Following the US’s exit from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear agreement with Iran, media outlets that criticized Trump’s withdrawal from the agreement are now warning Iran could develop nuclear weapons. But this possibility is not the most dangerous possible consequence of Trump’s dangerous decision.
US abandonment of the agreement is not likely to send Iran speeding down the road of nuclear armament. Iranian President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif have repeatedly said that they are still committed to making the deal work with Germany, the UK, France, Russia and China, and both leaders have provided assurances that Iran will not pursue nuclear weapons even if the deal dies. Moreover, Iran can’t return to a policy it wasn’t pursuing in the first place. Iran’s nuclear program was a civilian program that enriched uranium for electricity and medical imaging. Iran never made the decision to expand its civilian nuclear program into a weapons program. That Iran’s nuclear program was not a weapons program has been guaranteed by Iran, believed by the Israeli military and intelligence community and confirmed by the American intelligence community.
Rouhani and Ayatollah Khamenei have repeatedly insisted that Iran has not and will not pursue a nuclear bomb. In 2012, Yuval Diskin, the man who headed the Israeli domestic intelligence agency Shin Bet for six years, accused Prime Minister Netanyahu and then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak of “misleading the public on the Iran issue.” That same year, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, then chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, insisted that Iran has not “made the decision” to pursue a nuclear weapons program. Barak appeared to agree with this assessment. Meanwhile, the 2007 US National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), representing the collective conclusions of all of US intelligence agencies, said with “high confidence” that Iran was not building a nuclear weapon, and the 2011 NIE said that “the bottom-line assessments of the  N.I.E. still hold true. We have not seen indications that the government has made the decision to move ahead with the program.”
But just because Iran does not plan to head down the path of a nuclear weapons program does not mean that Trump’s decision to pull out of the JCPOA was not a dangerous one. There are at least three possible unintended consequences that could be very bad for the United States.
New Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on May 13 that the US would lift the sanctions on North Korea in exchange for the country completely dismantling its nuclear weapons program. If that sounds familiar to you, it should. The problem for US negotiators is that North Korea has heard it before, too.
In 2015, when the United States and all the permanent members of the UN Security Council (P5+1) signed the JCPOA with Iran, the deal was that if Iran was in compliance with the limitations on its nuclear program, the US had to continue to honor the agreement and hold back on sanctions. If Iran was not in compliance, then — and only then — could the US pull out of the agreement and snap back sanctions. But Iran was completely and consistently in compliance with their commitments under the agreement, as verified by 11 consecutive International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reports between January 2016 and now.
Iran kept its word; the US did not. And that failure could lead to the first serious consequence of Trump’s illegal killing of the Iran deal. North Korea has received a promise from the US, but North Korea knows that the US broke that promise the last time it was made. How can North Korean negotiators trust the American negotiators? North Korea believes that a nuclear weapon is its only deterrent against US aggression. The US has promised the country “peace and prosperity” if it will “quickly denuclearize.” But how can North Korean leaders confidently give up their only deterrent if they can’t trust that the US will certify denuclearization efforts, even when confronted with IAEA verifications?
And that is the first possible dangerous consequence of Trump’s dangerous decision on Iran: It makes negotiations with North Korea more difficult and increases the challenge for successfully getting North Korea to agree to abandon its nuclear weapons program.
In his book Russia Against the Rest, Richard Sakwa, professor of Russian and European Politics at the University of Kent, argues that the country has long mourned the loss of the opportunity born out of the end of the Cold War to establish a transformed international community free of blocs and made up of equal partners who cooperate with each other. Since the loss of that hope and the emergence of the US as the clear global superpower, Russia has sought to counter that hegemony by struggling to create a multipolar world. Russia has tried to create this counterweight in at least three ways: by turning to Asia to establish closer economic ties and enhanced integration; by joining the BRICS nations, an informal association of emerging states that could provide an alternative to American international leadership; and by turning to a European partnership. The US, desperately trying to maintain global hegemony, has opposed all of these alliances. Rather than a more united Europe with a more independent foreign policy that could compete in international affairs, the US has sought to keep Europe in a NATO partnership. American leaders have kept that military alliance relevant since the end of its Cold War mandate by reinventing Russia as a threat and an enemy, using NATO to increasingly encroach on Russia’s borders.
