Trump tore up nuclear deal, and now Iran’s closer than ever to getting nukes. Can Biden fix this?

Tehran has always claimed it has no interest in producing nuclear weapons, even as it worked to develop its nuclear capacity—a capacity it said was aimed at the development of a peaceful civilian nuclear energy program. The U.S. and other countries believe that Iran’s goal now is to achieve “threshold capability,” i.e., the ability to generate nuclear weapons in a matter of weeks if it were ever to change its mind.

The JCPOA radically altered Iran’s nuclear capabilities. Prior to its signing on July 14, 2015, U.S. intelligence estimated that the country’s breakout time—the time needed to produce a nuclear weapon—was as little as two months based on where its program stood then. The deal, which was to last 15 years, bound Iran to changes that would extend its breakout time to at least a full year. This meant that if Iran broke the deal, not only could the signatories snap the previously implemented sanctions back into place, there would still be at least a year to take further actions.

As Joseph Cirincione, a top expert on stopping nuclear proliferation who currently serves as a distinguished fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, summarized it, the JCPOA “had effectively shrunk Iran’s program, frozen it for a generation and put it under lock and camera.”

Then Fuck a l’Orange took office. It was all but official Trump policy that anything Barack Obama had done was wrong and should be undone posthaste. During the 2016 campaign, Trump assailed the deal and threatened to pull the U.S. out of it on three separate occasions before finally pulling the trigger in May 2018. Obama lamented that his actions would leave our country with “a losing choice between a nuclear-armed Iran or another war in the Middle East.” John Kerry, who oversaw the crafting of the deal as secretary of state, added: “Instead of building on unprecedented nonproliferation verification measures, this decision risks throwing them away and dragging the world back to the brink we faced a few years ago.”

According to New York Times reporting, the Overgrown Orange Man withdrew from the JCPOA because of what he, with his, er, keen understanding of international relations viewed as the “success of his policy toward North Korea.” The what? Toward whom? Yes, you read that right. Trump—who left the White House having gotten exactly nothing from Kim Jong Un on nuclear weapons despite being the first American president to meet the North Korean dictator in person, twice—wanted to bring that same (lack of) success to his Iran policy.

Even his own advisers had publicly stated that Iran was holding up its end of the deal, and urged Trump to maintain our participation in the agreement. However, he had been looking to his top national security people to tell him how to get out of the deal. When they told him it was doing what it was supposed to be doing and he should keep the U.S. in, Trump, as per one top White House official, “had a bit of a meltdown.” I don’t believe there was any nuclear-related pun intended, but given that the official remains anonymous, we can’t find out for sure.

What does a guy like that do when he gets advice that doesn’t fit his preconceived notions? Of course Trump simply ran off those advisers, people like Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster—not that these guys were so terrific, but they were right on this issue. The twice-impeached former guy then brought in some stooges who agreed with him on Iran to replace them—Mike Pompeo for Tillerson and John Bolton for McMaster. Both of them had long-standing records as “uber-hawks.” After reluctantly going along with keeping our country in the agreement for almost two years, I guess Trump’s patience had run out. As for those other characteristics President Obama highlighted—strength, courage, resolve, and, most importantly, wisdom—Trump never had any of those to begin with.

The Big Bad Bully of Bedminster thought that by reimposing the sanctions removed by the 2015 deal, he could apply enough pressure to either force regime change in Iran, or wring even more concessions out of that country. Tehran actually continued to comply with the terms of the JCPOA for a while, presumably hoping that Donald Dickweed would somehow change his mind. However, the Iranians gradually began breaking through the treaty’s limitations on their nuclear program, and by early 2020 started to all but ignore them. The failure on Iran exemplifies Trump’s unilateralism—not to mention his Kaiser Wilhelm-like unwillingness to understand any kind of nuance in foreign policy.

Whether we’re talking about the JCPOA or the Paris Climate Accords, Trump never met a multilateral agreement he didn’t hate—much to the detriment of American interests, international peace, a healthy environment that will allow humanity to continue to survive, and more. But hey, they say to not sweat the small stuff.

By the time Trump left office—the Jan. 6 insurrection he fomented to keep him there for who knows how long having failed—the U.S.’ Iran policy was in shambles. Tehran had increased its stores of uranium well beyond the limits imposed by the JCPOA, to which IAEA and U.S. officials had acknowledged they were adhering until after Trump tore it up with his tiny hands. How far beyond those limits? Try 12 times the previously allowed maximum.

Trump didn’t like his “spectacular” failure being made so plainly obvious. On Nov. 12, 2020, the day after the IAEA announced that Iran’s uranium stockpile had reached those new levels, he asked his advisers for options on launching a military strike against their primary nuclear facility. Thankfully they convinced him that entering into hostilities with Iran a week after losing the election—even if he believed otherwise—might not be such a good idea.

This was the shitty situation—one of many authored by the chief MAGAmaniac—that President Joe Biden walked into on Jan. 20, 2021. He had promised on the campaign trail to try and restore the JCPOA, and stated in February that he looked forward to getting back into the deal once Iran began complying again. Biden’s initial approach was further clarified by Wendy Sherman—the deal’s lead negotiator back in 2015—during her confirmation hearings in March 2021 to become deputy secretary of state: “[The] Biden-Harris administration hopes to get Iran back in compliance with the deal; then we would be in compliance with the deal. We would build from that to get a longer and stronger agreement … then address other issues of concern.” This approach, using the JCPOA as a springboard to other matters, reflects the vision of the Obama-Biden administration as well.

