales against the so-called moderates: "Hard-liners, who have long lost popular support but control security forces, the judiciary and state television, are set to declare victory, since they have always argued that the United States can never be trusted in any deal."
“The common people will hate America more if Trump withdraws,” said Hamidreza Taraghi, a hard-line analyst, to Erdbrink. “They will face hardship and be poor. They will hate Trump. That’s good.”
This may all be by design: The Trump administration, particularly noted hawks like national security adviser John Bolton, could be applying pressure in the belief that it will cause the regime in Tehran to collapse. But it's more likely a prelude to greater instability, further crises and perhaps even military confrontation.
"I think there are those in the administration who have a fantasy that we can somehow have a bloodless ... peaceful change in Iran if the president just punches the right buttons," said Wendy Sherman, a former senior State Department official and Obama's lead negotiator, in a phone call with Washington-based journalists. "That is an extraordinarily simplistic and naive understanding of this theater."