President Trump at podium.

President Trump announces the U.S. will withdraw from the landmark nuclear accord with Iran.

Photo by Evan Vucci/AP

Nation & World

Assessing the Iran deal pullout

long read

Belfer Center analysts ponder current and future effects of U.S. voiding nuclear agreement

Calling it a “great embarrassment” that fails to “halt Iran’s nuclear ambitions,” President Trump said Tuesday that he will pull out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the Iran nuclear agreement that the previous administration negotiated to halt that nation’s progress toward atomic weapons. Trump said he would re-impose sanctions on Iran and seek a better deal.

In response, the national security, nuclear, and regional experts at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, who have been assessing the Iran nuclear situation for years, examined the president’s remarks and weighed in on the significance of Washington’s policy change and on what’s likely to follow it. Here are their initial reactions:

Graham Allison

Douglas Dillon Professor of Government, Harvard Kennedy School

If summarizing my reaction in a tweet: bad choice. If given a few more characters: bad for the U.S. and bad for our ally Israel, which stands much closer to this front line. Yes, Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu will applaud. But the individuals who shoulder responsibility for Israel’s survival and security have been crystal clear: This will most likely lead to an outcome that is much worse not only for the U.S. but also for Israel. As Chief of the General Staff Gadi Eizenkot, who commands the Israel Defense Forces, stated bluntly recently: “Right now the agreement, with all its faults, is working and is putting off the realization of the Iranian nuclear vision by 10 to 15 years.” Before the agreement, Iran’s nuclear program had advanced to less than a year away from its first bomb. The agreement not only halted that advance but rolled it back a decade, and imposed on Iran the most intrusive inspection regime ever negotiated — to prevent its cheating for fear of being found out. Trump’s decision gives Iran an option to escape this penalty box. Bad choice.

Ernest J. Moniz

Belfer Center senior fellow; CEO of the Nuclear Threat Initiative; former U.S. secretary of Energy, and lead technical negotiator of the Iran nuclear deal

President Trump’s decision today to withdraw from the Iranian nuclear deal is a major strategic mistake that not only damages the United States’ ability to prevent Iran from acquiring the material for a nuclear weapon, but also impairs our ability to prevent the spread and use of nuclear weapons, to work with allies and partners on issues of global concern, and to protect our interests in the Middle East for years, if not decades, to come. The Iran nuclear deal rolled back Iran’s nuclear program and imposed uniquely stringent monitoring and verification measures — the most important elements of which were permanent — to prevent the country from ever developing a bomb. The United States is now in violation of the terms of the deal without offering a credible alternative. The Iran deal is and has always been about depriving Iran of the nuclear materials — highly enriched uranium and plutonium — needed to make a weapon. As international inspectors, who have been on the ground every day since the deal was concluded, have confirmed: The Iran agreement has accomplished this. The fact that the advice of this nation’s most-important allies was ignored in this decision adds to the consequence of the president’s decision. Remaining in the agreement was very clearly in the U.S. national interest. It’s hard to predict what will unfold from here, but the president has driven a deep wedge between the United States and our allies in Europe and has withdrawn from the process that would allow a comprehensive investigation of the Iran archives recently revealed by Israel.

Nicholas Burns

Roy and Barbara Goodman Family Professor of the Practice of Diplomacy and International Relations; former U.S. ambassador to NATO

President Trump’s disavowal of the Iran nuclear agreement is reckless and one of the most serious mistakes of his presidency.  While flawed, the deal has dismantled Iran’s nuclear apparatus and denied it the possibility of developing a nuclear weapon for more than a decade into the future. Trump’s major challenge will be to convince Americans that his decision leaves us better off. He is betting that Iran will agree to negotiate a new and more advantageous deal with the U.S. But all the evidence points in the opposite direction. Trump’s action will isolate us from our European allies by placing us in violation of the agreement. It will also strengthen the Revolutionary Guard hardliners in Tehran who may now seek to free Iran from the deal’s handcuffs and pursue anew a nuclear weapon. Where is Trump’s strategy leading us? To satisfy an ill-advised campaign pledge, he has jettisoned a decade-long effort by the Obama and Bush Administrations from 2005-2015 to isolate, sanction, and weaken Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Trump is giving Iran a potential new pathway to a nuclear weapon, with a resulting risk of war, in the next few years. As in Trump’s exit from the Paris Climate Change Accord and the Trans Pacific Partnership, he appears to have no strategy for what comes next. He tears down major international agreements but suggests nothing to put in their place. In doing so, Trump is accelerating the retreat of America’s singular global leadership role. He is reducing our credibility and influence with our allies as well as adversaries. These are the acts of an irresponsible leader.

Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall

Belfer Center senior fellow; former deputy U.S. secretary of Energy

Trump’s decision to unilaterally pull out of the JPCOA is a reckless strategic mistake of immense consequence. The Iranians have been fully implementing the agreement, and the world has been safer since it came into effect in January 2016. With Trump’s action today, the onus is now on the United States if Tehran chooses to restart its nuclear weapons program. What the president has done does not make us safer. He has isolated us from our allies, handed a gift to the hardliners in Iran, undermined U.S. credibility as a negotiating partner, set back global nuclear-proliferation-prevention efforts, and increased the risks of war.

Nawaf Obaid

Visiting fellow, intelligence and defense projects, Belfer Center

The decision today by President Trump to exit the JCPOA was a much-needed move to correct a historically catastrophic policy by the Obama administration. The Achilles heels of Iran’s regime is its weak economy, and re-instituting economic sanctions will only further isolate Iran from the global system and the foreign investments it so needs to sustain its failing political system. The JCPOA did not limit Iran’s monstrous actions in Syria, Iraq, and across the Arab world. It was done to push the Iran problem further down the road, not deal with it. Now there is a chance to take on the “Persian Puzzle” head on.

Gary Samore

Executive director for research, Belfer Center; former White House coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction 

President Trump thinks he can crash the nuclear deal, reimpose international economic sanctions, and force Iran to negotiate a better deal. He is mistaken. For now, Iran will try to salvage the JCPOA with the other parties to the deal (European nations, Russia, China), promising to retain nuclear constraints if the other parties give assurances that they will resist secondary U.S. sanctions. Over time, however, as secondary sanctions reduce the flow of economic benefits to Iran, Iran will threaten to unwind nuclear constraints under the JCPOA. However, Iran will be cautious to avoid nuclear actions that risk provoking a U.S. military response. The ultimate Iranian objective is to avoid a confrontation until the 2020 elections, in hopes that Trump will not be re-elected.

Matthew Bunn

Professor of practice, Harvard Kennedy School co-principal investigator of the Project on Managing the Atom

President Trump has handed a huge gift to Iran’s hardliners, freeing Iran to build up its ability to make nuclear bomb material and curtail international inspections while discrediting Iran’s advocates of engagement with the West. Trump’s action isolates the United States, not Iran, as the country unwilling to live up to its promises, and raises the risks of war or of Iran getting a nuclear bomb. It would still be in Iran’s interest to stay in the deal, which would put the blame on the United States, limit other countries’ willingness to join in sanctions, and limit the danger of military strikes on Iran.

Chuck Freilich

Belfer Center senior fellow; former deputy Israeli national security advisor; author of “Israeli National Security: A New Strategy for an Era of Change”

A historic error that may lead to a nuclear Iran. The critical question is whether there is an effective post-withdrawal strategy. Regime change and the hope that Iran will now agree to a “better deal” are important aspirations and, if achieved, would constitute major successes, but they are longshots. In the meantime, Israel faces a growing crisis with Iran in Syria. Imagine how Israel would be reacting in the absence of the JCPOA and [if] Iran had crossed the nuclear threshold. It may take a year or more, but Israel may soon be facing a crisis with a nuclear Iran.

payam mohseni

Director of the Iran Project, Belfer Center; lecturer, Harvard Department of Government

President Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Iran nuclear deal is a strategic mistake with three major consequences. First, it greatly undermines U.S. national interests by eroding its credibility, by splitting the United States from its European allies and the international community, by upending an agreement that effectively blocked Iran’s nuclear aspirations at the weapons level, and by wasting billions of dollars of political, financial, and human capital the United States invested to reach the JCPOA. Second, it erodes the pillars of the rules-based international system as it questions the independent power and diplomatic credibility of European states, especially if they are not able to safeguard the deal from American violations. Likewise, Trump’s decision undermines the value and significance of multilateralism and international institutions, especially those operating towards the global nuclear non-proliferation regime such as the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency). Third, it marks a turning point in the post-revolutionary history of modern Iran as the first major bitter experience of the country’s youth with the United States and the first direct public negotiation with America–inflaming Iranian nationalism, undermining the value of engaging the West, and shifting the domestic discourse to a hardline position. This was a gift to Ayatollah Khamenei as it undermines the platform of moderate President Rouhani, claiming he was right to tell everyone not to trust the Americans. Now Khamenei will turn to undermine the credibility of the Europeans by turning all eyes on the EU powers, before Iran uses the U.S. violation and withdrawal of the agreement to move beyond the deal.