Negotiations began in earnest in the spring. According to The Washington Post, the parties “appeared to be on the cusp of a deal in June” that would essentially have restored the agreement Trump abandoned. But then Iran elected a new, “ultraconservative” president, Ebrahim Raisi, whose victory “consolidated the power of Iran’s hard-liners and further sidelined the country’s moderate and reformist camps, who helped to negotiate the Iran nuclear deal.” Those moderates were led by the previous president, Hassan Rouhani, whose term came to an end in June. He and his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, had advocated for a return to the deal after Biden was elected. However, the newly elected President Raisi announced a suspension of the talks, and they only resumed in late November.

The situation is very different now than it was half a year ago, and not just in terms of Iran’s political leadership, as The New York Times explained.

Iran kept to the deal for a year after Washington withdrew, but since then its nuclear program has advanced significantly, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog. It has built modern centrifuges banned under the deal and breached enrichment limits. It is also much closer to having enough highly enriched uranium to make a bomb (even if creating a weapon, which Iran always denies wanting to do, would be perhaps two years away).

Iran has also adjusted to the current harsh sanctions regime, aided by sales of oil to China and Russia, two countries that opposed the American withdrawal from the deal in 2018, and whose relations with Washington have hardly improved over time.

Iran has also tried to create pressure on Washington by reneging so far on an agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency to restore its access to inspect Iranian nuclear sites and recover recordings from those sites. The worry is that the agency, and thus the world, will soon be blind to what Iran is actually doing in its nuclear program.

Remember that whole breakout time thing? Under the JCPOA, Iran needed a year to produce weapons-grade nuclear material. Now, thanks to what Trump wrought, the White House estimates that time has shrunk to under a month—far less than what it was in 2015 when the deal was signed.

Iran knows it has gained valuable leverage, and is using it. After an initial round of resumed talks—the seventh since negotiations first began in the spring—broke off on Dec. 3, a U.S. State Department official stated that the new Iranian government’s representatives had come to the table “with proposals that walked back anything—any of the compromises Iran had floated here in the six rounds of talks, pocket[ed] all of the compromises that others, and the U.S. in particular, had made, and then asked for more.” The official added that Russia and China, parties to the JCPOA as well, were “also quite taken aback by the degree to which Iran had walked back its own compromises and then doubled down on the requests they made of us and our partners.”

A statement from Germany, France, and the United Kingdom similarly lamented: “Over five months ago, Iran interrupted negotiations. Since then, Iran has fast-forwarded its nuclear program. This week, it has back-tracked on diplomatic progress made.” The statement related their governments’ “disappointment and concern” about Iran’s new positions, and added that it was “unclear how these new gaps can be closed in a realistic time frame.”

In other words, whatever the previous Iranian president’s people said, that was now worth little more than sand in the desert. It can’t be denied that that’s exactly what Trump did with the JCPOA itself. Iran now demands that because our country, under Trump, pulled out of the deal first, we must lift all sanctions imposed on Iran since the withdrawal—including those that derive from actions by Tehran unrelated to its nuclear program. Iran also wants a guarantee that no future American administration can repeat Trump’s withdrawal from an accord—something Biden cannot provide.

The aforementioned U.S. official offered that if Iran refused to come to an agreement, “then there’ll have to be other diplomatic outcomes that we’d be prepared to pursue.” He added, “Of course … we will have to use other tools, tools that you could imagine, to try to increase the pressure on Iran to come back to a reasonable stance at the diplomatic table.” For his part, Iran’s chief negotiator, Ali Bagheri Kani, declared“The ball is in the court of the Americans.” Who knows where it will bounce next.

Beyond the nuclear program, Iran has continued to play a “destabilizing role in the region” through its “ongoing provision of training, weaponry, and other material and technical assistance” to groups identified as terrorist organizations by the U.S. State Department, such as Hamas and Hezbollah.

After Trump made his very stable genius move back in 2018, he clearly thought he would squeeze Iran and bring them to heel. Didn’t happen. Trump fucked things up bigly, and achieved nothing by withdrawing from a nuclear deal that brought together the U.S., the major European powers, and Russia and China behind a single approach. The Monster from Mar-a-Lago always preferred “America Alone” when it comes to international affairs.

Not only didn’t Trump achieve any kind of regime change with his asinine campaign of “maximum pressure”—by destroying the primary diplomatic achievement of the relatively moderate President Rouhani, the Orange Julius Caesar helped pave the way for a significantly more hardline government in Tehran to replace him.

Even in Israel—where then-Prime Minister Netanyahu celebrated Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA—some of Bibi’s old top military advisers are now condemning the move, with his former defense minister calling it “the main mistake” on Iran policy over the past decade. (To clarify, Israel has a vested interest in preventing a country from gaining nuclear weapons that has called for it to be destroyed or annihilated on various occasions. At the time the JCPOA was enacted, Netanyahu’s government opposed the deal, although a large number of Israeli security and nuclear proliferation experts felt differently and supported it.)

The issues surrounding Iran and nuclear weapons are incredibly complicated. One thing, however, is quite simple: That country is much closer to having nuclear weapons now than it was when President Obama left office. For that, Americans can thank the guy who followed him, proceeded to screw up our Iran policy so badly even right-wing Israelis acknowledge the blunder, and then left it in the lap of his successor.

One more Trump mess for Joe Biden to clean up.

Ian Reifowitz is the author of  The Tribalization of Politics: How Rush Limbaugh’s Race-Baiting Rhetoric on the Obama Presidency Paved the Way for Trump (Foreword by Markos Moulitsas)

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