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Behind Trump's Termination of Iran Deal Is Risky Bet That US Can 'Break the Regime'

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A mural on the wall of the former United States Embassy in Tehran on Wednesday. President Trump and his allies in the Middle East hope withdrawing from the nuclear deal could “break” Iran’s government.
Atta Kenare/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

WASHINGTON — For President Trump and two of the allies he values most — Israel and Saudi Arabia — the problem of the Iranian nuclear accord was not, primarily, about nuclear weapons. It was that the deal legitimized and normalized the clerical Iranian government, reopening it to the world economy with oil revenue that financed its adventures in Syria and Iraq and its support of terror groups.

Now, with his announcement Tuesday that he is exiting the Iran deal and will reimpose economic sanctions on the country and firms around the world that do business with it, Mr. Trump is engaged in a grand, highly risky experiment.

[Read a full transcript of President Trump’s remarks.]

Mr. Trump and his Middle East allies are betting they can cut Iran’s economic lifeline and thus “break the regime,” as one senior European official described the effort. In theory, America’s withdrawal could free Iran to produce as much nuclear material as it wants — as it was five years ago, when the world feared it was headed toward a bomb.

But Mr. Trump’s team dismisses that risk: Tehran doesn’t have the economic strength to confront the United States, Israel and the Saudis. And Iran knows that any move to produce a weapon would only provide Israel and the United States with a rationale for taking military action.

It is a brutally realpolitik approach that America’s allies in Europe have warned is a historic mistake, one that could lead to confrontation, and perhaps to war. And it is a clear example of Middle East brinkmanship that runs counter to what President Barack Obama intended when the nuclear deal was struck in July 2015.

Mr. Obama’s gamble in that deal — the signature foreign policy accord of his eight years in office — was straightforward. He regarded Iran as potentially a more natural ally of the United States than many of its Sunni-dominant neighbors, with a young, educated Western-oriented population that is tired of being ruled by an aging theocracy.

By taking the prospect of nuclear weapons off the table, the Obama administration had argued, the two countries could chip away at three decades of hostility, and work on common projects, starting with the defeat of the Islamic State.

It didn’t turn out that way. While the deal succeeded in getting 97 percent of Iran’s nuclear material out of the country, Iran’s conservatives and its military recoiled at the idea of cooperating on any projects with the West.

Months before it became clear that Mr. Trump had a decent shot at being elected, the Iranian military increased support for President Bashar al-Assad in Syria; it expanded its influence in Iraq and accelerated its support for terror groups. And it doubled down on deploying cyberattacks against targets in the West and in Saudi Arabia, embracing a weapon that was not covered by the nuclear accord.

Then came Mr. Trump, with his declaration that the deal was a “disaster” and his vow to dismantle.

Watch: President Trump Withdraws U.S. From Iran Deal

The president called the nuclear agreement a “horrible one-sided deal that should have never, ever been made.”


Photo by Doug Mills/The New York Times.
Watch in Times Video »

[Read our coverage of Mr. Trump’s decision and his announcement.]

Now, suddenly, the world may well be headed back to where it was in 2012: On a road to uncertain confrontation, with “very little evidence of a Plan B,” as Boris Johnson, the British foreign minister, said on a visit to Washington.

Exiting the deal, with or without a plan, is fine with the Saudis. They see the accord as a dangerous distraction from the real problem of confronting Iran around the region — a problem that the Saudis believe will be solved only by regime change in Iran. They have an ally in John R. Bolton, the president’s new national security adviser, who shares that view.

Israel is a more complicated case. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pressed Mr. Trump to abandon an arrangement that he has always detested. But Mr. Netanyahu’s own military and intelligence advisers say Israel is far safer with an Iran whose pathway to a bomb is blocked, rather than one that is once again pursuing the ultimate weapon.

As a last-minute lure to persuade Mr. Trump to pull the plug on the Iran deal, Mr. Netanyahu last week released Iranian documents, stolen from Tehran in January, that proved what Western intelligence agencies long knew: A decade ago or even longer, the Iranians were working hard to design a nuclear warhead.

To Mr. Netanyahu, this was proof that Iran could never be trusted and that it had reached the nuclear deal under false pretenses by pretending it never had a weapons program.

To Mr. Trump and his allies, the Israeli discovery said less about Iranian nuclear capability than it did about Iranian perfidy.

Given evidence that Iran was preserving its bomb designs as a hedge for the future, the discovery suggested Iran has not given up its ambitions.

As former Middle East negotiator Dennis Ross put it, someone needed to address the Israeli discovery “lest they give the Iranians the ability to pick up quickly where they left off on weaponizing.”

“And, given the danger that Iran would have the ability to move rapidly to a weapon in the year 2030,” when the limits on enrichment are removed, “the sunset issue needs to be addressed,” said Mr. Ross, who negotiated Middle East issues during Mr. Obama first term, before the Iran deal began to take shape.

At the core of Mr. Trump’s announcement on Tuesday is a conviction that Iran can never be allowed to accumulate enough material to assemble a bomb. When the Europeans said that would require reopening the negotiations, Mr. Trump balked, and decided instead to blow up the entire deal.

It was a classic Trumpian move, akin to the days when he would knock down New York buildings to make way for visions of grander, more glorious edifices. But in this case, it is about upsetting a global power balance and weakening a regime that Mr. Trump has argued, since he began campaigning, must go.

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