2018 Country Brief: Iran

2018 Country Brief: Iran

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Backing out of the Iran Deal was a mistake that could have catastrophic consequences. President Trump announced in May 2018 that the United States will withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA—or “Iran deal”), claiming it has not done enough to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons. While the deal was not perfect and Iran still poses challenges outside of its scope, the JCPOA successfully froze Iran’s nuclear program while putting in place a strong inspection system to spot any cheating. 

The Iran deal was the best foundation to improve the deal and to widen its scope to address other longstanding issues with Iran.  Now that America has violated the deal, alienated its allies, and lost any leverage it had with Iran, there is no realistic path for addressing these longstanding issues and the US has lost any leverage it previously had by withdrawing from the JCPOA. 

Pulling out of the Iran deal leads us closer to war. If the JCPOA completely breaks down with other signatories withdrawing or not upholding the deal’s commitments, Iran has said it may resume its nuclear program. This could then embolden war-hawks in President Trump’s inner circle, particularly his National Security Advisor John Bolton, to push for military strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities or to pursue a change in Iran’s regime. Either option could bring the United States closer to a war with Iran during which we may not have the support of many of our allies.


The Iran deal was not perfect but it was successful in freezing Iran’s nuclear program and provided the foundation to address the country’s other malign activities.

In 2015, when President Obama negotiated the JCPOA, Iran’s estimated “breakout time” to produce fissile material for a nuclear weapon was two to three months.1 Today, it is one year. International inspections, which are required under the deal, have also repeatedly found that Iran is complying with its obligations.2 Despite these certifications, President Trump announced in May 2018 that the United States would withdraw from the deal, violating the agreement.3

President Trump criticized the agreement’s fundamental framework of sanctions relief in exchange for a freeze of Iran’s nuclear program, a robust inspection regime, and a permanent commitment not to build nuclear weapons.4 He argued it gives Iran too much economic relief, doesn’t last long enough, and fails to address Iran’s other problematic behavior in the region (e.g., supporting terrorists groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas or developing ballistic missiles).5

But President Trump is deliberately mischaracterizing the deal in order to tear down its protections. The deal was a foundation, not an end state. A tough and smart approach would build upon—not destroy—the deal by addressing the following:

  • Sunset provisions: While some restrictions in the deal expire or “sunset” at different points, others last more than a decade, and some last forever.6 The agreement commits that Iran will not seek, develop or acquire nuclear weapons.7 This is in line with Iran’s obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which prohibits the country from manufacturing or acquiring a nuclear weapon. But the deal is not based on simply trusting Iran. It requires Iran to sign onto an agreement that would allow UN inspectors to indefinitely monitor and verify that Iran’s nuclear program is only for peaceful purposes. These inspections do not end and ensure the United States can keep a close eye on Iran in case it should ever try to cheat.
  • Support for terrorism: Iran has long been a dangerous state-sponsor of terrorism and its support for groups including Hamas and Hezbollah has led to the deaths of hundreds of Americans. It is correct that this threat is not addressed in the Iran deal. However, now that President Trump has pulled the United States out of its obligations under the Iran deal, we will have lost all of the credibility and leverage that was painstakingly built up over years of negotiations to compel Iran to cease its support of terrorism. Importantly, if Iran is no longer constrained by the restrictions of the deal and has a nuclear weapon, many experts believe the country may actually increase its support for terrorism and other destabilizing regional activities because it will have the perceived protection of the bomb.
  • Ballistic missile program: One of the most concerning aspects of Iran’s behavior is its development and testing of ballistic missiles that are designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons. This is not addressed in the JCPOA. However, the Iran deal was only designed to constrain Iran’s nuclear program and was intended to serve as a foundation to address Iran’s other dangerous behaviors and actions such as its ballistic missile program. The US already has the ability to sanction individuals and companies supporting Iran’s ballistic missile program outside of the JCPOA.8 Importantly, America’s European allies had expressed a willingness to work with the United States to address concerns about Iran’s missile program. However, once President Trump decided to renege on the US commitments under the Iran deal, this opportunity has been thrown away.

The JCPOA was meant to deal with the most pressing problem—Iran was just months away from developing a nuclear weapon. By pulling the United States out of the deal, the safeguards of the agreement that were in place may very well collapse. While United States officials continue to certify that Iran is complying with its end of the bargain,9 President Trump has rescinded America’s commitments and has offered no realistic diplomatic pathway now to prevent Iran from ramping up its efforts to build a bomb.

Even if a better deal was possible, it would require Iran and America’s allies to be willing to negotiate; withdrawing from the deal just made it that much harder to do so.

