Dire Consequences if Trump Pulls out of Iran Deal


by Mitchell Plitnick

Donald Trump rarely tries to hide his intentions. When he intends to do something reckless that will seriously compromise not just US security but that of the entire world, he is not shy about sharing.

The prime example of this is Trump’s determination to destroy the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the deal struck between the P5+1 and Iran to limit Iran’s nuclear program. He made it clear during the 2016 presidential campaign that he wanted to do away with the Iran deal, and he’s been clear that this is still his intention. But until now, his own advisors have been able to restrain him, and Trump has twice been forced to acknowledge that Iran has been complying with the deal.

Last week, however, Trump sent a clear message: the president of the United States is insisting that his staff find a way for him to de-certify the deal, even though Iran is not in material breach of the agreement and no one, even in the United States, has been able to make the case that it is. As Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian-American Council (NIAC) put it, “The tangible danger of Trump’s malice on the Iran deal—as well as the danger of the advice of the ‘adults in the room’—became further clarified this week as tidbits of the reality TV star’s plans began to leak.”

Those plans center around trying to get the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to demand access to non-nuclear military sites to look for evidence of Iranian non-compliance with the JCPOA. Access to those sites was an Iranian red line during negotiations, and the agreement to omit that access from the deal was an important component in getting the deal done.

No country would ever allow unfettered access to its military sites, of course. But, should there be evidence of suspicious activity at such sites, the JCPOA does include provision for the IAEA to either gain access to those sites or declare Iran in violation of the deal. The problem for Trump is that there is no such evidence.

Trump has signaled his intention to push for those extraordinary inspections. The idea is that if Iran refuses he would have his excuse to pull out of the deal. It would seem difficult for him to get this done, however, as such a demand would require the support of at least five of the eight members of the Joint Commission overseeing the deal (US, EU, Russia, China, the UK, France, Germany and Iran).

The Consequences of a Unilateral US Pullout

Paul Eaton is a retired US Army general who was previously the commanding general of the Coalition Military Assistance Training Program, where he was responsible for training the Iraqi military. Speaking to a group of media and activists organized by J Street, one of the leading groups supporting the JCPOA, Eaton said, “With every passing day, the United States’ capacity to influence the policy of others is diminished. (Unilaterally withdrawing from the JCPOA) would provoke a very expanded, full court press, of European engagement. The JCPOA is part of a broader EU strategy of engagement in the region,” and the Europeans are not prepared to pull out of it or renegotiate it.

Speaking on the same call, Ellie Geranmayeh, a senior policy fellow for the Middle East and North Africa Program at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said, “Europe, at a very high ministerial level is urging Trump to stay on board with the JCPOA. The EU has been trying to open engagement with Iran, particularly because they feel they have a government in place in the Rouhani administration that can push for engagement on areas where there are differences, for example on Lebanon.

“Also, the region is very different now from 2012,” Gernmayeh continued. “The failure of the Arab Spring, the resurgence of ISIS and other groups and increased activities by rivals like Saudi Arabia [have changed the strategic landscape]. So, Europe believes that it is no longer possible to ignore or try to exclude Iran. This is very different from the Trump view, where he called on nations to isolate Iran. And this is not just about the Iran deal, but on maintaining international norms and institutions, given the deterioration of relations with the US due to Trump administration policies on these and other issues.”

Not Just A Trumpian Fantasy

Still, this idea of a special inspection of Iranian military sites cannot be dismissed as the fantasy of a president who does not understand how these matters work. It is apparently the plan that the “adults in the room” have come up with to try to satisfy their boss. As Laura Rozen reports, those adults include Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, and the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker (R-TN).

But Rozen also cited an anonymous European diplomat who told her that “the Europeans support robust implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, including IAEA inspections, but not as a pretext to collapse or renegotiate the deal. A renegotiation of the deal is not in the cards.”

This seems likely to be the European response going forward no matter how much the United States dislikes it. Unless Iran breaches the agreement, there is simply no incentive for European leaders to challenge the JCPOA in any way. There is no major groundswell of opposition to it in Europe, as there is in the United States. Rather, Europeans have a great interest in expanding business opportunities in Iran. Although such opportunities exist for US businesses as well, they are constrained by political concerns over doing business with Iran.

