Around the Halls: Brookings experts discuss the implications of President Trump’s Iran nuclear deal announcement

U.S. President Donald Trump displays a presidential memorandum after announcing his intent to withdraw from the JCPOA Iran nuclear agreement in the Diplomatic Room at the White House in Washington, U.S., May 8, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst - HP1EE581FULTV
Editor's note:

President Trump announced that the United States will withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and will re-impose sanctions. What does this move mean, and what are its implications for the Middle East, for U.S. allies in Europe, for energy markets, and more broadly? Brookings experts weigh in below.

Suzanne Maloney (@MaloneySuzanne), Deputy Director of the Brookings Foreign Policy program and Senior Fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy: After months of speculation and a flurry of last-minute European diplomacy, Donald Trump has taken perhaps the most consequential decision of his unconventional presidency with the Tuesday announcement that he is re-imposing U.S. sanctions on Iran in a deliberately provocative breach of the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran. By torpedoing U.S. adherence to the accord, Trump has all but guaranteed its collapse, a move that opens the door to the unfettered resumption of Iran’s nuclear program and unleashes unpredictable escalatory pressures in an already volatile Middle East.

The premediated American dismantling of an agreement that was the product of more than a decade of intense diplomacy and economic pressure marks a staggeringly counterproductive step. That it was undertaken over the vocal objections of Washington’s closest allies and without a clear strategy of mitigating the newly heightened risks of Iranian proliferation and conventional retaliation represents an abdication of American leadership on the international stage that is unparalleled in recent history.

The only question that matters is: How is America safer now? If the president truly believes that the JCPOA’s far-reaching inspections regime and its restrictions of 10, 15, and 25 years are somehow insufficient to guard against Iran’s unshakeable yearning for a nuclear weapon, what risks then are posed by the evisceration of all constraints?

Natan Sachs (@natansachs), Director and Fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy: The main question in the wake of Trump’s announcement is the same that faced opponents of the JCPOA when the deal was struck: What is your alternative? Critics of the deal had valid concerns on the deal’s shortcomings and on the cost of loosening the pressure on the Islamic Republic, but they repeatedly failed to convince most countries in the world that they offered a serious alternative. Trump, returning to familiar themes about his negotiating skills, suggested that Iran could strike a new deal with him. More realistically, as I argued elsewhere, the alternative is an open-ended standoff with Iran: Deterrence. This can be a serious approach, if—and only if—one is willing to sustain the pressure through a comprehensive strategy and signal credibly that one is willing to back up one’s threats. This is now the unenviable task of the administration in the new era we’ve just entered of a Trump-charted Iran policy.

Bruce Riedel, Senior Fellow in the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence and the Center for Middle East Policy: Saudi King Salman and his son Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman are the most anti-Iranian leadership in modern Saudi history. They have broken relations with Tehran and characterized it as a Hitler-like threat to the world. They have already welcomed President Trump’s announcement and sanctions. If oil prices rise, the Saudis will welcome that too.

But the Iran nuclear threat is not Riyadh’s top priority or concern. The Saudi priority is the missile threat from Iranian technology and expertise provided to the Zaydi Shia Houthis in Yemen. Over 125 missiles have been fired at Saudi cities since the war in Yemen began. Since last November, Riyadh has been a target. Saudi air defenses have shot down many of the missiles, but the pace of attacks is increasing along with the range of the missiles. The Iranians are posing a clear and immediate threat to the kingdom.

Of course the Houthis are responding to the Saudi air strikes on Yemen and their blockade of Yemen. This week, the Saudis bombed the president’s palace in Sanaa. The Iranians are playing with fire by assisting the Houthis with missile technology. President Trump referred to the issue but offered no specific response. Efforts to stop Iran’s technology transfers have proven ineffective so far. A move to reprimand Iran in the Security Council was blocked by Russia.

The president did refer to Iran’s “sinister” actions in Yemen and its meddling in the region. This is Saudi Arabia’s second priority. Iran has outmaneuvered the kingdom for influence in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon in recent years, in addition to the role it plays in Yemen. Hezbollah and its allies just out-polled the Saudis’ allies in Lebanon’s elections, in another setback for the kingdom.

The Saudis are now going to press the U.S. administration for a strategy to stop Iran’s support for the Houthis and their missile capabilities. They will want a strategy to roll back Iranian influence in the region and undermine Hezbollah. The Trump decision to “exit” the JCPOA will actually make all that harder, because it splits the Americans from the other signatories to the deal and weakens their willingness to confront Iran for now.

Suzanne Maloney: “The only question that matters is: How is America safer now?”

Dan Byman (@dbyman), Senior Fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy: Once again we see the triumph of symbolism and domestic politics over foreign policy substance. We have a decision without a plan. The president can announce to Americans that he acted tough, but the reality will be policy confusion, with allies looking elsewhere for leadership.

