President Donald Trump pulled US out of a landmark deal curbing Iran’s nuclear program and reimposed crippling sanctions on Tuesday, defying European pleas and prompting international outcry.
Trump poured scorn on the “disastrous” 2015 accord, describing it as an “embarrassment” to US that does nothing to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions. “I am announcing today that the United States will withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal,” Trump said in an address to the nation from the White House.
Slapping aside more than a decade and a half of careful diplomacy by Britain, China, France, Germany, Iran, Russia and past US administrations, Trump called for a “new and lasting deal.”
That grand bargain, he said, would have to include not just deeper restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program, but on its ballistic missiles and support for militant groups across the Middle East.
“We cannot prevent an Iranian nuclear bomb under the decaying and rotten structure of the current agreement,” he claimed. “We will not allow American cities to be threatened with destruction and we will not allow a regime that chants ‘Death to America’ to gain access to the most deadly weapons on Earth.”
It remains far from clear if the international community, or Iran, will play along.
Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani—whose standing at home now risks being undermined by the deal’s collapse—was furious, accusing Trump of “psychological warfare”.
Trump’s onerous demands and his warning that Iranians deserve better than their current “dictatorship” will only heighten suspicions his ultimate goal is regime change.
“If the regime continues its nuclear aspirations, it will have bigger problems than it has ever had before,” he warned.
Hawkish US officials believe that after 38 years in power, Iran’s clerical regime is substantially weakened by domestic economic pressure, changing demography, public demonstrations, and costly foreign military adventures.
The decision marked a stark diplomatic defeat for Europe, whose leaders, repeatedly and in person, begged the mercurial US leader to think again.
In a joint statement, Germany’s Angela Merkel, Britain’s Theresa May and France’s Emmanuel Macron voiced their “regret and concern” at Trump’s decision.
European firms doing business in Iran now have a six month deadline to wind up investments, or risk US sanctions, Trump’s hawkish advisor John Bolton warned, while ruling out talk of reconsideration.
“We’re out of the deal. We’re out of the deal. We’re out of the deal,” he said.
Washington’s new ambassador to Berlin, Richard Grenell, said on Twitter: “US sanctions will target critical sectors of Iran’s economy. German companies doing business in Iran should wind down operations immediately.”
And Treasury secretary Stephen Mnuchin made it clear that Washington was acting “under both our primary and secondary sanctions authorities,” meaning that European firms with investments or operations in US could be targeted if they continue to trade with Iran.
In a sign of the depth of European displeasure, plans are already being drawn up in Brussels to introduce measures blocking US sanctions, an extremely rare move against an allied government.
While Iran’s arch foes in Israel and Saudi Arabia welcomed Trump’s decision, signatories to the existing deal vowed to plow ahead without US.
The European Union’s chief diplomat Federica Mogherini, who helped oversee the accord, insisted it was “delivering on its goal which is guaranteeing that Iran doesn’t develop nuclear weapons.” “The European Union is determined to preserve it,” she added.
Trump’s decision offers him a domestic political victory, fulfilling a longstanding campaign promise and underscoring his no nonsense political brand. But the long term impact for American foreign policy and for the Middle East was less clear.
Former US president Barack Obama—whose administration inked the deal—made a rare public criticism of his successor, describing Trump’s decision to abandon the Iran nuclear deal as “misguided” and a “serious mistake.”
“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.”
In contrast, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who last week released a trove of intelligence on a pre-2003 Iranian plan to develop a nuclear weapon which Trump cited approvingly in his speech, was overjoyed. “Israel fully supports President Trump’s bold decision today to reject the disastrous nuclear deal,” Netanyahu said, in a televised address.
Saudi Arabia and its Gulf Arab allies welcomed President Donald Trump's decision to withdraw the United States from a nuclear agreement with Iran after years of warning that it gave their arch-rival cover to expand its regional influence.
The quick embrace of Trump's announcement on Tuesday reflects a sense of vindication by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which have pushed Washington to take seriously Tehran's ballistic missile programme and support for militant groups - security threats they regard as existential.
Ordinary Saudis rejoiced at the announcement, tweeting photos of Trump and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman with comments like "We prevailed", "Game over", and "Action, not words".
"No deal could ever be struck with the devil, and Saudi Arabia fully supports President Trump's decision ... Together we prevail," one tweet read.
Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia has been at loggerheads with Shi'ite Iran for decades, fighting a long-running proxy war in the Middle East and beyond, including armed conflicts and political crises in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.
The 2015 nuclear deal, known by its acronym, JCPOA, eased sanctions in exchange for Tehran limiting its nuclear programme to prevent it from being able to make an atomic bomb.
Trump, echoing Riyadh and Abu Dhabi's stance, has frequently criticised the accord because it does not address Iran's ballistic missile programme, its nuclear activities beyond 2025, or its role in regional wars.
Gulf Arab states were concerned that the deal was negotiated by countries outside the range of Iran's ballistic missiles.
"Iran used economic gains from the lifting of sanctions to continue its activities to destabilise the region, particularly by developing ballistic missiles and supporting terrorist groups in the region," the Saudi foreign ministry said in a statement.
It backed Trump's move to reimpose sanctions and urged the international community to work towards a "comprehensive view that is not limited to its nuclear programme but also includes all hostile activities".
Anwar Gargash, UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, wrote on Twitter: "Iran interpreted the JCPOA as concurrence of its regional hegemony. An aggressive Iran was emboldened as a result & its ballistic missile programme became both offensive & exportable."
In his White House speech, Trump condemned Iran's "sinister activities" including backing for groups like Hezbollah, Hamas, the Taliban and al-Qaeda - charges Tehran has denied.
Abdulaziz al-Sager, head of the Jeddah-based Gulf Research Centre, said the message was significant.
"We've always said our concern about this agreement in 2015 was that Iran should not take it as carte blanche to go and expand its territorial influence," he said. "It's good that he mentioned Syria, that he mentioned Yemen, that he mentioned Lebanon - all of the concerns that we have."
Gulf Arab allies had endorsed the 2015 deal but expressed misgivings about decoupling Iran's nuclear programme from its actions across the Middle East.
"There is likely to be a feeling of jubilation in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi that the Trump administration - or at least the White House - has now come round to their thinking on Iran's threat to regional security," said Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, Fellow for the Middle East at Rice University's Baker Institute.
Prince Mohammed, who serves as the kingdom's defence minister, told CBS News in March that his country would "without a doubt" develop nuclear weapons if Iran did so.
Iran has ruled out renegotiating the accord and threatened to retaliate, although it has not said exactly how, if Washington pulled out.
It may do so by undermining the interests of Washington and its allies in the Middle East including by increasing support for Yemen's Houthi armed movement, possibly provoking a military response from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
"There is a real risk of escalation, especially between Iran and Israel. While the Gulf states may want to see the U.S. and Israel try to cut Iran to size, I don't think they want to get dragged into a direct confrontation themselves. The consequences could be severe," said Joost Hiltermann, Program Director, Middle East and North Africa at The International Crisis Group.
Iman Taher, a Yemeni teacher, fears Trump's decision will only inflame conflicts in the region. "Iran will not accept and it will respond and increase its support for the Houthis in Yemen and its allies in Syria and Lebanon."
Shortly after, Syrian state media reported nine pro-government fighters were killed in an Israeli missile strike near Damascus, where Iranian proxies are known to operate. Israel had already opened bomb shelters and put the military on high alert in case of attack from the Iranian forces deployed in Syria in defense of Bashar al-Assad’s regime.