10 May 2018
10 May 2018
In a way, it was one of the most inevitable announcements of Donald Trump’s presidency… and one sure to leave international turmoil in its wake.
For a president who loves to shake things up, walking away from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran was – what we Americans would call — “a no brainer.”
Others pleaded with him to stay in, to really consider the consequences. They campaigned until the last minute and they lost.

The deadline for Trump to act was May 12th. And though he usually waits until the clock has almost run out to make this kind of announcement, there he was on May 8th, looking uncomfortable as he read a carefully written statement off a teleprompter.

“This was a horrible one-sided deal that should never, ever have been made. It didn’t bring calm, it didn’t bring peace and it never will,” he stressed.

The president said he had been consulting with America’s allies on how to fix the agreement under which Iran dropped its nuclear ambitions in exchange for an end to economic sanctions.  He told the nation that “after these consultations, it is clear to me that we cannot prevent an Iranian nuclear bomb under the decaying and rotten structure of the current agreement.”

His words were tough but not unfamiliar to those who heard him rant about Iran during the 2016 presidential campaign. Trump said  “America will not be held hostage to nuclear blackmail,” adding when Iran’s leaders are willing to open negotiations on a new and lasting nuclear agreement, he will be ready.

In the meantime, American sanctions on Iran that went away under the terms of the 2015 deal are coming back. That presumably could include second party sanctions on entities in other countries that do business with Iran, including companies in nations that are signatories to the agreement.

France, Britain, Germany, Russia and China are all parties to the deal and engaged in years of often excruciatingly detailed negotiations with Iran to make it happen.

In a joint statement in response to the US announcement, French President Emmanuel Macron,  British Prime Minister Theresa May and German Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed “regret and concern” over Trump’s decision. And in a sign of pending troubles in the alliance they vowed “our governments remain committed to ensuring the agreement is upheld.”

They also urged Iran “to continue to meet its obligations under the deal” and show restraint.

In other words, just like the Paris climate accord survived Donald Trump’s decision to quit, so too, they hope, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — as it is formally known – will remain in effect with the remaining six participants.

But this is not the voluntary Paris accord signed by more than one hundred nations. This is a nuclear deal six world powers made with a country that is in deep economic trouble that seeks an edge in one of the most volatile regions of the world.

For his part, Trump maintains a far better deal is possible, one that addresses the wide range of threats to stability posed by Iran. And if others refuse to play the game his way, the president makes clear they do so at their own peril.

He has apparently left it to his new Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to come up with a strategy for dealing with all this. In a written statement, Pompeo said, “As we exit the Iran deal, we will be working with our allies to find a real, comprehensive and lasting solution to the Iranian threat.” He offered no specifics.

Meanwhile, the sanctions are getting their bite back. Already, the Boeing Corporation has been told to scrap its multi-billion-dollar sale of planes to Iranian airlines. And  European companies have been warned they will have between three and six months to wind down their own operations in Iran or face problems with the American banking system.

Oh, and then there is the not-so-little issue of oil exports from Iran. Oil. The life-blood of that cash-strapped country.

Some foreign policy experts say a further hit on the Iranian economy will only serve to embolden hardliners in that country and weaken moderate President Hassan Rouhani. Others  warn that Trump’s willingness to break America’s commitments vis-a-vis Iran will make the North Koreans think twice before bargaining away their nuclear ambitions in the quest for a deal with the United States,

So, you might ask, with all these cautionary factors —- not to mention opening the door for Russia and China to gain further influence with Iran — why is Trump doing this… and why is he taking this action NOW?

It is not because he needs it to appease his political base. Polls show the Iran deal is not and never was a big issue for his supporters.

Maybe it’s more personal than that. Maybe it is all about friends and perceived enemies.

Who are his friends in the region? The Saudis and the Israelis. Both have been extremely vocal about the Iranian threat.

And why do it today? The president has already had a couple of opportunities since taking office to reimpose sanctions on Iran (he has to sign a waver every few months to confirm the Iran deal is working and put the sanctions on hold). When Rex Tillerson was at the State Department and H.R. McMaster was the White House National Security Advisor, they urged him to stay in the agreement. Their replacements — Pompeo at State and John Bolton at the NSC — have views more in line with Trump.  In short, there is no one holding him back.

But perhaps the biggest factor in ditching the deal may be Donald Trump’s seeming obsession with undoing all of Barack Obama’s accomplishments in office  — and the Iran deal was probably his biggest single foreign policy achievement. If Obama did it, figures Trump, it has to be flawed or — when it comes to Iran – “the worst deal ever.”

Barack Obama said nothing in public — or offered a gentlemanly diplomatic response — when Donald Trump tried to cut his health care initiative,  reverse his environmental regulations, or threaten his trade agreements. After all it is an unwritten law in American politics that  a former president will never openly criticize the policies of his successor. But it was clear to Obama that the decision to — in effect — kill the Iran nuclear deal went too far.

In a rare statement,  the 44th president of the United States lashed out at the actions of the 45th. Read between the lines and it is readily apparent the man once known to the voting public as “no-drama Obama” had reached his limit.

He called the Trump decision “a serious mistake” that will make the world a more dangerous place.

“Walking away from the JCPOA turns our back on America’s closest allies, and an agreement that our country’s leading diplomats, scientists, and intelligence professionals negotiated,” he wrote, adding: “In a democracy, there will always be changes in policies and priorities from one Administration to the next. But the consistent flouting of agreements that our country is a party to risks eroding America’s credibility, and puts us at odds with the world’s major powers.”

But to me,  the best and simplest response to the events of May 8th came from Former Secretary of State John Kerry — who put his reputation on the line to get a nuclear deal with Iran.

He said Trump “has literally taken a situation where there was no crisis and created crisis.”

What will the president do to help resolve the crisis he made?

The truly scary part is nobody knows.

Not even Donald Trump.


Paula Wolfson

Paula Wolfson is a veteran Washington correspondent who has covered three presidents and six presidential campaigns. She was the White House bureau chief for the Voice of America before switching to commercial radio, where she reported on science and health care policy, Recently she returned to her first love and is writing once again on American politics and foreign policy for

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