After announcing the United States’ withdrawal from the JCPOA, President Trump violated the agreement by ordering the Department of Treasury to re-impose sanctions on Iran related to its nuclear program. The overwhelming majority of the sanctions that will be put back in place are “secondary sanctions” to prevent non-US companies and individuals from doing business with Iran. These are expected to significantly impact European entities. European Union leaders may block European companies from complying with these sanctions, which would signal a major rift between the United States and key allies.10 Nevertheless, President Trump has called for a reopening of the negotiations to update the deal and he is attempting to use sanctions as a stick to get Iran to the table.

The issue with this approach is that in order to build up another massive sanctions regime against Iran countries who have opened up business in Iran would have to comply. This is now anything but certain. It took the US government many years of diplomacy to build up enough international support for crippling sanctions on Iran in order to significantly impact their economy, forcing them to the negotiating table. Many of America’s allies were key parties in the JCPOA negotiations with Iran and they are strongly opposed to reopening the deal because Iran is not violating it.11 Moreover, major European leaders who lobbied President Trump for months to stay in the deal believe that the United States has completely disregarded their perspectives, and may have made a nuclear-armed Iran likelier. Even if new US sanctions do impact Iran’s economy, there is little that suggests Iran and the JCPOA negotiating partners would be willing to return to the table after the United States violated the last agreement. As of writing, the deal’s participants—including Iran—have signaled they will continue to abide by the deal if certain conditions remain, leaving the United States completely isolated from its allies.

While Trump wants a new deal to address Iran’s menacing behaviors that are outside of the scope of the JCPOA, he has not articulated a credible “Plan B” that will persuade Iran and JCPOA partner countries to renegotiate. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has laid out 12 conditions that the United States wants to see Iran fulfill as part of any new agreement.12 However, this new strategy by the Trump Administration is entirely based on the premise that a new and better agreement is possible when many of these conditions were not met during the JCPOA negotiations the first time. By tearing up the deal, President Trump has destroyed our credibility and leverage to shape any of Iran’s behavior. He has also damaged the United States’ credibility and standing with America’s allies, whose cooperation would be necessary for any new agreement.

Any way you break it down, the Trump Administration’s decision puts our country and our allies more at risk.

As a result of President Trump’s action, some of his advisors believe that European companies are motivated to keep relations with the United States on solid footing, so they will comply with new sanctions on Iran and agree to reopen negotiations.13 But this is very uncertain, and the impact of President Trump’s decision could play out in many different ways.

For one, the Administration’s decision to walk away from the JCPOA and reimpose sanctions could put the United States on a path to sanctioning companies and individuals in countries that are key allies in protecting that protect American security and solving help solve crises around the globe. These are the very same countries that the US partners with to address the many threats America faces including terrorism and cyber-attacks. The Administration’s decision puts US cooperation with these key allies on national security issues at risk.

Second, while Iran says it will abide by the JCPOA for now, only time will tell how its internal political factions respond to this news. Moderates, like current President Hassan Rouhani, had to overcome enormous pushback from hardline elements inside the Iranian government to even get to the negotiating table. The United States’ decision to rip up the deal may have damaged these moderates’ credibility while bolstering the hardliners’ claim that the United States is not a trustworthy negotiating partner. If Iran pulls out of the deal completely, it would be free from the JCPOA’s restraints and may restart its nuclear program without international inspections. Already, Iran says it is developing the infrastructure needed to restart its nuclear program if the JCPOA completely breaks down.14 Saudi Arabia has also said it would build a nuclear weapon if Iran resumes its nuclear program,15 heightening the risk of a devastating arms race in the Middle East.

Finally, if the deal collapses and Iran resumes its nuclear program, the United States will be faced with a number of options that all present tremendous challenges and risks. The United States could pursue an effort to topple the Iranian regime through overt and covert means, but this is likely to cause Iran to retaliate against the United States in some way. For years, many of President Trump’s top advisors, particularly National Security Advisor John Bolton, have pushed for a US policy to force a change in the Iranian regime. Past threats of regime change have only driven Iran to ramp up its nuclear program to provide the regime with a shield against this threat.16 If Iran rapidly ramps up its nuclear program, this could also embolden Bolton, an architect of the disastrous Iraq war, and others to push for military strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities. That would make a war between the United States and Iran even more likely. There are many ways a war could break out: unintended escalation on both sides caused by provocative military exercises in the Persian Gulf, a first strike by Israel or Saudi Arabia to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities, or a reckless US-led effort to topple the ruling regime. Under any scenario, however, the United States would find itself bogged down by Iran’s formidable defenses, rough terrain, and large population. US personnel in the region would be at risk, and our regional allies could be hit by devastating blows from Iran. If you think the Iraq War was a disaster, Iran could be much bigger challenge. Iran is larger, wealthier, and has a more powerful military than Iraq ever had, so a conflict with Iran could pull the United States into yet another endless and costly war in the region.

