Despite personal pleas from European leaders, repeated threats of retribution from the Iranian government, and frequent assurances of Iranian compliance by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), U.S. president Trump announced (5/8) that he was pulling the United States out of the 7/14/2015 Iran nuclear deal. Fulfilling a campaign promise, he called the JCPOA a “great embarrassment to me as a citizen,” adding, “It is clear to me that we cannot prevent an Iranian nuclear bomb under the decaying, rotten structure of the current agreement.” A senior U.S. official said that in addition to reinstating all sanctions on Iran, Trump planned to impose new economic penalties, presumably in connection with Iran’s ballistic missile program and human rights record, both frequent subjects of his bellicose rhetoric.
Trump’s long-awaited decision followed months of politicking among the signatories of the agreement, with the three European parties—Germany, France, and the United Kingdom—scrambling to both preserve the deal and maintain their relationships with the belligerent new administration in Washington. Following Trump’s announcement last quarter that he intended to extend the JCPOAconnected waivers of U.S. sanctions only one last time and that he wanted to pursue a “follow-on” agreement instead to address the issues he saw in the JCPOA, British, French, and German diplomats engaged in talks to achieve such an agreement. Their U.S. interlocutors specifically wanted a deal that addressed “Iran’s development or testing [of] long-range missiles, ensures strong inspections, and fixes the flaws of the [JCPOA’s] ‘sunset clause,’” according to a diplomatic cable leaked to Reuters on 2/19.
Throughout the rest of the quarter, UK prime minister Theresa May, French president Emmanuel Macron, and German chancellor Angela Merkel each personally spoke with Trump on multiple occasions, urging him to stick with the JCPOA and increase pressure on Iran in other ways. Their deputies jointly lobbied for new EU sanctions on Iran in mid-3/2018, but they were unable to secure the necessary support from the rest of the bloc. In the lead-up to Trump’s next deadline to either waive sanctions again or abandon the deal (5/12), Macron, May, and Merkel conferred frequently with each other and Trump, but they failed to reach a compromise enticing enough for Trump to back down from his campaign promise. According to several unnamed sources, the German, French, and UK governments simultaneously began work on measures that would protect European business connections with Iran should the United States reapply sanctions (Reuters, 5/4).
On the other side of the deal, there were no indications that Iran was willing to compromise or negotiate a subsidiary or “follow-on” agreement of any kind. The only variables in the Iranian rhetoric were the scope and variety of response the United States and its allies could expect were they to allow the JCPOA to fail. On 3/16, Iranian deputy foreign minister Abbas Araghchi said that the European countries would be making a “big mistake” and that Iran would be forced to respond if they imposed new nonnuclear sanctions on Iran “in order to please the [U.S.] president.” A month later, on 4/21, the foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, said that Iran would “vigorously” resume uranium enrichment if the United States abandoned the deal. Other Iranian officials suggested that Iran could back out of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which stipulates that no signatory can produce nuclear weapons. Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, for his part, threatened (4/24) “serious consequences” to those who did not “live up to their commitments.”
In the days leading up to Trump’s decision, as European diplomats shuttled back and forth from meetings with Trump administration officials, Rouhani addressed the increasingly real possibility of the United States backing out of the JCPOA. Iran would likely continue meeting its obligations, he said, especially if Germany, France, and the United Kingdom could guarantee that they would not renew their own sanctions. “What we want for the deal is that it’s preserved and guaranteed by the nonAmericans,” he said (5/7). “Then the U.S. pullout will be okay.”
pullout will be okay.” The last major player in this process was Israeli prime minister Netanyahu, a longtime critic of the JCPOA. He campaigned throughout the quarter for Trump to either “fix or nix” the deal. His efforts culminated in a dramatic press conference at the headquarters of Israel’s Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv on 4/30, during which he stood in front of a wall-sized screen and presented “new” evidence allegedly exposing Iranian lies about its nuclear program. A senior Israeli official later said that Netanyahu’s presentation was partially based on information derived from a trove of documents that Israeli spies smuggled out of Iran in 1/2018. While many analysts, and even the chair of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker (R-TN), said that Netanyahu presented “nothing new,” Trump praised (4/30) the presentation. “[It] showed I was 100 percent right.”
The IAEA declined (5/1) to address Netanyahu’s specific allegations and opted instead to reiterate its position that Iran’s nuclear program never went “beyond feasibility and scientific studies” after 2009. Typifying EU responses, the French Foreign Ministry put out a statement on 5/1, saying that the details Netanyahu presented should be “studied and evaluated,” but that they appeared to reinforce only the “pertinence” of the JCPOA, rather than a need to abandon it. “The inspection regime put in place by the IAEA thanks to the deal is one of the most exhaustive and the most robust in the history of nuclear non-proliferation,” the statement affirmed. In the wake of his presentation, Netanyahu shifted his position slightly. Rather than saying Trump was “about to nix” or “rip up” the JCPOA, he started saying that the deal was “in [Trump’s] hands.” Israeli diplomatic sources said that the prime minister did not want to be seen as interfering or applying any pressure on Trump in the lead-up to his 5/12 deadline (Haaretz, 5/2).
Trump’s announcement came at the end of the quarter, so it was unclear what new longterm strategies the major players would adopt. In the immediate aftermath, however, there was a burst of activity. A preemptive Israeli strike on Iranian forces in Syria prompted two days of cross-border violence (see “Syria” above). As that was playing out, Zarif tweeted Iran’s intentions to pursue a “diplomatic effort to examine whether remaining JCPOA participants can ensure its full benefits for Iran. Outcome will determine our response.” Meanwhile, U.S. treasury secretary Steve Mnuchin said (5/9) that Trump intended to impose new sanctions that would pressure Iran into accepting a tougher replacement agreement. May, Merkel, and Macron released a joint statement urging Iran to “continue to meet its own obligations under the deal” and pledging to meet their own commitments as well. China and Russia, the final two signatories to the JCPOA, also pledged to abide by the deal.