As with most of his major foreign policy pronouncements, President Trump couched his decision to withdraw from the Iranian nuclear agreement in terms of how badly his predecessor had negotiated the deal and how he was keeping his campaign promise to dump it.
“The fact is, this was a horrible, one-sided deal that should have never, ever been made,” Trump said. “It didn’t bring calm, it didn’t bring peace, and it never will.”
For good measure, he added that Iran would “have bigger problems than it has ever had before” if it decided to pursue its “nuclear aspirations.”
But Trump gave little indication of what happens now. He proposed no new strategy. He offered no ideas for how to achieve what he called “a real, comprehensive and lasting solution to the Iranian nuclear threat” and other bad behavior such as activities in Syria and Yemen, beyond “working with our allies” and remaining open to a change of heart by an Iranian government under the yoke of reimposed sanctions.
To many of his critics, including some in both parties and the European leaders who spent the past several months trying to address his concerns, there is no Plan B.
John Bolton, Trump’s new national security adviser, said after the announcement that withdrawal from the nuclear deal put the United States in a “position of strength” that will have “implications not only for Iran but for the forthcoming meeting with Kim Jong Un of North Korea. It sends a very clear signal that the United States will not accept inadequate deals.”
Besides, Bolton said without elaboration, the “global strategic environment” had changed since the deal was signed. He spoke as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was en route to North Korea for a meeting to prepare Trump’s summit with the North Korean leader. “I think the message to North Korea is the president wants a real deal,” Bolton said.
No one knows whether North Korea views the administration’s wholesale dismissal of an international agreement, signed by the United States just three years ago, as a cautionary tale. Trump’s interpretation of U.S. strategic interests has also led to withdrawal from major international climate and trade accords.
“We’re having enough problems around the world in terms of our reliability, whether it’s trade or commercial engagements or security arrangements,” said Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) “To add this now, at this point, would not be good for us, particularly the knock-on effects on other arrangements, perhaps with North Korea.”
Praise for the decision came from countries including Israel and Saudi Arabia, which had pushed for withdrawal as crucial to their own security. “President Trump is right to abandon the Obama administration’s bad deal,” Sen John Cornyn (R-Tex.) said in a statement.
But for others, it was the newest low point in Trumpian retreats from global leadership, “the best illustration of the Jacksonian moment America is going through,” said François Delattre, France’s ambassador to the United Nations. Current U.S. policy, he said, is “a mix of unilateralism and isolationism” that he dubbed “unisolationism.”
Many expressed concern about the lack of a visible plan. “The president said he will now work with our allies to get a better agreement with Iran,” Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said in a statement. “I hope that happens.”
A statement jointly issued by French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Theresa May was measured in its expression of “regret and concern” over Trump’s action. “This agreement remains important for our shared security,” they said, and pledged their continued commitment to it.
They agreed on the importance of continuing talks on common concerns about Iran’s ballistic missiles and destabilizing activities in the Middle East. In private, however, senior officials from all three countries have said they have no idea how Trump plans to proceed beyond reinstating previous sanctions and planning for more.
In negotiations since January, the three European leaders offered a number of proposals for cracking down on Iran’s ballistic missile program, its destabilizing activities in Syria and Yemen, and its support for terrorist organizations.
Although State Department officials on the other side of the table thought that significant progress had been made, Trump rejected the plan.
During his visit here late last month, Macron offered a four-pronged strategy to maintain the nuclear deal as part of a broader effort to address other concerns, including a political solution in Syria that would reduce Iran’s influence. Trump declared it interesting but did not bite.
In the past, Trump has sometimes said that the Europeans cared only about making money in Iran. In their many conversations with Trump about Iran this year, the Europeans asked him to avoid damaging their own investments there, even if he decided that the United States was out of the deal.
In the end, however, the administration made clear that there would be no exceptions to its reinstatement of sanctions that had been lifted as part of the nuclear agreement.
Throughout his conversations with the Europeans, Trump offered little suggestion of how his goals could be reached, leaving it to the allies to come up with proposals that he could accept or, as it turned out, reject.
Trump appeared not to accept even his own administration’s views, expressed by his defense secretary and director of national intelligence, and Pompeo, in his recent confirmation hearing, that Iran has fully complied with the terms of the nuclear deal.
“I think there are plenty of cases where it’s — we’re simply incapable of saying whether they’re in compliance or not,” Bolton said. “There are others where I think they’ve clearly been in violation.”
He mentioned Iran’s breach of the agreement’s limits on heavy water, a chemical used in a reactor that can produce plutonium. Iran has shut down that reactor, however, and stopped making heavy water after rebukes from International Atomic Energy Agency monitors.
The president, Bolton said, “gave repeated opportunities to try to fix the deal” and “wanted to let all the efforts go forward, and he did, right up until a few days before the May 12 deadline” to decide whether to waive or reinstate U.S. sanctions.
“I think, faced with the overwhelming evidence that the core flaws of the deal could not be fixed,” Bolton said, Trump “made the decision to proceed.”
The question now is whether the allies are prepared to humble themselves again to appeal to a president they see as having a vision of where he wants to be but little idea of how to get there. To the extent that they view U.S. leadership as crucial to accomplishing anything significant in today’s polarized world, they may have little choice.
Even Iran, in Trump’s view, will eventually bend to his will.
“Iran’s leaders will naturally say that they refuse to negotiate a new deal,” he said. “They refuse, and that’s fine. I’d probably say the same thing if I was in their position.
“But the fact is, they are going to want to make a new and lasting deal.”