Attacking Iran to destroy its nuclear program would likely be counterproductive. An attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities would convince hardliners in Iran that they were right not to trust the United States, and that Iran needs nuclear weapons to protect itself. Moreover, Iran has spread elements of its nuclear program throughout the country, in many cases deep underground. Military strikes may fail to take out all of these facilities and only cause Iran to double down on its nuclear program.

Finally, President Trump’s decision is a risk to America’s credibility on the global stage and jeopardizes the credibility of its diplomatic negotiations in the future. After years of multilateral work to negotiate the JCPOA with our partners, other countries may find it difficult to trust US guarantees, which may ultimately leave us more isolated and with reduced global influence. This could also negatively impact the ability of the United States to negotiate with other countries, such as North Korea, who have a nuclear weapons program and have threatened the United States.


President Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the JCPOA was irresponsible and based on unrealistic and fallacious assumptions that a better deal with Iran and JCPOA negotiating partners is possible. The Trump Administration’s new Iran strategy offers no clear pathway to get Iran and our international partners back to the negotiating table after this decision has destroyed America’s credibility and leverage. President Trump bears the full responsibility of this decision if the JCPOA falls apart, which will quickly make a nuclear-armed Iran much more likely.

  • Foreign Relations146
  • Non Proliferation8


  1. United States White House, “The Historic Deal that Will Prevent Iran from Acquiring a Nuclear Weapon,” Accessed May 18, 2018. Accessed June 11, 2018. Available at:  https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/node/328996.

  2. Aabha Dixit, “Iran is Implementing Nuclear-related JCPOA Commitments, Director General Amano Tells IAEA Board,” International Atomic Energy Agency, March 5, 2018. Accessed June 11, 2018. Available at: https://www.iaea.org/newscenter/news/iran-is-implementing-nuclear-related-jcpoa-commitments-director-general-amano-tells-iaea-board.

  3. Donald Trump, Speech on the Iran Nuclear Deal, The New York Times, May 8, 2018. Accessed July 12, 2018. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/08/us/politics/trump-speech-iran-deal.html.

  4. United States Department of State, Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, July 14, 2015. Accessed June 11, 2018. Available at: https://www.state.gov/documents/organization/245317.pdf.

  5. United States White House, Statement by the President on the Iran Nuclear Deal, Jan. 12, 2018. Accessed June 11, 2018. Available at:  https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/statement-president-iran-nuclear-deal/.

  6. Nuclear Threat Initiative, “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action: A New Standard for Safeguards Agreements,” Nov. 15, 2017. Accessed June 11, 2018. Available at:  http://www.nti.org/analysis/articles/joint-comprehensive-plan-action-new-standard-safeguards-agreements/.

  7. United States Department of State, Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, July 14, 2015. Accessed June 11, 2018. Available at: https://www.state.gov/documents/organization/245317.pdf.

  8. United States Department of the Treasury, Treasury Sanctions Iranian Entities, Jan. 4, 2018. Accessed June 11, 2018. Available at: https://home.treasury.gov/news/press-releases/sm0246.

  9. United States Department of State, 2018 Report on Adherence to and Compliance with Arms Control, Nonproliferation, and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments, April 17, 2018. Accessed June 11, 2018. Available at: https://www.state.gov/t/avc/rls/rpt/2018/280532.htm.

  10. Hans Von Der Burchard, “EU to block Trump’s Iran sanctions by activating old law,” Politico, May 17, 2018. Accessed July 12, 2018. Available at: https://www.politico.eu/article/brussels-to-launch-law-for-blocking-iran-sanctions-on-friday/.

  11. Associated Press, “Tillerson finds skeptics as he presses EU allies on Iran deal,” Jan. 23, 2018. Accessed July 12, 2018. Available at: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/rex-tillerson-donald-trump-iran-nuclear-deal-skepticism-in-europe-france/.

  12. United States Department of State, “After the Deal: A New Iran Strategy,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Remarks at the Heritage Foundation, May 21, 2018. Accessed June 11, 2018. Available at: https://www.state.gov/secretary/remarks/2018/05/282301.htm.

  13. Gardiner Harris, “Europeans Should Have Known Trump Would Abandon Iran Deal, Bolton Says,” The New York Times, May 13, 2018. Accessed July 12, 2018. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/13/us/politics/john-bolton-iran-deal-europe.html.

  14. “Iran to boost uranium enrichment if nuclear deal fails,” BBC, June 5, 2018. Accessed July 12, 2018. Available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-44365078.

  15. Nicole Gaouette, “Saudi Arabia set to pursue nuclear weapons if Iran restarts program,” CNN, May 9, 2018. Accessed July 12, 2018. Available at: https://www.cnn.com/2018/05/09/politics/saudi-arabia-nuclear-weapons/index.html.

  16. Vali Nasr, “The Iran Regime-Change Crew Is Back,” The Atlantic, Apr. 25, 2018. Accessed July 12, 2018. Available at: https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2018/04/iran-nuclear-deal-bolton-trump-regime-change/558785/.


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