2020 Country Brief: Iran
A nuclear-armed Iran is an unacceptable threat to America and our allies. But because of Donald Trump, we are closer to—not farther from—this nightmare scenario.
Donald Trump chose a bellicose, chaotic, go-it-alone strategy toward Iran. He blew up the Iran Deal, the international agreement that froze Iran’s nuclear weapons program, because it was negotiated by Barack Obama. When he blew it up, our European allies were shocked—and for the first time ever, they sided with Iran to preserve the deal over the Trump Administration. And that’s what just happened again at the United Nations in August of this year. Now it will be more difficult to stop Iran’s malign activity in the future.
President Obama brought international pressure to bear to force Iran into a difficult choice: they could have an economy or nuclear weapons, but not both. Iran chose an economy, and in doing so, accepted restrictions on its nuclear program and submitted to international inspections. In return, the United States, our European allies, Russia, and China began to resume economic activity with Iran. After freezing Iran’s nuclear program, the United States could have begun dealing with Iran’s other malign activity.
Unfortunately, against the advice of his senior national security advisors and allies, President Trump unilaterally withdrew from the Iran Deal. Then he threatened our negotiating partners with sanctions for attempting to salvage the deal. And when that didn’t work, in January, he ordered a unilateral strike to kill one of Iran’s senior military leaders, Qasem Soleimani, risking outright war. Despite all this, he signaled he was open to negotiations with Iran but has not indicated what a successful agreement would include.
Trump’s chaotic, bellicose strategy has yielded no positive results. Future policymakers will need to rebuild the coalition to deal with Iran and develop a long-term strategy to get Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions, end its support for terrorists, and become a responsible global player.
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 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), often referred to as the Iran Deal, Iran was on the brink of obtaining a nuclear weapon. The country’s estimated “breakout time” to produce fissile material for a nuclear weapon was two to three months.1After the adoption of the JCPOA and its requirement that Iran roll back its weapons program, the breakout time increased to one year.2International inspections required under the deal repeatedly found that Iran was complying with its obligations.3Yet President Trump announced in May 2018 that the United States would withdraw from the agreement.4
President Trump called the agreement a bad deal, focusing on what the United States gave and ignoring what it got.5He measured the deal from perfect rather than the status quo ante. While the United States and other world powers lifted economic sanctions, in exchange Iran agreed to freeze its nuclear program, comply with a robust inspection regime, and permanently commit to not build a nuclear weapon.6
The deal was a foundation, not an end state. A tough and smart approach would build upon—not destroy—the deal. Further efforts could have addressed the following:
- Sunset provisions:While some restrictions in the deal expire or “sunset” at different points and would need to be addressed in the future, others last more than a decade, and some last forever.7The agreement commits that Iran will not seek, develop, or acquire nuclear weapons,8reinforcing its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which prohibits the country from manufacturing or acquiring a nuclear weapon. Iran also agreed to allow United Nations (UN) inspectors to indefinitely monitor and verify that its nuclear program is only for peaceful purposes. This ensures the United States and its allies can catch any Iranian attempts to cheat.
- Support for terrorism:Iran has long been a supporter of terrorist groups, including Hamas, Hezbollah, and other groups throughout the Middle East,9which have killed hundreds of Americans.10The threat of Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism is indeed not addressed in the Iran deal. But walking away from the deal without US negotiating partners and without any indication Iran is in breach of the agreement is a serious blow to US credibility and reduces America’s ability to build future coalitions to deal with Iran’s terrorist threat.
- Ballistic missile program:While the deal freezes Iran’s nuclear weapons program, it does not address the development and testing of ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons. However, the United States already had the ability to sanction individuals and companies supporting Iran’s ballistic missile program outside of the JCPOA.11Importantly, America’s European allies had expressed a willingness to work with the United States to address concerns about Iran’s missile program. However, since President Trump withdrew from the Iran deal over the objections of those same allies, rebuilding this coalition is unlikely.
