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What is the Iran nuclear deal, and why do some fear Trump’s rejection of it could lead to war?

President Trump announced the U.S. would leave the Iran nuclear deal on May 8. But his reasoning wasn't all accurate. (Video: Meg Kelly/The Washington Post)
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BERLIN — On Tuesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was supposed to meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin to discuss, among other issues, the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal.

But Pompeo never made it there.

Instead, he headed straight to Baghdad, to deal with the fallout of exactly that decision, as concerns mounted that Iran may be preparing attacks on U.S. troops in the Middle East. Tensions have mounted ever since President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the deal in May 2018. But despite U.S. sanctions, the deal’s other parties are trying to keep it alive.

Iran announces it will stop complying with parts of landmark nuclear deal

Now, it appears that their strategy may have failed, with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani saying on Wednesday that his country was taking steps to halt its compliance with elements of the deal, and to resume higher uranium enrichment — a step that could force the remaining parties to introduce sanctions within 65 days, after the end of a 60-day Iranian deadline for new terms to the accord.

Why is there a deal?

Iran has never acknowledged the existence of a nuclear weapons program, but Europe and the United States didn’t believe Tehran that its uranium-enrichment efforts were merely for peaceful purposes. As Iran’s efforts intensified, so did pressure on the country to stop them.

Trade, banking and financial sanctions were implemented, and they appeared to have a crippling impact on the Iranian economy. By 2012, inflation had skyrocketed, partially because of domestic policies but also because of the sanctions, bringing thousands out onto the streets in protest.

After years of negotiations with the United States, Britain, Germany, France, Russia and China, Iran finally accepted tighter restrictions on its enrichment activities and agreed to allow U.N. inspectors fuller access to facilities in 2015. In return, all sanctions related to the country’s nuclear program were dropped.

What was the deal supposed to ensure in detail?

Before the deal was struck, researchers warned that Iran was perhaps months away from being able to accumulate enough fissile material for a nuclear bomb, in case it decided to pursue one. That ability — also called “breakout time” — was extended by the nuclear deal. Because of Iran’s concessions, it is now estimated that Tehran would need at least a year, which would give the United States and its allies enough time to reimpose sanctions or even consider military strikes.

If Iran were now to resume its uranium-enrichment efforts, it would take far longer to produce enough weapons-grade material for a bomb than before the deal was struck.

Under the 2015 deal, Iran agreed to cut the number of uranium-enrichment centrifuges from 19,000 to 6,000. Its stockpile of already enriched uranium was cut to 300 kilograms from about 10,000 kilograms.

One underground enrichment facility deemed a particular threat by Iran’s foes was turned into a research center, among other changes.

The U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency was made responsible for verifying that Iran was complying with all those changes, for an initial period of up to 25 years.

What were the arguments in favor?

Even its supporters acknowledged that the deal could not ensure 100 percent that Iran was not going to pursue covert enrichment efforts or resume them later on. But President Barack Obama saw a historic chance to normalize ties with Iran. “This deal offers an opportunity to move in a new direction. We should seize it,” he said.

The core argument in favor remained that the United States would have more time than before to prevent a nuclear weapons program from succeeding. “Red flags go off everywhere, and we’d be all over it and able to respond. We’d actually have months to respond, to be honest with you,” said then-Secretary of State John F. Kerry.

“Let me underscore, the alternative to the deal that we have reached is not what I’ve seen some ads on TV suggesting disingenuously. It isn’t a, quote, ‘better deal,’ some sort of unicorn arrangement involving Iran’s complete capitulation. That is a fantasy, plain and simple, and our intelligence community will tell you that,” Kerry said.

While 56 percent of Americans said in a 2015 Washington Post-ABC poll that they supported the deal, a majority remained skeptical that it would prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear bomb.

Republicans were especially concerned.

What were the concerns?

Some considered the agreed measures to be not far-reaching enough to prevent covert enrichment efforts. Others were more concerned that the deal was a de facto one-way street. Iran, said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), knows “that once the international sanctions are gone, they will be impossible to snap back.”

Republicans shared most of their reservations with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was also determined to rein in Iran’s regional ambitions rather than focus only on its nuclear program. The deal, critics argued, would not result in regime change and may in fact give Tehran more leeway to shape regional politics in other ways — for instance by supporting Hezbollah, Hamas or the Shiite Houthi rebels in Yemen.

Did Iran violate the deal?

European intelligence agencies’ assessment on this is clear: No, it did not.

So why did Trump ditch it?

The self-declared dealmaker has long argued that the Iran nuclear accord was a bad deal, and one worth breaking up. The reasoning behind this appears to be mostly focused on Iran’s regional ambitions — unrelated to the nuclear weapons debate. Iran’s involvement in Yemen and Iraq is being perceived by the Trump administration as provocation.

But Republicans should be well aware that this does not constitute a violation of the deal, as Republicans noted even before it was signed that such questions were not covered by it.

What did U.S. allies think about that?

Take a guess . . .

They were furious. France, Germany and Britain, along with China and Russia, decided to stick to the deal and lashed out at Trump for “reneging on our international obligations” and for what they viewed as a “mistake.”

That’s almost a year ago — did Trump’s withdrawal not matter?

Reintroducing sanctions against Iran has taken some time, but their impact — especially on Iranian oil exports — is only now starting to take shape.

That’s bad news for Germany, France and Britain, which had hoped to bypass U.S. sanctions by establishing an entity that would shield European companies and allow them to keep doing business with Iran. In February, the three nations said they were registering a Paris-based company that would manage trade between Iran and Europe. The company was expected to essentially operate as a clearinghouse for credit points to avoid the use of real money that could be used as evidence by the United States to sanction European companies.

But almost all major enterprises that flocked into Iran after sanctions were lifted had already withdrawn when the announcement was made, and they have no current plans to reengage.

Trump, it appears for now, has demonstrated that a deal negotiated with the United States can be upheld only as long as Washington thinks it’s worth doing so.

This story has been updated.

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