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    Trump announces United States exit from Iranian nuclear deal, triggering fears about Middle Eastern stability and upending relations with key European allies

    Middle East: Iran

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    Special Report: Trump announces United States exit from Iranian nuclear deal, triggering fears about Middle Eastern stability and upending relations with key European allies --

    United States President Donald Trump was expected to make a decision about whether or not the United States would continue to participate in the Iranian nuclear deal in mid-May 2018.  

    Ahead of that announcement, on April 30, 2018, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu declared that he had "new and conclusive proof" showing that Iran hid its nuclear weapons and attempted to expand its nuclear weapons. The assertion centered on claims that Iran  cheated on the multilateral nuclear agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which was signed in 2015 by the United State, the United Kingdom, France, Germany,  Russia, and China.

    The actual proof Netanyahu said he had at hand was yet to be revealed, although the Israeli prime minister offered a televised presentation at shoring up his claims. 

    Speaking from Israel’s military headquarters in Tel Aviv, Netanyahu declared: “Iran lied, big time."  He continued, "Iran is brazenly lying when it said it never had a nuclear weapons program.”  The Israeli prime minister further made the following charge:  “Even after the deal, Iran continued to preserve and expand its nuclear weapons program for future use."  Netanyahu claimed his country had in its possession tens of thousands of documents from Iran’s “Atomic Archives,” and he characterized them as new evidence. 

    Some of the evidence presented, however, had already been seen by the United Nations nuclear watchdog agency, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), as far back as 2005.  Those findings were also publicized by the IAEA back in 2011 -- ahead of the 2015 nuclear deal.  The IAEA assessment was that any significant nuclear weapons development by Iran concluded in 2003 and there was no evidence of weapons research from 2009 onward.

    Of significance was the fact that Olli Heinonen, the former chief inspector of the IAEA, said he was aware of the documents presented by Netanyahu as early as 2005. The analysis by the IAEA inspection department showed that weapons design work known as "the Amad project" had occurred but ceased in 2003.  In reaction to Netanyahu’s presentation, Heinonen said: “I just saw a lot of pictures I had seen before.”

    In 2015, Yukiya Amano, the director general of the IAEA, assessed the materials reviewed by the nuclear watchdog agency as follows:  “The agency assesses that these activities did not advance beyond feasibility and scientific studies, and the acquisition of certain relevant technical competences and capabilities. The agency has no credible indications of activities in Iran relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device after 2009. Nor has the agency found any credible indications of the diversion of nuclear material in connection with the possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear programme.”

    It is thus important to emphasize that Netanyahu's stated "revelations' were largely already known by the IAEA in 2015 ahead of the signing of the Iranian nuclear deal.   

    The 2015 Final Assessment on Past and Present Outstanding Issues regarding Iran's Nuclear Programme prepared by the Director General to the Board of Governors at the IAEA, available at this URL:,  addresses all the concerns in full. 

    Jeffrey Lewis of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies and a Foreign Policy columnist parsed the high points of Netanyahu's claims as follows --  

    - Netanyahu's declaration that Iran's covert nuclear weapons program was called "Project Amad" is not a revelation. That was known and described in detail by the IAEA.

    - Netanyahu's description of Iran's designs of nuclear weapons, its implosion simulations and computerized modeling of a nuclear explosives device were also known by the IAEA. 

    - Netanyahu discussed Iran's work on casting uranium cores. However, the IAEA already noted such "preparatory work" connected with  "the fabrication of uranium components for a nuclear explosive device."

    -  Netanyahu noted Iran's  design of  a multipoint initiation (MPI) system. Again, Iran's  MPI efforts were  known and described by the  IAEA, which noted that there were "characteristics relevant to a nuclear explosive device."

    - Netanyahu noted preparations for a nuclear test, but the IAEA registered this knowledge, stating that Iran's "preparatory experimentation was "relevant to testing a nuclear explosive device. "

    - Netanyahu discussed the fact that Iran was integrating a warhead for its Shahab-3. But the IAEA was aware that Iran was working to integrate "a new spherical payload into the existing payload chamber of the re-entry vehicle for the Shahab 3 missile."

    Overall, at the time in 2015, the IAEA concluded in 2015 that Iran had been undertaking a "coordinated effort" to develop a nuclear explosive device."

    It was this knowledge that served as an impetus to implement the Iranian nuclear deal in the first place -- not as a reward for good behavior, but because there was a need to contain Iran's continued bad behavior. 

    The Iranian nuclear deal  was itself structured to  assume Iran would indeed try to cheat on its obligations, and thus ensure  verification, compliance, and certification anyway. 

    It should be noted that the IAEA has been charged with verifying that Iran is in compliance with its obligations related to the nuclear deal.  To date, The IAEA has certified that Iran was, indeed, in compliance at least six times.  It was unknown if any of the cache of materials revealed by Netanyahu would credibly upend the verification process. 

    It should also be noted that Netanyahu’s claim just weeks ahead of a deadline whereby United States President Donald Trump was set to decide whether or not to withdraw his country from the multilateral agreement.  It was clear that Netanyahu was lobbying on the international stage for Trump to scrap the United States' participation in the agreement. 