The JCPOA was meant to deal with the most pressing problem: Iran was just months away from developing a nuclear weapon. With the United States pulling out of the deal, the safeguards the agreement put in place could collapse. And without the coalition that the United States built to negotiate JCPOA in the first place, it will now be nearly impossible to build a coalition that can bring sufficient pressure to force Iran back to the negotiating table on these remaining issues.
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. These sanctions were largely put back into place in November 2018,12and since that time the Administration has announced new sanctions on the country as part of its “maximum pressure” campaign, refusing to provide any exemptions during the COVID-19 crisis.13The overwhelming majority of these sanctions are “secondary sanctions” to prevent non-US companies and individuals from doing business with Iran. As this significantly impacts European entities, European leaders created a mechanism known as INSTEX to work around US nuclear sanctions and maintain certain types of trade with Iran.14They have also committed to remaining in the JCPOA.15In effect, the Trump Administration is seeking to punish US allies economically for staying in a pact they agreed to with his predecessor.
Thus far, it’s America’s European allies that have faced the biggest brunt of these re-imposed sanctions. The Trump Administration provided exemptions from Iranian sanctions for Iran’s biggest petroleum customers, like China and India, to continue to do business with the country (although those were wound down last year).16The United States spent many years building up enough international support to impose strong sanctions that would force Iran to the negotiating table. Major European leaders, including former United Kingdom Prime Minister Theresa May, French President Emmanuel Macron, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, rightly argued the deal worked and that Iran is complying, which is why they lobbied President Trump for months to stay in the agreement.17To reject their counsel and then ask for their help in re-isolating Iran against their own beliefs is unlikely to get them to return to the negotiating table. Even as new US sanctions have significantly hurt Iran’s economy, there is little evidence that Iran is willing to return to the table after the United States violated the last agreement.18
The deal’s participants—including Iran—have signaled they will try to continue the deal, leaving the United States alone in walking away. International inspectors verified in June 2020 that Iran is continuing to comply with its obligations under the JCPOA.19However, Iran has taken some small steps in violation of the deal’s limitations at certain points.20
President Trump has been entirely unsuccessful in getting the JCPOA negotiating partners to agree on his bellicose, chaotic approach to Iran’s nuclear program. Therefore, the pathway to addressing the issues outside the JCPOA’s scope is likely impossible. In 2018, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo laid out 12 conditions that the United States wants to see Iran fulfill as part of any new agreement.21However, these demands by the Trump Administration were not agreed to during the initial JCPOA negotiations. By walking away from the Iran Deal alone, President Trump has lost the credibility and leverage to shape any of Iran’s behavior. He has also damaged the United States’ standing with its allies, whose cooperation would be necessary for any new agreement.
Any way you break it down, the Trump Administration’s actions and decisions put our country and our allies at greater risk.
The impact of President Trump’s decision could continue to play out in many different ways. But no matter how you slice it, it has and will continue to put the United States more at risk.
First, the Administration’s decision to walk away from the JCPOA and re-impose sanctions have forced the United States to place sanctions on companies and individuals in countries that are key allies in protecting American security and helping solve crises around the globe.22These are the very same countries that the United States partners with to address collective threats such as terrorism and cyberattacks. The Administration’s decision puts US cooperation with these key allies at risk.
Second, the decision to strike and kill Major General Qasem Soleimani at an airport in Iraq risked an all-out war and was reckless and irresponsible. Soleimani had blood on his hands and was plotting more violence. But wise presidents seek to reduce Iran’s dangers without risking the lives of American service members in yet another war in the Middle East. General Stan McChrystal, the former head of US Special Forces, recently wrote that he had the chance to take Soleimani out in 2007 but did not because the repercussions were likely to be too severe.23In response to the Trump Administration’s reckless actions, Congress re-asserted its constitutional role over matters of war and peace and passed a bipartisan resolution to limit the president’s power to launch military action against Iran without congressional approval. Unfortunately, the President vetoed the resolution and it was not overridden.24
The killing of Soleimani will have long-term ramifications on the relationship between the US and Iran. In direct response, Iran issued an arrest warrant for President Trump. While Iran asked INTERPOL for assistance, the international police organization denied Iran’s request to get involved, citing the political nature of the request.25Separately, Iran retaliated with airstrikes on US military bases in Iraq that injured over 100 American service members.26Iran is a sophisticated cyber actor and could launch cyberattacks on American interests and businesses around the world, shutting down critical infrastructure and/or causing billions of dollars in damage.
