Two years after candidate Donald J. Trump vowed to undo one of his predecessor’s main foreign policy achievements, few were surprised when word came from the Oval Office that he would stick to his campaign pledge and unilaterally withdraw the United States from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – known to the world as the Iran Nuclear Deal.
In that agreement, Tehran agreed to a long-term deal to curb its nuclear programme with the group of world powers – the US, UK, France, China, Russia, and Germany. The agreement came about after years of tension over Iran’s efforts to develop a nuclear weapon. The Iranian leadership insisted that its nuclear programme was entirely peaceful, but the international community – included its closest ally, Russia – simply did not believe its claims.
But after years of intense back-and-forth negotiations between parties who, as fierce adversaries, rarely agree, Iran agreed to limit its most clandestine nuclear activities and allow international experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the global nuclear watchdog, into their research and development facilities for comprehensive inspections in return for the lifting of a decade-old economic sanctions regime that had brought the Iranian economy to its knees.
Iran had nearly 20,000 centrifuges when the deal was signed in July 2015 – enough to create eight to 10 nuclear weapons. The agreement limited Tehran from installing no more than 5,060 of the oldest centrifuges until 15 years to the day of the deal’s implementation – January 2026.
Over the course the next two years, up to Trump’s announcement on May 9, Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium was reduced by 98% to 300 kilogrammes and its regime had complied with the IAEA’s inspectors allowing them unfettered and robust access to its two nuclear sites at Natanz and Fordo.
For its compliance with the agreement, Tehran once again gained access to more than €84 billion in assets frozen overseas and was able to resume selling oil on international markets.
Major European firms also rushed headlong into the Iranian market, investing billions of euros into the newly reopened market.
Trump, however, appears to have sided with his own campaign rhetoric and ignored the advice of his closest allies in the UK, Germany, and France, and utterly disregarded the data passed to him the US’ intelligence agencies – organisations that Trump is openly hostile to after publicly denigrating their professionalism over the ongoing investigation into his campaign’s dealings with Russia.
He has continued to play to his base of ardent supporters, few of whom rank foreign policy high on their agenda of priorities, saying he can play the dealmaker in what he’s dubbed a “fatally flawed agreement”.
Trump is right in that the agreement had certain flaws that could potentially be problematic down the line, but he has failed to fully grasp the leveraging power that agreement gave the international community in dealing with Iran.
“This was a horrible, one-sided deal that should have never, ever been made,” Trump said in his address from the White House. “It didn’t bring calm, it didn’t bring peace, and it never will.”
The Middle East hasn’t become any less quiet since the deal was signed. The war in Syria continues to rage, tensions between Israel, Lebanon, and Hamas in Gaza are as high now as they have been in a decade, and a revanchist Turkey has joined its equally ambitious and neo-imperialist partner Russia in changing facts on the ground in northern Syria and Iraq.
But what it has done is force Iran to have a set of rules that it must observe by in order to be an active player in regional affairs. Tehran understands the benefit of having access to the global financial markets and precious hard currency, which explains the regime’s announcement that it intends to continue to abide by the deal regardless of what Trump decides.
What it will undoubtedly do is embolden Iran’s hardliners that are closely aligned with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and could likely force the country’s moderate reformers, including its President Hassan Rouhani, from power.
A move in that direction could potentially start a wider war with Israel or Saudi Arabia and its allies, who would feel threatened by an Iran fully run by a mobilised Revolutionary Guard
The remaining five powers who signed the deal – the UK, France, Germany, Russia, and China – have said they will continue to honour the agreement. That leaves the US as an outlier – isolationist, as candidate Trump promised and his supporters demanded, but now with a severely tarnished image as an honest broker, even for its closest and oldest allies.
Now, facing the return of stiff American sanctions for doing business with Iran, the EU could find itself in a bitter trans-Atlantic spat with Washington after Trump’s decision. With proof that Trump’s White House can no longer be trusted to stick by the US’ commitments, Europe may be forced to go its own way in the face of an equally impulsive and combative US administration.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who along with French President Emmanuel Macron, tried desperately to change Trump’s mind and save the deal, echoed the dismayed sentiment felt across Europe on May 11 saying, “I believe that it’s not right to unilaterally cancel an accord that was negotiated, that was confirmed in the UN Security Council unanimously…it damages trust in the international order.”
Those comments came shortly after she said in a speech that the US under Trump is beginning to forfeit its leading role in the post-World War II world and that Europe must begin to go its own way.