Amid rising threats between the United States and Iran and the possibility of a new war in the Middle East sparked by the killing of Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, Iran announced Sunday that it would no longer be bound by some of the deal’s most important safeguards.
Iran’s announcement alone does not render the agreement moot, and at least one important element of it — U.N. inspection power — remains in force. But Iran has less incentive now to abide by the agreement, and Trump appears to have less leverage to hash out the better deal with Tehran that he says President Barack Obama failed to get.
That leaves Trump in the position of owning how to deal with any attempt by Iran to build a nuclear weapon, with no clear answers about how he would do so after scrapping and deriding what world leaders believed was their best chance to keep the theocratic regime’s nuclear ambitions at bay.
Trump responded to the announcement emphatically Monday but without offering any details of what he plans to do in response.
“IRAN WILL NEVER HAVE A NUCLEAR WEAPON!” Trump thundered on Twitter.
With its announcement, Iran could now return to stockpiling enriched uranium, the raw material for a bomb. Depending on the pace of that effort, Iran could amass nearly enough material for a bomb within a matter of several months.
Pushing back the tipping point when Iran could “break out” and make a quick drive for a viable weapon was the central goal of the 2015 deal. If Iran reconstitutes its abilities to roughly the status quo in place before negotiations, there is little left to save, analysts said.
“It’s getting harder and harder to say you could return to the deal as is,” said Richard Johnson, an analyst at the Nuclear Threat Initiative who implemented the deal as a State Department official under Obama.
“I call it the zombie deal. It’s ‘not dead yet,’ to quote Monty Python, but we all know how that turned out,” said Johnson, referring to a sketch by the comedy troupe in which a Black Plague victim protests that he has not quite succumbed to the disease. He is then hit over the head and dumped on a cart filled with corpses.
Richard Nephew, a former top sanctions official at the State Department and an Iran adviser for Obama at the National Security Council, said the deal known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action may no longer serve much purpose for Iran.
“The JCPOA was already on the verge of collapse. The killing of Soleimani makes it thoroughly implausible that the JCPOA can be sustained for the rest of the year,” said Nephew, a scholar at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy. “Iran may agree to implement some parts of it related to inspections, but mainly to keep on the diplomatic offensive that its nuclear program is completely civil and legitimate.”
Some argued the death of Soleimani does not make it more likely that Iran drives for a bomb, and there is some hope tensions will cool.
Scott Ritter, a former U.N. chief weapons inspector who led the 1990s search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, noted that Iran has said that the steps it takes to back away from the deal are reversible, particularly if the United States lifts economic sanctions hurting the Iranian economy.
“I have a modicum of optimism that at least one major party hasn’t shut the door, but the problem is the United States and whether or not a Trump administration is capable of returning to an Obama administration deal,” Ritter said.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blamed Obama for setting conditions that led to the current war footing. Speaking Sunday on ABC’s “This Week,” Pompeo said Obama had allowed Tehran to fund regional terrorism using economic benefits gained under the nuclear agreement.
“We’re trying to correct for what was the Obama administration’s appeasement of Iran,” Pompeo said. “This is a regime that has been acting against America for an awfully long time. And we are suffering from eight years of neglect and we’re trying to push it back. We’re trying to contain them.”
Iran’s announcement on uranium enrichment had been expected in some form, even before the drone strike on Soleimani’s convoy in Baghdad early Friday, analysts said.
The escalating tensions now make it difficult for Iran to leave the threat of further enrichment as a mere option, a familiar tactic for Tehran, analysts said. It also reduces the leeway for Iranian moderates to argue that even the shell of the deal should remain, and it may sour the ground for a new agreement, Johnson said.
European allies who failed to persuade Trump to keep the deal have said talk of a new negotiation is premature.
“We specifically call on Iran to refrain from further violent action or proliferation, and urge Iran to reverse all measures inconsistent with the JCPOA,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in a statement. Russia and China were also party to the deal.
Of the European allies critical of the Soleimani strike, Britain has shown more restraint in publicly breaking from the United States, though the country remains supportive of the 2015 nuclear deal, and British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab is expected to raise the topic of restraining Tehran’s nuclear program in a post-Soleimani environment in his meetings in Washington this week, said a person familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the upcoming private talks.
Writing in a Washington Post essay before Iran’s announcement, Washington Institute for Near East Policy Executive Director Robert Satloff said the killing of Soleimani could hasten a replacement nuclear deal if Trump handled it right.
“What if U.S. officials took advantage of the moment to ask a trusted third party — say, the Omanis or the Swiss — to test whether Tehran’s leaders were ready for a quiet diplomatic initiative to achieve what the White House has long said was the objective of its ‘maximum pressure’ campaign: a better, broader agreement?” he wrote Friday. “A U.S.-Iran negotiation can’t be conducted the way Trump has tried to do it so far, in the failed North Korea model of face-to-face, one-on-one, leader-to-leader summits.”
Iran has repeatedly rejected overtures for face-to-face meetings, or even a phone call that Macron tried to arrange during the U.N. General Assembly meetings in September.
“If it has any chance of success, such an initiative would require deft, nimble diplomacy, a minimum of bombast (read: tweets) and a maximum of discretion,” Satloff wrote. “To say that none of these have so far been the hallmark of Trump’s three years in office is an understatement.”
Trump is not the only one given to Twitter bombast.
“Have you EVER seen such a sea of humanity in your life, @realdonaldtrump?” Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif wrote Monday, alongside photos of masses of Iranians mourning Soleimani in the streets. “Do you still want to listen to the clowns advising you on our region? And do you still imagine you can break the will of this great nation & its people? End of malign US presence in West Asia has begun.”
Ashley Parker and John Hudson contributed to this report.