Hady Amr (@HadyAmr), Visiting Fellow and Project Director: By ditching the Iran deal this week, and opening the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, Trump has demonstrated that he is willing to upend standing conventions, world opinion, and go back on America’s word. In doing so, he has further alienated key European partners—France, Germany, and the United Kingdom—and Eurasian rivals China and Russia in a manner that makes the Middle East a far more dangerous and conflict-prone region today than it has been in years. Trump has also likely created a pathway for Iran to build stronger relations with Europe, Russia, and China to maintain the deal. How will this impact the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Israeli and Palestinian security writ large? Israel is already on alert for conflict with Iran. The announcement will also put the opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem on May 14 in a different, darker light. Recent polling suggests that by a ratio of 20:1, young Arabs see the Sunni-Shiite divide, which the Iran deal exacerbates, as bad for the Middle East. Nearly 60 percent of young Arabs see the United States as an enemy and by a ratio of 10:1 see the election of Trump as negative for the Arab world. This week, more than ever, the security of the people of the Middle East will depend on Iran’s own discipline to stay on its course.

Mara Karlin, Nonresident Senior Fellow in the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence: If one wanted to alienate allies and partners, minimize international support for Iran’s accountability, further destabilize the Middle East, suck the oxygen out of efforts to punish Iran for its bad behavior regionally, and demonstrate to North Korea that negotiating with the United States is worth little, then the president’s decision today is a smart move. If, however, one recognizes that U.S. allies and partners are our comparative advantage, acknowledges that the international community’s pressure has had a meaningful impact on Iran’s nuclear program, remains concerned over Iran’s support to terrorists and other nefarious regional actors, and appreciates that Washington would hold a parade if it could match the JCPOA’s terms for North Korea, then the president’s decision today is foolish and shortsighted at best.

Samantha Gross (@samanthaenergy), Fellow in the Energy Security and Climate Initiative: President Trump’s decision to re-impose sanctions on Iran is a sad move for diplomacy, but the repercussions on oil markets will likely be less severe. Oil markets had already priced in the likelihood of renewed sanctions before the president’s announcement, with the Brent oil price exceeding $75 per barrel for the first time in nearly four years. Prices could rise further in response, but as I write late in the afternoon on the day of the announcement, that hasn’t happened.

The re-imposition of sanctions is expected to remove about 0.5 million barrels per day (mbd) from the market over time. At the same time, the OPEC/non-OPEC supply reduction agreement is holding about 1.8 mbd off the market, meaning that there is more than enough spare crude oil production capacity to respond to a decrease in Iranian supply. However, there is no guarantee that producers will want to dampen any price increase that might result from the sanctions. Russian and Saudi crudes would be a good match, but both of these countries would be happy to see higher crude oil prices, particularly the Saudis in advance of the potential Saudi Aramco IPO.

Frank Rose, Senior Fellow in the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence: Support for arms control and nonproliferation agreements, especially the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran, have played a key role in helping build domestic U.S. and allied political support for nuclear modernization and deterrence. My key concern is that the action by the Trump administration to withdraw from the JCPOA could have a negative impact on our ability to maintain this essential consensus for nuclear deterrence, especially at a time when many allies are facing strong domestic political pressure to renounce extended deterrence.

Additionally, I fear the decision will make it much more difficult to build international coalitions to address future nuclear proliferation challenges. The decision to withdraw is further complicated by the fact that Iran was in full compliance with its obligations under the agreement, which was confirmed by Secretary of Defense Mattis in recent congressional testimony and in the State Department’s 2018 Arms Control Compliance Report. The Trump administration’s decision will leave the United States less secure and more isolated.

Richard Nephew (@RichardMNephew), Nonresident Senior Fellow in the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence: The president’s decision to restart the U.S. sanctions effort against Iran is a massive gamble that the threat of exclusion from the U.S. economy will be sufficient to bring Iran back to the negotiating table to renegotiate the JCPOA. Iran has been steadfast in its opposition to this concept, as have U.S. negotiating partners. To be effective, the United States will likely have to threaten and perhaps invoke sanctions that damage its own economic interests and those of its allies. Moreover, the United States will have to do so in the absence of international agreement on the necessity of sanctions or their utility in this context. The Trump administration is likely to find that completely coerced cooperation is less effective than a multilateral approach accepted by the rest of the world.  And, in the end, the United States unintentionally encourages its partners and its adversaries to band together in opposition to a presidential decision, damaging the use of sanctions as a tool in the future. This is a very dangerous moment both insofar as Iran policy and sanctions policy is concerned.

Steven Pifer: “President Trump’s decision will isolate the United States.”

Steven Pifer (@steven_pifer), Nonresident Senior Fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe and the Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Initiative: President Trump’s decision to restart U.S. sanctions against Iran and, in effect, withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, is a profound mistake. Virtually everyone, including the State Department, Defense Department, and CIA, agrees that Iran was meeting its obligations under the JCPOA, which provides verifiable constraints on Iran’s nuclear activities. President Trump’s decision will isolate the United States. Indeed, our European partners in the agreement (Britain, France, Germany, and the European Union) have already made clear that they will continue to observe the JCPOA. The president also has ceded the diplomatic high ground to Tehran and created a new opportunity for Moscow to try to split Washington from its key European partners. And it appears that he has no strategy to get a better nuclear deal.

lia Belin (@celiabelin), Visiting Fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe: As President Macron pointed out at the end of his state visit in Washington, President Trump turns out to be “very predictable” in his disruptive decisions, which were all laid out during his presidential campaign, and on which diplomatic efforts—such as months of negotiations, or offers for a “new deal”—have no impact.
Europeans are slowly discovering Trump’s “hot potato” doctrine, by which he opens new diplomatic battlefronts, often on previously stable or frozen situations, creating periods of uncertainty and volatility in the international system—and letting others, friends or foes, offer solutions or chose confrontation.