Third, while Iran says it will abide by the JCPOA for now, only time will tell how its internal political factions respond to US withdrawal. 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 also 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.27Saudi Arabia, which has been subject to congressional action for its increasingly dangerous and destabilizing behavior under Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman,28has also said it would build a nuclear weapon if Iran resumes its nuclear program.29This would heighten the risk of a devastating arms race in the Middle East.
Attacking Iran to destroy its nuclear program would likely be counterproductive. An attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities could convince hardliners in Iran that they were right not to trust the United States, and that Iran needs nuclear weapons to protect itself.30Moreover, Iran has spread elements of its nuclear program throughout the country, in many cases deep underground.31Military 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 to withdraw from the JCPOA has impacted America’s credibility on the global stage and jeopardizes the standing 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 America’s word; this has already left America more isolated and with reduced global influence.
In withdrawing from the JCPOA, President Trump lost both leverage and the support of US negotiating partners.
A sticking point during the original JCPOA negotiations was a US demand for an indefinite moratorium on selling Iran conventional weapons. Russia and China, two members of the deal, fiercely pushed back on this proposal and the two sides settled on a five-year embargo.32At the time of writing, the Trump Administration is escalating tensions with America’s allies over a fight to renew the embargo set to expire in October 2020.33The Administration has said if the UN Security Council does not extend the arms embargo, the US will force a “snapback” of sanctions against Iran by all the Security Council members under the provisions of the 2015 Iran deal, which would put the entire Iran Deal in jeopardy by re-imposing all multilateral sanctions if UN members choose to abide by them.34America’s European allies, who strongly support the Iran Deal, have argued that the Trump Administration is trying to have it both ways: withdrawal from the deal but the right to invoke its provisions if the Administration doesn’t get its way.
When the Trump Administration withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018, they relinquished any leverage they had to reform aspects of the deal. To avoid Iran completely withdrawing from the deal, the United States must re-enter the JCPOA, work with its international partners to find a solution to the arms embargo that limits Iran’s ability to arm its allies in the region, and stop the inflammatory and reckless actions the Administration takes on a frequent basis.
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 the other negotiating partners is possible. The idea to target and assassinate one of Iran’s most important generals was even more reckless. The Trump Administration has destroyed America’s credibility and leverage, damaging the progress made under JCPOA and making further headway impossible. Simply put, the Administration has no strategic plan for Iran. Congress must continue to call for the United States to return to the JCPOA while trying to limit the president’s ability to start a devastating war without congressional oversight.
United States, White House. “The Historic Deal that Will Prevent Iran from Acquiring a Nuclear Weapon.” obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/issues/foreign-policy/iran-deal. Accessed 18 May 2018.
Gladstone, Rick and Sahil Chinoy. “What Changes and What Remains in the Iran Nuclear Deal.” The New York Times, 8 May 2018, www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/05/07/world/middleeast/iran-deal-before-after.html. Accessed 7 Jan. 2019.
International Atomic Energy Agency. Verification and monitoring in the Islamic Republic of Iran in light of United Nations Security Council resolution 2231 (2015). GOV/2018/33, 30 Aug. 2018, www.iaea.org/sites/default/files/18/09/gov2018-33.pdf. Accessed 20 Nov. 2018.
“Read the Full Transcript of Trump’s Speech on the Iran Nuclear Deal.” The New York Times, 8 May 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/05/08/us/politics/trump-speech-iran-deal.html. Accessed 12 July 2018.
White House. “Statement by the President on the Iran Nuclear Deal.” 12 Jan. 2018, www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/statement-president-iran-nuclear-deal/. Accessed 11 June 2018.