By ignoring Europe in a manner that High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini described as “screaming, shouting, insulting and bullying,” the US has pushed Russia and Europe to cooperate as a counterforce to the United States in exactly the way Russia wanted and US leaders prevented. Mogherini was forced to sing the Russian multipolar refrain that, “No country is big enough to face this world alone.”
The US has endangered its own hegemony by humiliating Europe and acting alone in killing a deal that was not its alone to kill. Leaders of the UK, Germany and France issued a joint demand stating: “We urge the US to ensure that the structures of the JCPOA (deal) can remain intact and to avoid taking action which obstructs its full implementation by all other parties to the deal.”
Meanwhile, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said, “It is no longer such that the United States simply protects us, but Europe must take its destiny in its own hands. That’s the task of the future.”
Merkel’s “task of the future” will be a difficult one. Keeping European businesses out of harm’s reach from American sanctions will not be easy. Siemens, the German company that is the largest industrial manufacturer in Europe, has now announced that it will not do any new business with or accept any new orders from Iran, since doing so would expose it to retaliatory sanctions from the United States. Siemens’s decision to join US sanctions over Iran’s nuclear program is one of the greatest demonstrations in history of how painful irony can be: It was Siemens that first undertook construction of the Bushehr nuclear reactor in Iran in the 1970s.
Whether or not Russia and Europe succeed in remaining in the JCPOA independently of the United States, Trump’s decision may have the possible consequence of strengthening Russia’s call for a more unified, independent European counterweight to US hegemony in international affairs.
Possibly the most counterproductive consequence of Trump’s decision to kill the JCPOA is the undermining of Iran’s moderate president, Hassan Rouhani, and the strengthening of the clenched hand of the Iranian hardliners. Presumably, the US would rather deal with a moderate government in Iran than with the hardliners the US has claimed to oppose since the country’s 1979 revolution.
Rouhani had the support of Ayatollah Khamenei, but there was always a segment of the Iranian community that opposed Rouhani’s attempt to come to an agreement with the US. It wasn’t because they wanted a nuclear weapon; it was because they didn’t trust the US. The Iranian hardliners had learned from a very tough history that they couldn’t trust American leaders to keep their word. They thought Rouhani was being naïve, and they were just waiting for the US to betray them. And that’s exactly what happened.
In 1989, when Hashemi Rafsanjani was president of Iran, President George H.W. Bush promised Iran that if it helped secure the release of the American hostages being held in Lebanon, their help would “long be remembered.” He assured American reciprocation with the promise that “goodwill begets goodwill.” But when Rafsanjani exerted his influence in Lebanon and intervened on behalf of the United States to free the hostages, Iran received no goodwill from the US. Instead, Bush Sr. betrayed Iran and did absolutely nothing in return. Brent Scowcroft, Bush’s national security adviser, sent word to Rafsanjani that Iran should expect no American reciprocation.
Then, in 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait, Rafsanjani essentially sided with the US in the hope that helping the Americans would help to end Iran’s international isolation. Once again, the US took the help, and according to Iran expert Trita Parsi in his book Treacherous Alliance, closed the door on Iran’s face by excluding it from the US-convened Israeli-Palestinian Madrid Conference and enforcing its isolation.
Following Rafsanjani’s failures to get the US to keep its side of a promise, Iranian President Mohammad Khatami offered significant help to the United States in Afghanistan after 9/11. In return, George W. Bush picked up where his father left off and included Iran in the “Axis of Evil.” This response blindsided Khatami.
Iranian hardliners have criticized what they see as Rouhani’s historical naïveté. Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear agreement was precisely what they were waiting for. Rouhani’s perceived failure has strengthened hard-liners’ domestic position and their argument that the US cannot be trusted. Only days after Trump betrayed Iran again, Iran’s Assembly of Experts, a council that selects and supervises the supreme leader, demanded an apology from President Rouhani.
Perhaps the most unfortunate consequence of Trump’s decision is the lost opportunity to improve US relations with Iran by taking advantage of the moderate politics of President Rouhani. Trump’s decision has damaged the moderate president and added weight to the arguments of his hardline opponents.
Some may argue that the discrediting of Rouhani and the frustration of the Iranian people is meant to encourage “regime change.” But such a change could manifest as a hard-liner assuming power in Iran. And that is a consequence of Trump’s decision that is very bad for the US.