Trump pulls US from Iran nuclear deal and looks to impose 'highest level of sanctions'

Chris Stevenson, Clark Mindock

President Donald Trump has pulled the United States from the Iran nuclear deal and is set to reimpose severe sanctions on Tehran, in a decisive break with European allies that could also bring a new crisis in the Gulf.

Mr Trump said the sanctions, which will violate the international nuclear agreement, would penalise Iran for what he described as “state-sponsored terror” in the Middle East, which works against the United States and its allies. The president said that “any nation that helps Iran in its quest for nuclear weapons could be strongly sanctioned”, as he signed an order that would reimpose sanctions on foreign countries that continue to do business with Iran.

In a speech at the White House, Mr Trump said the Iran deal was “decaying and rotten” and “defective at its core”. He cited the Iranian development of ballistic missiles – an issue not addressed in the deal – as a breach of the spirit of the deal by Iran, which he said has “murdered hundreds of American service members, and kidnapped, imprisoned and tortured American citizens”.

“I am announcing today that the United States will withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal,” Mr Trump said, undermining what had been one of the biggest foreign policy successes for his predecessor, Barack Obama. Mr Obama called the decision “misguided” and a “serious mistake”.

During the announcement, Mr Trump cited Israeli claims that they had acquired documents showing Iran had not ended its nuclear enrichment programme, and he said that Iran had been using money from relaxed sanctions to develop its ballistic missile capabilities and to fund terrorism in the Middle East.

Experts have questioned whether the Israeli claims present any new information, and have said they do not show that Iran is currently enriching military-grade uranium. Iran has not been found by the International Atomic Energy Agency to be breaching the agreement signed in 2015, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA.

“The fact is this was a horrible, one-sided deal that should have never ever been made,” Mr Trump said. “It didn’t bring calm, it didn’t bring peace, and it never will.”

The decision follows weeks of speculation about what Mr Trump would do, as officials from France, the UK and Germany – the three European signatories on the Iranian deal – worked to try to convince Mr Trump to keep the agreement intact ahead of a 12 May deadline.

Mr Trump’s decision means Iran’s government must now decide whether to follow the US and withdraw, or try to salvage what’s left of the deal. Berlin, London and Paris have all urged the US not to take any actions that could prevent them and Iran from continuing to implement the agreement.

However, in Washington, the Trump administration said it would reimpose sanctions on Iran immediately but allow grace periods for businesses to wind down activity.

The US Treasury Department said there would be “certain 90-day and 180-day wind-down periods” but didn’t specify which sanctions would fall under which timelines. The department said that at the end of those periods the sanctions will be in “full effect”.

National Security Adviser John Bolton said nobody should sign contracts for new business with Iran.

It is not clear exactly what will happen to the Iran deal now that the United States is no longer a party, as those other countries and Iran may find a way to keep some semblance of the deal together. Iran’s main regional rivals, Israel and Saudi Arabia, both praised Mr Trump’s decision.

Iranian president Hassan Rouhani said on Monday that the deal could survive if Mr Trump pulls away, a statement that is buoyed by the fact that the thawed relations between Iran and Europe have allowed European entities to start doing business within Iran.

But while he appears willing to try to keep the agreement in place, Mr Rouhani said in the wake of Mr trump’s address that he has “ordered the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran to be ready to start the enrichment of uranium at industrial levels”, but added that he would “wait a few weeks” to start that enrichment so that Iran can speak to allies and the other countries in the deal.

“All depends on our national interests,” Mr Rouhani said of whether he will restart the enrichment.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in a statement emailed to reporters following Mr Trump’s decision, said that the US will continue to work with its international allies to find a solution to the Iranian threat described by the president.

“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,” Mr Pompeo said in the statement.

“We have a shared interest with our allies in Europe and around the world to prevent Iran from ever developing a nuclear weapon. But our effort is broader than just the nuclear threat, and we will be working together with partners to eliminate the threat of Iran’s ballistic missile programme; to stop its terrorist activities worldwide; and to block its menacing activity across the Middle East and beyond.”

“As we build this global effort, sanctions will go into full effect and will remind the Iranian regime of the diplomatic and economic isolation that results from its reckless and malign activity,” he continued.

There have been concerns from some in the US Congress and beyond that a decision to violate the Iran agreement would impact on the upcoming summit between Mr Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un over Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic programmes. Perhaps mindful of this, Mr Trump said during his announcement that Mr Pompeo was on his way to the North Korean capital and that he would arrive “€very shortly”. Mr Trump said that the two countries had already agreed on a date and location for the unprecedented summit, though he stopped short of providing details.

Mr Bolton said the Iran decision would not derail a parallel effort to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear programme, arguing that the abandonment of the Iran pact would strengthen America’s position by telegraphing that the US would rebuff unsatisfactory offers.

“I think the message to North Korea is the president wants a real deal,” Mr Bolton told reporters. “It sends a very clear signal that the United States will not accept inadequate deals.”

“Any nation reserves the right to correct a past mistake,” Mr Bolton added in reference to the Iran deal.

The hawkish national security adviser – who was a staunch advocate of the invasion of Iraq and has urged preemptive strikes on North Korea and Iran – played down worries of a military confrontation with Iran, dismissing fears of American “boots on the ground” as “badly mistaken”.

As for the US sanctions on Iran, they are primarily aimed at Iran’s oil sector, according to the Treasury Department, and will also affect the country’s central bank. Aircraft exports to Iran, the country’s metals trade and any efforts by Iran to obtain US currency are also subject to sanctions.

Mr Trump had made clear previously that he did not like the 2015 agreement. The deal limited the number of centrifuges Iran could keep using, required Iran to destroy or export the core of its plutonium plant at Arak and replace it with a new core that cannot produce weapons-grade plutonium, and required Iran to give up 97 per cent of its enriched uranium.

Still, Mr Trump pulled back from reimposing the sanctions during the first 16 months of his presidency, leaving some hope for proponents of the deal that he could leave it alone, even as he claimed the deal was the “worst deal ever”.

Before his announcement on Tuesday, Mr Trump had appeared open to the idea of negotiating a new deal with Iran – or one that builds upon the 2015 agreement to fix perceived flaws in the accord.

He signalled as much during the first state visit of his presidency, when French president Emmanuel Macron was honoured at the White House.

Still, although Mr Macron was said to have focused on the benefits of the deal during that trip, Mr Trump made clear he views Iran as a threat to the United States and its allies, and said that he would punish the country for any threats.

“If Iran threatens us in any way, they will pay a price like few countries have ever paid,” Mr Trump said. “We will have a great show doing a much bigger, ‘maybe deal, maybe not’ deal.”

Mr Trump’s announcement on Tuesday was met with mixed reaction from Republicans and Democrats in Washington.

Republican Kevin McCarthy, the House majority leader, noted that Mr Trump had campaigned on the issue in 2016, and said he believes Mr Trump knows how to keep nuclear weapons out of Iranian hands.

“I think President Trump understands foreign policy ... If our goal here is not to have Iran have a nuclear weapon, I would trust this president to actually get it done,” Mr McCarthy said.

Democrats, on the other hand, have criticised the Iran decision.

“With this decision President Trump is risking US national security, recklessly upending foundational partnerships with key US allies in Europe, and gambling with Israel’s security,” said Senator Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.