United States, Department of State. “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.” 14 July 2015, www.state.gov/documents/organization/245317.pdf. Accessed 11 June 2018.
Lewis, Jeffrey. “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action: A New Standard for Safeguards Agreements.” Nuclear Threat Initiative, 15 Nov. 2017, www.nti.org/analysis/articles/joint-comprehensive-plan-action-new-standard-safeguards-agreements/. Accessed 11 June 2018.
US Department of State. “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.” 14 July 2015, www.state.gov/documents/organization/245317.pdf. Accessed 11 June 2018.
 US Department of State. “Country Reports on Terrorism 2017.” Sept. 2018, www.state.gov/documents/organization/283100.pdf. Accessed 9 Jan 2019.
See for example: United States, White House. “Remarks by President Trump Commemorating the 35th Anniversary of the Attack on Beirut Barracks.” 24 Oct. 2018, www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/remarks-president-trump-commemorating-35th-anniversary-attack-beirut-barracks/. Accessed 9 Jan. 2019.
“Treasury Sanctions Iranian Entities.” Press Release, US Department of the Treasury, 4 Jan. 2018, home.treasury.gov/news/press-releases/sm0246. Accessed 11 June 2018.
Gladstone, Rick. “Iran Sanctions Explained: U.S. Goals, and the View From Tehran.” The New York Times, 5 Nov. 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/11/05/world/middleeast/iran-sanctions-explained.html. Accessed 20 Nov. 2018.
Fassihi, Farnaz. “Iran Says U.S. Sanctions Are Taking Lives. U.S. Officials Disagree.” The New York Times, 1 Apr. 2020, www.nytimes.com/2020/04/01/world/middleeast/iran-virus-sanctions.html. Accessed 29 Aug. 2020.
Lipin, Michael. “More European Nations Join Effort to Bypass US Sanctions on Iran.” Voice of America, 29 Nov. 2019, www.voanews.com/middle-east/voa-news-iran/more-european-nations-join-effort-bypass-us-sanctions-iran. Accessed 29 Aug. 2020.
The Governments of France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. “Joint statement on the creation of INSTEX, the special purpose vehicle aimed at facilitating legitimate trade with Iran in the framework of the efforts to preserve the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).” 31 Jan. 2019, www.diplomatie.gouv.fr/en/country-files/iran/events/article/joint-statement-on-the-creation-of-instex-the-special-purpose-vehicle-aimed-at. Accessed 1 February 2019.
Cole, Devan and Kylie Atwood. “Trump administration announces all countries importing Iranian oil will be subject to US sanctions.” 22 Apr. 2019, www.cnn.com/2019/04/22/politics/trump-administration-iranian-oil-sanction-waiver/index.html. Accessed 29 Aug. 2020.
Associated Press. “Tillerson finds skeptics as he presses EU allies on Iran deal.” CBS News, 23 Jan. 2018, www.cbsnews.com/news/rex-tillerson-donald-trump-iran-nuclear-deal-skepticism-in-europe-france/. Accessed 12 July 2018.
“Six charts that show how hard US sanctions have hit Iran.” BBC News, 9 Dec. 2019, www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-48119109. Accessed 29 Aug. 2020.
Kerr, Paul K. “Iran’s Nuclear Program: Tehran’s Compliance with International Obligations.” Congressional Research Service, 29 June 2020, fas.org/sgp/crs/nuke/R40094.pdf, p. 6. Accessed 29 Aug. 2020.
Kheel, Rebecca. “Five things to know about Iran’s breaches of the nuclear deal.” The Hill, 6 July 2019, thehill.com/policy/defense/451610-five-things-to-know-about-irans-breaches-of-the-nuclear-deal. Accessed 29 Aug. 2020.
US Department of State. “After the Deal: A New Iran Strategy.” Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, Remarks at the Heritage Foundation, 21 May 2018, www.state.gov/secretary/remarks/2018/05/282301.htm. Accessed 11 June 2018.