But Trump seems determined to go forward with a very hostile program toward Iran, and, although a baseless US pullout from the JCPOA seems unlikely, even the so-called “adults” are pushing for a pretext for a pullout. Such an act does not seem likely to attract European support. Instead, it will leave the United States isolated, break the nuclear arrangement and provide a very reasonable basis for Iran to restart the pursuit of a nuclear deterrent in earnest.

That would be an obviously disastrous outcome, and one that could very well lead to war.

Major General (ret.) Amram Mitzna, the former deputy director of Israel’s intelligence agency, the Mossad, said on J Street’s media call, “The worst-case scenario is that Iran might have the feeling that they are free not to comply with agreement. This would be very bad. Threatening to not reconfirm the agreement, might give the Iranians a feeling that US is not willing to participate in what’s going on in the Middle East. To Israel, the idea that Iran will go back to pursuing a nuclear device, is a big storm.”

Clearly, Israel, and quite likely Saudi Arabia, would not sit idly by while Iran pursued a nuclear weapon. They would surely push the US to take military action against Iran or threaten to do so themselves. As Mitzna pointed out, the deal has already pushed back the time Iran would need to acquire a nuclear device from a month to a year. But that year would surely witness a strong push, both by the Middle East allies of the United States and by hawkish forces domestically, for an attack on Iran.

That would be a tragic course. Mitzna said that “Iran is a huge country and it will be very difficult to gain a military road to preventing a nuclear device.”

But it seems that Europe will hold fast, so Trump is not going to have the cover he needs. It will therefore be imperative to amplify voices of reason so that they can be heard through the noise of the many other issues Trump’s administration has raised.

“Everyone is aware of Trump’s inclinations so there will be debate about whether the requests for inspections is valid. If they determine that requests are not valid, Trump will find it difficult to push forward with them,” Geranmayeh concluded. “Iran is being tested daily by statements coming out of the White House, and their patience with this administration will only go so far even though they are aware and don’t want to fall into the trap of the Trump administration.”

Photo: Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (courtesy Department of Defense)

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Mitchell Plitnick

Mitchell Plitnick is former vice president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace. He is the former director of the US Office of B’Tselem: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, and was previously the director of education and policy for Jewish Voice for Peace. He is a widely published and respected policy analyst. Born in New York City, raised an Orthodox Jew and educated in Yeshiva, Mitchell grew up in an extremist environment that passionately supported the radical Israeli settler movement. His writing has appeared in the Jordan Times, Israel Insider, UN Observer, Middle East Report, Global Dialogue, San Francisco Chronicle, Die Blaetter Fuer Deutsche Und Internationale Politik, Outlook, and in a regular column for a time in Tikkun Magazine. He has been interviewed by various outlets including PBS News Hour, the O’Reilly Factor and CNBC Asia. Plitnick graduated with honors from UC Berkeley in Middle Eastern Studies and wrote his thesis on Israeli and Jewish historiography and earned his Masters Degree from the University of Maryland, College Park's School of Public Policy.


  1. The JPOA has served its purpose which was to lift sanctions to allow billions in cash to flood back to Iran to pump up its military in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. As far as the mullahs are concerned, it’s outlived its usefulness which is why they are now firing mortars at Pakistan, smuggling weapons into Bahrain and destabilizing Qatar and Kuwait.

  2. Should any country believe the United States when it signs an agreement?
    It was reported in Washington post today that US Secretary of State Mr. Rex Tillerson, in an impromptu appearance at the press briefing room at the State Department said words to the effect;

    “I would like assure the North Koreans that USA is not their enemy; does not want any harm to come to them; they have nothing to be afraid off; the US does not seek regime change or the forced unification of the Korean peninsula, and the N Koreans need have no fear of ay military invasion from the US.”

    He then went on to say the North Korean ballistic missile program is a serious threat to the US and therefore it is exerting peaceful pressure on N. Korea and would urge them to come to the negotiating table and start peaceful negotiations with the USA.”

    He also confessed that “the US does not have any good options available to it to limit the North Korean Ballistic Missile program”.

    Very conciliatory words from the Foreign Minister of the most powerful country in the world to a puny military dictator of an economically bankrupt country, where half the population is reported not have enough to eat!

    On the face of it one would think that such a speech should allay any fears that the North Koreans may have from the US and they would come around to taking a more reasonable stance. This is more so since there have been open hints that a peaceful settlement of these matters could in fact be accompanied by significant economic and other incentives.

    So, what does the little guy have to lose? On the face of it, it seems to be a perfect win-win situation.

