WASHINGTON — President Trump announced the US was withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal on Tuesday, following through on a campaign promise and defying European allies who implored him to maintain an agreement that international agencies have said Tehran is honoring.
In a highly anticipated address from the White House’s Diplomatic Reception Room, Trump cast the landmark agreement forged under predecessor Barack Obama as “defective” and unable to rein in Iranian behavior or halt the Islamic Republic’s quest to develop nuclear weapons.
“I’m announcing today that the United States will withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal,” he said, adding that his administration “will be instituting the highest level of economic sanction.”
Trump said the 2015 agreement, which included Germany, France, Russia, China and Britain, was a “horrible one-sided deal that should never ever have been made.”
His remarks came ahead of his self-imposed May 12 deadline to walk away from the deal; that date is when the president would be required to renew waivers on sanctions against Iran’s nuclear program as required under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the deal is formally called.
Trump emphasized that sanctions would also apply to other nations that did business with Iran, meaning that the United States could very well apply sanctions on its closest European allies. “America will not be held hostage to nuclear blackmail,” Trump said.
However, officials said European companies would have several months to pull out of the Iranian market.
Trump said that his explosive move would signal “the United States no longer makes empty threats” on the world stage. “When I make promises, I keep them,” he said.
Responding to the move, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has lobbied against the deal, said he offered his full support for Trump’s “bold move.”
In Iran, President Hassan Rouhani said Tehran would remain in the deal, but his country could resume nuclear activity if need be.
European signatories vowed to stick by the agreement.
In January, Trump waived sanctions for the third time in his presidency, but said he wouldn’t take that action again unless Congress and European allies amended the pact.
Since then, international negotiators have unsuccessfully sought to make changes to the deal — and Tehran has refused to accept any alterations to its terms.
One official briefed on the decision said Trump would move to reimpose all sanctions on Iran that had been lifted under the 2015 deal, not just the ones facing an immediate deadline.
As administration officials briefed congressional leaders about Trump’s plans Tuesday, they emphasized that just as with a major Asia trade deal and the Paris climate pact that Trump has abandoned, he remains open to renegotiating a better deal, one person briefed on the talks said.
The Iran agreement, struck in 2015 by the United States, other world powers, and Iran, lifted most US and international sanctions against the country. In return, Iran agreed to restrictions on its nuclear program making it impossible to produce a bomb, along with rigorous inspections.
Over the last several weeks, leaders from France, Britain, and Germany have all lobbied the president not to abscond from the accord, while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu campaigned assiduously to discredit the deal.
Last week, he gave a PowerPoint presentation detailing a trove of documents the Mossad scooped that outline Iran’s covert attempts at developing a nuclear arsenal. Trump cited the trove and said the documents proved he was “100 percent right” in his skepticism and antipathy to the deal.
Trump has long cast the JCPOA as “worst deal ever negotiated” and a symbol of American weakness.
Trump signaled hours before his announcement an intention to undo the Obama administration’s signature foreign policy achievement.
Responding to recent reports that former secretary of state John Kerry recently met with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to try and salvage the deal, Trump tweeted: “John Kerry can’t get over the fact that he had his chance and blew it! Stay away from negotiations John, you are hurting your country!”
Hours before the announcement, European countries met to underline their support for the agreement. Senior officials from Britain, France, and Germany met in Brussels with Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister for Political Affairs, Abbas Araghchi.
If the deal collapses, Iran would be free to resume prohibited enrichment activities, while businesses and banks doing business with Iran would have to scramble to extricate themselves or run afoul of the US American officials, who were dusting off plans for how to sell a pullout to the public and explain its complex financial ramifications.
In Iran, many were deeply concerned about how Trump’s decision could affect the already struggling economy.
In Tehran earlier Tuesday, President Hassan Rouhani sought to calm nerves, smiling as he appeared at a petroleum expo. He didn’t name Trump directly, but emphasized that Iran continued to seek “engagement with the world.”
“It is possible that we will face some problems for two or three months, but we will pass through this,” Rouhani said.
Members of the Obama administration who helped solidify the international agreement told reporters before Trump’s announcement that the consequences of blowing up the deal could be cataclysmic.
“Iran could start on its way back to getting a nuclear weapon,” said Wendy Sherman, a former State Department official in the Obama administration who was the chief US negotiator of the agreement. “It raises risk of conflict in the Middle East. It could potentially put our forces at risk everywhere. It also puts Americans being held in Iran more at risk. It will weaken our alliances with Europe, and for that matter Russia and China, who are important to the North Korea negotiation. This is a crisis that Trump is precipitating himself.”
In his speech, Trump said “a constructive deal could easily been struck at the time, but it wasn’t.” The ensuing deal was “a great embarrassment to me as a citizen and all citizens of the United States.”
As he has in the past, he cast the deal’s sunset provisions, which allow certain restrictions on Tehran’s nuclear program to expire over time, as unacceptable. He said Tuesday, however, that they led Iran to “the nuclear brink” and that, “If I allowed this deal to stand, there would soon be a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.”
He further portrayed the accord as one that would lead to Iran crossing the nuclear threshold, not one that would prevent that.
“It is clear to me that we cannot prevent an Iranian nuclear bomb under the decaying and rotten structure of the current agreement,” he said. “The Iran deal is defective at its core. If we do nothing, we know exactly what will happen.”
He also said that Iran would ultimately want to re-negotate another deal that fully meets Trump’s demands — something Iran itself has said it would not do. “The fact is they are going to want to make a new and lasting deal,” Trump said.
Anthony Blinken, a former deputy secretary of state in the Obama administration, warned this move will give hardliners in Iran an excuse to restart their pursuit of nuclear weapons, but without a united international coalition to oppose them, or inspectors on the ground to expose them.” He said that meant, “we would get to the point where we would have to live with an Iranian nuclear weapon or get into a conflict.”
He also surmised that if Iran and Europe decide to stick with the deal, despite Trump’s refusal to renew the sanction waivers, that will “at some point force the administration to sanction our closest allies to stop them from doing business with Iran.”
“So we’re on a collision course in two directions,” he added.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.