Iran Watch. “Why Companies around the World are Reversing Course on Iran Business.” 11 Aug. 2020, www.iranwatch.org/our-publications/policy-briefs/how-companies-around-world-are-reversing-course-iran-business. Accessed 29 Aug. 2020.
McChrystal, Stanley. “Iran’s Deadly Puppet Master.” Foreign Policy, Winter 2019, foreignpolicy.com/gt-essay/irans-deadly-puppet-master-qassem-suleimani/. Accessed 29 Aug. 2020
Crowley, Michael. “Trump Vetoes Measure Demanding Congressional Approval for Iran Conflict.” They New York Times, 6 May 2020, www.nytimes.com/2020/05/06/us/politics/trump-vetoes-iran-war-powers.html. Accessed 29 Aug. 2020.
AlTaher, Nada, Sam Kiley, and Tara John. “Iran Issues arrest warrant for Trump over drone strike that killed Qasem Soleimani.” CNN, 29 June 2020, www.cnn.com/2020/06/29/middleeast/iran-arrest-warrant-donald-trump-intl/index.html. Accessed 29 Aug. 2020.
Rubin, Alissa J., Farnaz Fassihi, Eric Schmitt, and Vivian Yee. “Iran Fires of U.S. Forces at 2 Bases in Iraq, Calling It ‘Fierce Revenge’.” The New York Times, 7 Jan. 2020, www.nytimes.com/2020/01/07/world/middleeast/iran-fires-missiles-us.html. Accessed 29 Aug. 2020.
Harris, Gardiner. “Europeans Should Have Known Trump Would Abandon Iran Deal, Bolton Says.” The New York Times, 13 May 2018, ww.nytimes.com/2018/05/13/us/politics/john-bolton-iran-deal-europe.html. Accessed 12 July 2018.
Foran, Clare, et al. “Senate rebukes Trump, condemns Saudi crown prince for Khashoggi murder.” CNN, 13 Dec. 2018, www.cnn.com/2018/12/13/politics/corker-saudi-crown-prince-khashoggi/index.html. Accessed 7 Jan. 2019.
Gaouette, Nicole. “Saudi Arabia set to pursue nuclear weapons if Iran restarts program.” CNN, 9 May 2018, www.cnn.com/2018/05/09/ politics/saudi-arabia-nuclear-weapons/index.html. Accessed 12 July 2018.
Rouhi, Mahsa. “Explosion at Natanz: Why sabotaging Iran’s nuclear program could backfire.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 15 July 2020, thebulletin.org/2020/07/explosion-at-natanz-why-sabotaging-irans-nuclear-program-could-backfire/. Accessed 29 Aug. 2020.
Associated Press. “Iran confirms damaged nuclear site was centrifuge facility.” The Washington Post, 5 July 2020, www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/iran-confirms-damaged-nuclear-site-was-centrifuge-facility/2020/07/05/25e590ae-bf00-11ea-8908-68a2b9eae9e0_story.html. Accessed 29 Aug. 2020.
Crichton, Kyle and David E. Sanger. “Who Got What They Wanted in the Iran Nuclear Deal.” They New York Times, 14 July 2015, www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/07/14/world/middleeast/iran-nuclear-deal-who-got-what-they-wanted.html. Accessed 29 Aug. 2020.
Lynch, Colum and Robbie Gramer. “Trump Administration Unveils Security Council Resolution Extending Iran Arms Embargo.” Foreign Policy, 23 June 2020, foreignpolicy.com/2020/06/23/trump-iran-nuclear-united-nations-european-allies-russia-china-sanctions/. Accessed 29 Aug. 2020.
Lee, Matthew. “Pompeo: US to call UN vote on Iran arms embargo extension.” The Washington Post, 5 Aug. 2020, www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/pompeo-us-to-call-un-vote-on-iran-arms-embargo-extension/2020/08/05/fe739a46-d757-11ea-a788-2ce86ce81129_story.html. Accessed 29 Aug. 2020.