Martin B. Malin

Executive director, Project on Managing the Atom

President Trump’s announcement that the United States will unilaterally withdraw from the nuclear deal with Iran is the most consequential foreign policy blunder yet from an administration that appears determined to undermine U.S. influence around the world. Trump’s move demonstrates that the United States cannot be trusted to keep its promises. It deepens the divide between United States and its closest European allies. It will heighten tensions in an already smoldering Middle East, while giving fodder to hardliners and nuclear bomb advocates in Iran. It will disable the U.N. Security Council for the remainder of the Trump administration and perhaps beyond. And it will weaken the International Atomic Energy Agency’s ability to carry out its mission at a time when there may be a particular need to monitor Iran’s nuclear activities.

Steven E. Miller

Director of the Belfer Center’s international security program; editor-in-chief of “International Security”

President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the JCPOA and openly violate the provisions of the agreement may not quite be a gift to Tehran, but it is at least as damaging to the United States as it is to Iran. It isolates the United States and positions it as the wrecker of the deal. It discredits the United States as a trustworthy negotiating partner — at least with Iran, if not more broadly. It divides Washington from its European allies, all of whom are deeply opposed to this move. It creates an opening for Iran to collaborate more closely with Europe, Russia, and China in arrangements that will exclude the United States. It offers Iran the opportunity to escape from the confining limits and intense scrutiny put in place by the JCPOA. It will require the United States to seek additional sanctions in an environment in which there is little sympathy for the U.S. position and some respect for Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA. It raises the prospect of a world in which U.S. sanctions are ineffective while Iran’s nuclear program steadily advances. It signals a return to the purely confrontational approach that for more than a dozen years failed to halt Iran’s nuclear progress. Iran may attempt to salvage the deal by continued cooperation with the other parties to the agreement, but, if not, then Trump’s decision will have created a world in which Iran’s nuclear program is much less constrained and much less inspected — and he will have paid a high price to do so.

Hassan ahmadian

Postdoctoral research fellow, Iran Project, Belfer Center 

President Trump wants to isolate Iran and put it under the limelight as a threat to international peace and security in order to deprive Tehran from the benefits it sought from the JCPOA. But he is playing his cards in the worst way possible. By reinstating sanctions, he has already thrown much of his leverage against Iran away. This is not to say that Tehran will benefit from the collapse of the JCPOA — and surely not from the reinstating of sanctions. What Trump did, however, is to create challenges for the United States internationally, and therefore can be of diplomatic value to Tehran for three reasons. First, instead of targeting Iran through its traditional leadership role in global multilateral arrangements, he unilaterally withdrew the United States from the agreement and disregarded the advice of European allies. Therefore, rather than bear the brunt of global pressure, Iran will have to confront a “rogue” US administration, according to some Iranian analysts — with the world sympathizing with Tehran. In particular, Trump preferred his controversial partners in the Middle East — Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, both of whom are facing domestic challenges at home — over traditional American allies in Europe. Second, Trump set himself up on the losing side of the JCPOA, with the U.S. being the irresponsible party wrecking the agreement and Iran being the party honoring its words. Third, he bridged the gap between anti-American propaganda and the official U.S. position for the Iranian public, as the United States is playing into Iran’s official narrative. One can barely hear a voice criticizing the Iranian government inside the country, as the blame is squarely placed on the United States for the probable collapse of the deal.

William Tobey

Belfer Center senior fellow, former deputy administrator for defense nuclear nonproliferation at the National Nuclear Security Administration

The decision to leave the JCPOA is a blunder. The deal has significant flaws, notably a relatively brief duration and a failure to compel from Iran a complete and correct declaration of its nuclear weapons activities — the bedrock of any effective verification system. