Analysis

'An ego move': If Trump's exit from the Iran deal protects Americans, he's not saying how

Perhaps one of the most telling moments in Tuesday's press conference announcing the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal came when U.S. President Trump fell silent as a reporter asked, "How does this make America safer?" If Trump had an answer, he wasn't sharing.

'This is the most disastrous decision the Trump administration has ever made,' analyst says

President Donald Trump announces his decision to withdraw from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

It's a "catastrophe," "horrendous," "a disaster," "insane," "one-sided" and "nuclear blackmail."

U.S. President Donald Trump has said a lot of things over the years about the Iran nuclear deal he just reneged on. 

So perhaps one of the most telling moments came Tuesday when the president fell silent as a reporter shouted a question to him. The president was holding aloft a signed executive order reinstating sanctions on Iran, effectively withdrawing the U.S. from the deal negotiated three years ago.

"How," the journalist asked, "does this make America safer?" 

Trump ignored her question. She repeated it.

"Thank you very much," the president said, wrapping up. "This will make America much safer."

U.S. president says it was a 'horrible, one-sided deal' 0:45

It was a non-answer that only served to confirm the suspicions of Suzanne Maloney, deputy director of the foreign policy program at the Brookings Institution.

"He couldn't answer. He didn't explain. He doesn't have an answer to that," Maloney said. "If he's convinced the restrictions imposed were insufficient, or the monitoring of the regime was insufficient, how does the absence of these measures and restrictions provide greater security for the U.S.?"

And does this administration have a viable Plan B to re-engage Iran? The apparent answer, she said, is no.

What was Trump hoping to achieve?

Supporters of the deal within the administration, such as former national security adviser H.R. McMaster and former secretary of state Rex Tillerson, have been replaced by hawks such as John Bolton, left, seen here with to U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Opponents of the Obama-era accord want to scrap it on the grounds that the limits it puts on Iran's nuclear program will expire after 15 years. They also argue it isn't tough enough on security issues that are outside the bounds of the deal. But a U.S. withdrawal doesn't unravel the deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, entirely.

To restore sanctions to their heights, turning everything to the max, he did not leave room for ambiguity. That's a power move.-  Behnam  Ben  Taleblu , Foundation for  Defense  of Democracies

That depends on whether Iran decides to honour its end of the bargain with the other signatories — Germany, France, the U.K., China, Russia and the European Union — despite the U.S. departure. 

Trump's stated goal is to renegotiate the Iran deal to terms he likes. So he withdrew.

"That's a power move by the president," said Behnam Ben Taleblu, an expert on Iranian security with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. "To restore sanctions to their heights, turning everything to the max, he did not leave room for ambiguity."

To Maloney, it's not so much a "power move" as a self-serving one.

"I would interpret it as an ego move," she said. "It played to his own sense of identification as sort of the master of the deal," even at the risk of a global calamity.

What was Tuesday's announcement about?

Israelis in a coffee shop in Ashkelon, Israel, watch a television broadcast of Trump speaking from the White House on Tuesday. (Amir Cohen/Reuters)

Trump declared the U.S. would no longer waive key sanctions on Iran. Taking away this relief amounts to reneging on the deal. Four months ago, in January, Trump set a 120-day deadline, vowing he would back out of the deal unless amendments were made. The deadline is up on May 12. 

"This is a last chance. In the absence of such an agreement, the United States will not again waive sanctions in order to stay in the Iran nuclear deal," Trump said at the time.

Since then, former Trump advisers who backed the deal, including former national security adviser H.R. McMaster and former secretary of state Rex Tillerson, have been replaced by hawks John Bolton and Mike Pompeo, respectively.

Why are the deal's proponents worried?

Global signatories and many non-proliferation experts believe the president is making a serious diplomatic mistake. They fear that American withdrawal will threaten to:

  • Give Iran justification to resume its nuclear weapons program immediately.
  • Crumble the accord despite the backing of other nations, further isolating the U.S. diplomatically from its closest allies.
  • Undermine credibility in American deal-making abroad, just as North Korea needs to know whether it can trust the U.S. to keep its word ahead of a summit on denuclearization.
  • Boost Iranian hardliners who are most hostile to the U.S.

