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The US Is in Violation of the Iran Deal

Trump thinks he can get a “better” deal, but he’s laboring under a delusion. Here’s what the decision will mean for the world.

Words: Kelsey Davenport
Pictures: House Foreign Affairs Committee

Trump has violated the nuclear deal with Iran, and justified his irresponsible choice by claiming that he would get a “better” deal. But Trump is laboring under a delusion – there is no option for a better deal, and he just put the existing restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program and U.S. national security, in jeopardy.

Just to be clear, there is no legitimate reason for Trump’s decision May 8 to abandon the nuclear deal and reimpose sanctions. His reasons don’t hold water, because thanks to the deal, Iran cannot develop nuclear weapons. The deal is not “weak,” Iran has not “cheated,” and the agreement does not “expire.”


1. The deal is not “weak” as Trump has described.

The 2015 multilateral agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, resolved a decade-long crisis over Iran’s nuclear activities. While Iran never made the decision to actually build a nuclear bomb, the country had assembled all of the pieces. Without question, this was a serious threat to the security of the United States and its allies.

But the agreement reached in July 2015 eliminated the threat by blocking Iran’s pathways to nuclear weapons and permanently prohibiting Iran from certain activities relevant to building a bomb. Under the deal, Iran had to dismantle significant parts of its nuclear program and is now subject to the “world’s most robust verification regime.” Key nuclear facilities are under 24-hour surveillance, and inspectors can visit any site in Iran if they are concerned that Iran is pursuing illicit nuclear activities.

In short, this is a great deal and if Iran tries to cheat, the world will know. In return, Iran received economic relief – a commitment which Trump just violated by reimposing sanctions lifted by the agreement.

2. Iran is meeting its end of the bargain, and that point is not in dispute.

Even deal-haters have conceded that Tehran is complying. Mike Pompeo, Secretary of State and former CIA Director, testified to Congress in April that there is no evidence of an Iranian violation. If Pompeo, who advocated for the United States to walk away from the nuclear deal, doesn’t see a violation while running the intelligence agency, it’s a safe bet to say Iran is meeting its commitments.

If Pompeo, who advocated for the United States to walk away from the nuclear deal, doesn’t see a violation while running the intelligence agency, it’s a safe bet to say Iran is meeting its commitments.

3. The deal does not “expire” as Trump claims.

Yes, some limits do end and down the road, Iran can expand its peaceful nuclear activities. But key provisions in the agreement are permanent – including more intrusive monitoring and the prohibition on developing the explosives used in nuclear weapons. Those are significant barriers that will stand in perpetuity between Iran and nuclear weapons, if Trump’s reckless decision does not collapse the deal.


It is clear that a “better” deal is not necessary to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. After Trump’s irresponsible move to exit the deal, it is also not possible. To get Iran to the negotiating table in 2013, the United States worked with a group known as the P5+1– EU, China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United Kingdom – as well as the broader international community, to build up sanctions pressure on Iran and push the country to the negotiating table. After screwing allies and partners by abandoning this agreement, Trump will not get international support for sanctions this time around. His approach has already been soundly rejected and without support, there will be no leverage to get Iran back to the table for a “better” deal – not that Iran would have any interest in negotiating with the United States after the Trump reneged on existing agreement.

While Trump dealt the nuclear deal a serious blow, it is not dead yet. The remaining states in the deal, including Iran, will try to sustain the deal. That becomes harder with the reimposition of US sanctions, because these measures don’t just target Iran. U.S. sanctions also penalize business and banks globally for engaging in certain transactions with Tehran, like buying oil. While the EU, China, and Russia have some tools at their disposal to try and block U.S. sanctions, it may not be enough to demonstrate to Iran that there is an economic incentive to stay in the agreement.

And if this strategy to save the deal fails, which it might, the consequences are more dire. Collapse of the deal opens the door for Iran to resume troublesome nuclear activities prohibited by the nuclear agreement – but without bearing the responsibility of collapsing the agreement, because that will lie with Trump.

If Iran does go down that road, it is unlikely that Tehran will dash to a bomb. Iran could quickly expand its nuclear activities and get way too close for comfort. But this time, there will be no international support for U.S.-led sanctions and a negotiated settlement, because Trump has killed Washington’s credibility only succeeded in isolating itself.

If the deal collapses, other states may try to match Iran’s nuclear capabilities. The day after Trump violated the deal, Saudi Arabia said it would pursue nuclear weapons if Iran did – and when asked the White House failed to condemn Riyadh’s remarks as dangerous and provocative. The last thing the Middle East – or the international community – needs in the region is a destabilizing nuclear competition.


Irrespective of whether the deal collapses or continues, the negative consequences of Trump’s decision won’t be contained to the region. After threatening North Korea with “fire and fury,” Trump has finally come around to the idea that the path to reducing the risk posed by Pyongyang’s nuclear program comes through negotiations, not bellicose rhetoric.

Now, after North Korea extended an offer to talk, Trump has an opportunity to sit down with Kim Jong-Un – the leader of a country that actually has nuclear weapons capable of targeting the United States – and address that threat. But by abandoning the nuclear deal with Iran, Trump sent a message to Kim that even if a deal is reached, and North Korea abides by its commitments, the United States may change the goalposts down the road. North Korea is also likely to raise the price for any agreement and play on Trump’s egotistical desire to prove he can negotiate “better” nuclear deal and succeed where his predecessors “failed.”

History will judge just how devastating the fallout will be from Trump’s decision to violate the nuclear deal with Iran. But we don’t need history or hindsight to recognize that walking away from the Iran deal is a dangerous and destabilizing move that jeopardizes US national security – and Trump will bear the blame for this decision.

Kelsey Davenport is the director for nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association, where she focuses on the nuclear and missile programs in Iran and North Korea. 

Kelsey Davenport

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