    For his part, Trump appeared to concur with some of Netanyahu's assertions as he said they showed that he was “100 percent right” about the problems of the agreement.

    Nevertheless, Trump's views on the Iranian deal have not necessarily been shared by key members of his government.  Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson as well as Defense Secretary James Mattis encouraged Trump to stay in the agreement.

    In fact, Defense Secretary Mattis publicly parted company with the president in October 2017, saying in testimony before Congress that he believed it was in the national security interest of the United States to remain a party to the multilateral agreement.  Mattis said, "If we can confirm that Iran is living by the agreement, if we can determine that this is in our best interest, then clearly we should stay with it. I believe at this point in time, absent indications to the contrary, it is something the president should consider staying with."

    More recently in April 2018, Mattis defended a key component of the Iran deal during congressional testimony. Mattis said that he read the full text of the deal three times, and was impressed by the rigor of the international verification of Iran’s compliance. Mattis said, “I will say it is written almost with an assumption that Iran would try to cheat. So the verification, what is in there, is actually pretty robust as far as our intrusive ability to get in."

    Meanwhile, former CIA head, Mike Pompeo, at his confirmation hearings for Secretary of State in mid-April 2018 said of the Iranians, "With the information I've been provided, I've seen no evidence that they are not in compliance today."

    The views of Tillerson, Mattis, and Pompeo appeared to be shared by the  Israeli Defense Forces Chief of Staff, Lieutenant General Gadi Eizenkot, who said only a month prior that the Iran nuclear deal “is working.”  It was unclear how that perspective could be held by an Israeli defense head on March 30, 2018, and then be contradicted by the Israeli prime minister -- armed with a large cache of documents derived from Tehran -- a month later. 

    Did Israel take possession of a cache of documents that included new information (not known in 2015) proving Iran was still carrying out nuclear activities?  Is there actual new information revealing that there are current Iranian efforts to evade verification and continue its nuclear weapons development? If so, that would be a significant development.  Did Netanyahu simply not present that particular portion of the evidence? 

    Should there be new damaging information (damaging for Iran) to be revealed, it was unlikely to be a game changer.  President Donald Trump was very likely going to withdraw from the Iranian nuclear deal with or without such  news.  

    As of  April 30, 2018, Trump refused to say outright whether he would withdraw the United States from the deal  and end sanctions waivers.  He said, “So we’ll see what happens. I’m not telling anyone what I’m doing.”  But Trump nonetheless telegraphed that walking away from the Iran deal was quite likely what he would do as he noted that such a move would send the “the right message” to North Korea.

    On the other side of the equation, Iran has warned of consequences for the United States, should it opt to renege on its international obligations via the nuclear deal.  Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said his country would be “highly unlikely” to stick with the nuclear deal if Trump scrapped his country's participation, and the consequences would "not be very pleasant for the United States.”

    Hours after Netanyahu's presentation, the White House in the United States released a statement declaring: "These facts are consistent with what the United States has long known: Iran has a robust, clandestine nuclear weapons program that it has tried and failed to hide from the world and from its own people." Later on the same night, the White House published an altered version on its website. The altered version changed the word "has" to "had," as follows: "Iran had a robust, clandestine nuclear weapons program that it has tried and failed to hide from the world and from its own people."  When asked about the change in tense, the White House blamed it on a "clerical error." 

    The Israeli prime minister's effort to derail the Iranian nuclear deal notwithstanding, the fact was that the United States' president had made it a campaign issue.  Before even becoming president Donald Trump telegraphed that he was no fan of the agreement and viewed it as a bad deal. 

    Now that he was well into his presidency, United States President Donald Trump was expected to make a decision about whether or not the United States would continue to participate in the Iranian nuclear deal in mid-May 2018.  The key date at hand would be the May 12, 2018, deadline when the United States would be expected to waive sanctions against Iran.  A failure to wave those sanctions on that date would translate into the United States' withdrawal from the Iran nuclear accord.

    Ahead of that deadline, on May 8, 2018, Trump announced that he was withdrawing the United States from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or  JCPOA (the nuclear deal with Iran), effectively triggering fears about Middle Eastern stability and upending relations with key European allies. 

    In a televised declaration, Trump said: “If I allowed this deal to stand, there would soon be a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. It’s clear to me that we cannot prevent an Iranian nuclear bomb under the decaying and root structure of the current arrangement.”

    Trump also decided that the deal failed to address Iran's ballistic missile program, its longer term nulcear ambitions, its history of terrorist activity, or its active role in proxy wars in Yemen and Syria.  

    Trump's decision meant that sanctions levied on various sectors of Iran's  economy, such as the energy and financial sectors,  would be reimposed over the course of six months.  

    The 2015 nuclear accord was formulated jointly by the United States, the five other world powers -- the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, and China -- and Iran. The agreement lifted sanctions on Iran in exchange for limits on Iran's nuclear program, with an eye on preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear bomb.  The parameters of the deal ensured stringent oversight of Iran's uranium enrichment programs and its nuclear power plants. It also imposed limits on the amount of uranium Iran could enrich,  and at which new nuclear facilities could be constructed. 