    However, during the same briefing Mr. Tillerson then went on to say that the US is examining the P5 +1 Nuclear agreement with Iran very closely to find out how it can prove that Iran has violated the agreement. This could then be grounds for it to tear up the agreement.

    He made this statement only days after the State Department had certified that the Iranians had held up their end of the bargain. However, Mr Tillerson said that even though this may be so, they have not adhered to the spirit of the agreement in view of their involvement in several regional conflicts which exposes their regional ambitions.

    So, it appears that if a country enters into an agreement with the US on an issue, it should also follow their lead on all peripheral issues also, even though these matters have nothing to do with the issue on which the agreement has been signed.

    This seems to be like a pact with the Devil. You succumb to one temptation and you are on a sliding path to hell!

    The saving grace in the case of the Nuclear deal is that the USA is not the only power with whom the agreement has been signed and Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China are also a party to it. The other powers are happy that the agreement has ended a major area of uncertainty and instability in the world. They are sure that its signature and continued adherence are essential for Iran not to be able to develop nuclear weapons for the medium term at least. They view this as a very positive development for regional and world peace.

    Many people in the world including myself applauded the signing of the Iran Nuclear deal and complemented President’s Obama and Rouhani for their foresight and statesmanship.

    However, in view of the unfolding attitudes of the US and some Arab nations in the region, there is an alternative view taking hold; one that believes that it may have been a “historical mistake” on the part of Iran to sign this agreement.

    This view is based on the fact that many of the concessions made by Iran are irreversible.

    As a result of this deal Iran has dismantled most of its centrifuges and given up the stock pile of nuclear fissile material it had accumulated. Furthermore, it has agreed to open its nuclear facilities for international inspection, to assure the world that it has no plans to back out of this agreement. In return for this they have gotten a lifting of the UN sanction and release of some embargoed funds.

    It would be extremely difficult for Iran to reassemble the Bank of centrifuges or build up a stockpile of fissile material, in view of the inspections. Even if Iran was to back out of the agreement, any attempt to reassemble its nuclear potential would most likely be met with military action from the US, Israel and some Arab states. They may be able to get the support of the Europeans also.

    On the other hand, the concessions made by the other powers are NOT irreversible.
    The “snap back” provision in the deal allows the sanctions and other economic restrictions to be re-instated immediately in case of any violations by Iran.

    As of now and despite the noises coming out of Washington, the rest of the World still believes that the Iran nuclear deal was a very good measure to limit proliferation of nuclear weapons and for world peace.
    The Iranian regime continues to say that the agreement by Iran to this deal was done consciously to demonstrate that it never had any intention of making nuclear weapons, and not because of some clever negotiations by the other powers.

    However, if despite adherence to the deal by Iran, the US was to take unilateral action in breaking the agreement under some pretext and the Europeans go along with this measure, then the view of the deal being a big mistake by Iran would gain unanimity.

    In any case the US attitude towards the Iranian deal has dealt a fatal blow to US credibility. It should be lesson for any country which is negotiating with it on any issue big or small.

    Specifically, it has made any potential negotiations with the North Koreans all that more difficult.

    It tells Kim Jong IL that all this sweet talk from Mr. Tillerson today may be just a subterfuge to get the North Koreans to the table and make some irreversible concessions and then leave them high and dry after this is done.

  3. A good piece. The one thing I’d say is that there is no real ground swell of opposition to the Iran deal. A very small group of hawks within the fp establishment and pro-Israel fanatics oppose the bill sincerely, with the rest of the opposition being purely lazy, ideological, faction-signalling. That isn’t to say these foolish people won’t walk us into war over this, see Iraq II, but it is to say that the minute they start seeing negative impacts on their own lives from the policy their hostility to Iran will evaporate.

  4. I would like to thank James Lorrimore for his detailed account of JCPOA requirements.

  5. The last sentence of the article summarizes it all: Iran should avoid falling in the trap. Unfortunately there are enough fools in Iran (most of the so called hard liners) that will make it possible. What Iran needs to do is avoid rhetoric and reaction to Trump’s actions. There’s no need to do anything if US withdraws from the agreement; afterall it will only bring about US sanction (which Iran could withstand) NOT international sactions. Rhetoric and retaliation is exactly what the zionist lobby wants as it will make their job of attacking Iran easier. What Iran needs to do is prepare for an immenent attack as if it is to happen tomorrow.

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