What is unpredictable at this point is how the administration will solve the crisis that Trump himself created. Europeans have demonstrated that they stand united in their commitment to JCPOA. Even if U.S. secondary sanctions halt European business dealings with Iran, Europeans will not re-establish sanctions. They will relentlessly try and keep a dialogue open for negotiation with the Iranians, hopefully saving enough time to lure the United States back into the talks, or outlast this presidency. However, it is unclear whether the Trump administration truly seeks a “better deal,” or whether he and his administration are aiming for regime change.

Dror Michman, Visiting Fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy: President Trump’s decision to immediately re-impose strong sanctions on Iran doesn’t leave a lot of space for the Europeans to maneuver. Trump’s determination, as reflected at the press conference—if he follows through—will force the EU to follow the U.S. lead and comply with the sanctions, thereby demolishing any hope for a separate, supplemental deal without the United States.

This will also have a huge impact on the Iranian president and will strengthen the radicals in Iran who always claimed that the West could not be trusted. In the short term, rallying around the flag will suffice. But the Iranian regime has narrow margins to contain (as it did successfully in the past) the sinking economy, rising unemployment, a severe five-year drought, and growing pressures for more civil freedom. The Iranian economy has severe structural problems and more freedom is difficult to provide without betraying the religious revolution. So, when internal pressure increases—and it will—the regime will have to react in more radical fashion than in the past. In short, we should expect that the Iranian regime will behave more radically, both in domestic and foreign policy.

Tamara Cofman Wittes (@tcwittes), Senior Fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy: Rhetorically, the Trump administration presents itself as tougher on Iran than its predecessors—but that’s not how it looks from Lebanon, where I just spent a week. In withdrawing from the JCPOA, Trump once again delivered on a campaign promise regarding foreign policy without much concern for the effects on broader U.S. interests or relationships. Amongst the Lebanese I met, Trump’s withdrawal from compliance with the JCPOA is seen in Lebanon together with his insistence on withdrawing U.S. forces from Syria, his refusal to pledge any U.S. aid for Syrian refugees at a donor conference two weeks ago, his choice to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, and his rupture in relations with the Palestinians. All together, the picture is of Trump’s determination to abandon a traditional American role managing conflicts and stabilizing the region, instead leaving American partners there empowered to pursue their own agendas unconstrained. As Iran continues to press its advantage in Syria, Israel and Jordan are increasingly alarmed. Many in Beirut fear that the result will be an escalating confrontation between Iran and Israel that might well, like previous rounds of tension, play out on Lebanese territory and at Lebanese expense.

Tanvi Madan (@tanvi_madan), Director of the India Project and Fellow in the Project on International Order and Strategy: Over the last few years, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has sought to deepen its relationships in the Middle East (or what Delhi calls West Asia). It has continued its predecessors’ approach of maintaining links with Israel, the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (both the Qatar and Saudi/UAE wings), and Iran. Arguably, the latter is the least significant of the three for India—and definitely less crucial than India’s partnership with the United States for Indian interests. Nonetheless, for Delhi, Iran is important because of a) India’s energy interests, and b) connectivity to Afghanistan and Central Asia. Both could be affected by the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the JCPOA, which Modi in an India-Iran joint statement two years ago said represented a “triumph of diplomacy and sagacity.” In its response today, New Delhi was careful not to condemn the U.S. action—but it will not welcome the step, particularly as it comes at a time of global and regional flux and uncertainty. (Read more of Tanvi’s analysis here.)

Kadira Pethiyagoda (@KPethiyagoda), Nonresident Fellow with the Brookings Doha Center: President Trump’s decision has diverse implications for rising powers that have growing geopolitical footprints in the Middle East. India will face challenges on the economic front. The level of trade with Iran may now depend on the resilience of direct banking channels, though the commitment of European governments to honor the JCPOA will mitigate harm. Even if banking channels remain open, some Indian corporations may hesitate to do business for fear of Washington restricting their U.S. operations. Connectivity initiatives like the Chabahar Port and the North-South Transport Corridor will also suffer uncertainty.

While China will incur costs too, in the long term, this significant abdication of U.S. leadership will further advance Beijing’s ambitions to be a global and regional leader. Iran will depend even more on China. Polarization between Washington and Moscow, and their regional allies, assists Beijing’s claims to be a “moderate” great power. Trump’s decision makes it easier for China to position itself as a future honest broker, simultaneously strengthening engagement with Iran, Arab states, and Israel.