    Ahead of the signing of the deal, Iran was three months away from nuclear breakout ability. After the deal, the world was guaranteed at least 15 years of careful monitoring under a  structure of rigorous verification.  

    Nuclear arms experts tend to agree that the withdrawal of the Iranian nuclear deal would actually accelerate Iran's likelihood of producing nuclear weapons.

    Kingston Reif, the Director of Disarmament and Threat Reduction Policy for Arms Control Association, said in an interview with Matthew Gault at Motherboard, “The irresponsibility and folly of Trump's decision today to abrogate the Iran Deal is hard to overstate." He explained, "It increases the risk of an unconstrained Iranian nuclear program and proliferation in the region." 

    Why then would Trump go down such an unproductive road as to withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA? 

    Jeffrey Lewis, the founder of Arms Control Wonk and the Director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies,  issued a blistering explanation for Trump's decision to withdraw from the Iranian nuclear deal. Lewis said, “If George Bush had negotiated this deal, we'd still be in this agreement. I don’t think there’s any reason to normalize this decision or pretend its based in substance because it is not.”

    Lewis also warned that the exit of the United States on the joint commission would  make it harder to enforce or change provisions with the loss of a Western member.  Noting that the commission had been composed of the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, China, Russia, and Iran, Lewis noted,  “So we always had a four to three majority."  Now, however, the new balance would be more favorable to the Iranians.

    In Iran, President Hassan Rouhani made clear that Iran would remain in the accord. He  emphasized that by failing to waive sanctions,  the United States was in violation of the terms of the agreement and not Iran. Iranian  state media cast Trump's decision to withdraw  from the accord as "illegal, illegitimate and undermines international agreements."  

    In the background of these developments was the position of Iran's hardliners who never favored the agreement in the first place, and were eager to see it discarded entirely -- quite likely with a return to nuclear proliferation.
    It should be noted that in his speech from the White House, Trump condemned the multilateral accord, calling the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or  JCPOA "a horrible one-sided deal that should have never, ever been made."  He also referred to it as "a great embarassment."

    Of significance, though, was the fact that the JCPOA was never solely a United States deal. It was the result of the hard diplomatic, financial, and scientific work of the P5+1 countries. When Trump referred to the accord as a great embarrassment, he was also impugning the negotiors from the world's leading countries, including  some of the United States' closest allies.  

    The reaction from European allies was swift and bitter. The staff at the German publication, Der Spiegel, declared: Trump has humiliated Europe to a greater degree than any U.S. president before him. 

    The move would inevitably place further pressure on an already-strained trans-Atlantic alliance due to Trump's criticism of NATO. 

    That tension was expressed in uncomfortable terms by The staff at the German publication, Der Spiegel. Their  excoriation of Trump's decision including the following:  "The American withdrawal from the Iran deal is the most dangerous and cavalier foreign policy decision that a U.S. president has made since the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

    While the Trump administration indicated that it would be open to a new deal, European allies have been clear that there would be no re-negotiaing the hard-fought accord, given the United States' exit from it. Instead, the next course of action would be talk between European players and Iran to consider ways to maintain the agreement without United States' participation. 

    European allies would also have to grapple with the fact that the resumed sanctions by the United States would have an impact on their operations in Iran.  Indeed, soon after Trump made his withdrawal announcement, Richard Grenell, the United States Ambassador to Germany said via Twitter. “German companies doing business in Iran should wind down operations immediately.” 

    Such a dictate to an ally was not well-received at home in Germany.  Indeed,  
    the unfavorable reaction from key allies of the United States was manifest in views expressed in the German publication, Der Spiegel.  The staff at Des Spiegel referred to Grennell's tweet as "Europe's humiliation."

    In a Der Spiegel editorial by Klaus Brinkbäumer, he argued that in Trump's Washington, "the only thing that matters is dismantling the legacy of his predecessor, Barack Obama." Pointing to Trumps. decison to exit the Paris climate agreement while promising a better deal for America, or promising to improve Obama's signature health care plan, no such improvements or replacements have ever occurred.  Brinkbäumer thus warned that Trump was "playing the same game on the world stage with the Iran nuclear deal" and there is no plan in place for new talks or a replacement agreement.  

    As such, Brinkbäumer declared that, "The West as we once knew it no longer exists. Our relationship to the United States cannot currently be called a friendship and can hardly be referred to as a partnership. President Trump has adopted a tone that ignores 70 years of trust. He wants punitive tariffs and demands obedience."  Arguing that the Trump administration dismantled a long standing alliance, Brinkbäumer questioned whether "trans-Atlantic cooperation on economic, foreign and security policy even exists anymore."

    Brinkbäumer expressly called for Europe to distance itself from Trump's America, stating that "Europe cannot support policies that it finds dangerous."  He added, "Clever resistance is necessary, as sad and absurd as that may sound. Resistance against America."


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