"This is the most disastrous decision the Trump administration has ever made. For all his lies and firings, none have affected U.S. national security as profoundly and negatively as this," said Joseph Cirincione, president of the global security foundation Ploughshares Fund.

What did the U.S. get out of the deal?

In exchange for relief from crippling sanctions, Iran was required to:

  • Cease plans to obtain highly enriched uranium, the fuel needed to make nuclear weapons, for a period of 15 years. (Iran was permitted to enrich uranium to a concentration of 3.67 per cent — far lower than the 90 per cent purity needed to make a bomb.)
  • Reduce its number of operating nuclear centrifuges from around 19,000 in July 2015 so that only 5,060 of its oldest and least-efficient centrifuges could enrich uranium by implementation day January 2016.
  • Give up 98 per cent of its uranium stockpiles, which, according to the Obama administration, would have been enough to make eight to 10 bombs in 2015.
  • Allow robust inspections from the International Atomic Energy Agency of its nuclear activities to verify its compliance.

The commitments would have increased the time it would take for Iran to acquire enough material to make one bomb to more than a year. In 2015, Iran could have made a bomb within two to three months, according to the White House.

Why did Trump hate the Iran deal?

It excluded what Trump called "sinister" activities on regional security issues. For example, the terms didn't limit Iran's ballistic missile development or its support for militant groups like Hezbollah or Hamas.

Trump also hates the fact that it includes sunset clauses after 10 and 15 years.

Inspections would still carry on, but that hasn't appeased critics of the deal like Jed Babbin, a former U.S. deputy undersecretary of defence in the first Bush administration.

David Barrows protests outside the White House as Trump announces the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran deal. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

"The president wants to make it essentially permanent. He wants to make the inspection regime something more realistic than what we have now," Babbin said in an interview.

Trump falsely claimed that Iran is allowed to "self-inspect" its sites — an allegation the International Atomic Energy Agency rejects.

"That's baloney," said Cirincione, with Ploughshares Fund. "They're referring to an inspection of a military facility at Parchin, where the Iranians collected the samples that the IAEA then photographed and tested. But the IAEA has complete authority to go anywhere they want with notice."

Did Iran cheat on the deal?

Iran has not technically violated the deal, according to the IAEA's reports. Even the Trump administration grudgingly admitted so, recertifying the deal twice — first in April, then again in July. 

By October, Trump refused to certify the deal again, complaining that Iran violated "the spirit" of the arrangement. He did not reimpose sanctions at that time.

How is this different from decertification?

This is the first time since Trump came into office that he opted not to renew the waivers. That's different from decertifying the deal.

"This time, we're really toying with U.S. implementation of the deal and whether the U.S. will remain true to its commitments," said David Mortlock, a sanctions lawyer who worked on Iran-related issues in the Obama administration.

Iranian lawmakers burn two pieces of papers representing the U.S. flag and shout 'Death to America!' in reaction to the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal pullout Wednesday at the parliament in Tehran. (The Associated Press)

Certification of the deal is a domestic issue. Under the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, the president must "recertify" to Congress every 90 days that Iran is complying with the deal. 

Decertifying the deal gave Congress the power to reimpose sanctions. Lawmakers allowed the easing to continue.

Is the Iran deal popular?

A recent CNN poll suggests 63 per cent of Americans favour the Iran nuclear deal while one done by polling firm Morning Consult found 56 per cent support it.

Although it doesn't tie up a host of nasty regional security issues, proponents reason that it beats an alternative in which Tehran is free to increase nuclear activities right away.

U.S. President Donald Trump has pulled America from the Iran nuclear deal, in a move to reinstate strict economic sanctions. 9:22

About the Author

Matt Kwong

Reporter

Matt Kwong is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong

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