President Donald Trump's decision to reimpose sanctions on Iran — violating the Obama-era nuclear deal — leaves the other nations involved scrambling to salvage the pact.
Experts warned it also risks weakening trust in the United States, raising questions about whether Washington can be taken at its word, and could potentially bolster hard-liners in Tehran who are pushing an agenda of Middle East aggression.
Trump has called it the “worst deal ever negotiated” and wanted Britain, France and Germany — co-signatories, along with Russia, China and the European Union — to toughen up its terms. In announcing his decision Tuesday, Trump blasted the deal as "defective at its core," later adding that "America will not be held hostage to nuclear blackmail."
His primary complaint is that the 2015 pact, which was originally conceived as a starting point for better relations between Iran and the West, doesn’t extend beyond 2025.
He also criticized the deal for failing to address other concerns about Iran, such as its ballistic missile program or its support of the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, its military aid of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and its role in the war in Yemen.
Although Trump has been emphatic in his opposition to the deal, he was less clear about what should replace it or how far the U.S. is willing to go to limit Iran’s nuclear ambitions or its regional aggression.
“With this decision, we at least get some clarity on the White House position,” said Sanam Vakil, a professor in the Middle East studies department at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Bologna, Italy.
Under the deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the United States committed to ease a series of sanctions on Iran and has done so under a string of “waivers” that effectively suspend them.
The waiver that was due for renewal Saturday covered Iran's central bank and was intended at limiting Iran's oil exports. Other waivers are due for renewal in July.
In his televised address on Tuesday, Trump said the United States would impose the "highest-level" economic sanctions on the Iranian regime, suggesting that he intends to scrap all of the waivers.
Restoring sanctions amounts to a U.S. breach of the original deal whereas Iran was deemed to be compliant, according to international nuclear inspectors.
The JCPOA has a dispute resolution clause that would allow Iran to raise a complaint against the U.S. for violating its terms; that could buy time for more negotiation, but Trump’s solid opposition to the deal means the dispute mechanism is unlikely to prove fruitful.
Major companies in the U.S. and Europe could be hurt, too. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said that licenses held by Boeing and its European competitor Airbus to sell billions of dollars in commercial jetliners to Iran will be revoked. Certain exemptions are to be negotiated, but Mnuchin refused to discuss what products might qualify.
And while Iran’s leaders may have been more willing to take a softer stance in talks with non-U.S. parties, anger at Trump’s decision may make that politically impossible.
“Should there be some momentum, Iran has indicated that perhaps it might negotiate on some of the wider issues,” Vakil said. “But right now it is obviously in a defensive mood, and domestic, sectional politics very much drives its ability to come back to the negotiating table.”
Netanyahu on Tuesday accused Iran of deploying "very dangerous weapons" in neighboring Syria. "It is now seeking to plant very dangerous weapons in Syria ... for the specific purpose of our destruction,” he told reporters.
Before Trump announced his decision, French President Emmanuel Macron had warned that war could ensue if Trump withdrew from the deal. Without limits on Iran’s nuclear ambitions or inspections of Iranian facilities, Israel could feel compelled to act against its archenemy.
After Trump's announcement on Tuesday, Macron tweeted that France, Germany, and the U.K. regretted the United States' decision but would work "collectively on a broader framework, covering nuclear activity, the post-2025 period, ballistic activity and stability in the Middle-East, notably Syria, Yemen and Iraq."
Perhaps the most troubling outcome of Trump’s move for diplomats is the longer-term erosion of trust in the United States.
Iranian Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri said Tuesday that only “naïve” individuals would negotiate with the U.S. in the future. His comments echoed a warning from Rouhani that “no one will trust America again" after this episode.
That could drive Iran back into the hands of hard-liners in elections for its Parliament in 2020 and its presidency in 2021.
“The fallout from Trump’s announcement will leave Rouhani completely marginalized,” Vakil said. “Conservatives will have the dominant narrative, and Rouhani’s legacy of engagement with the international community will be completely discredited.”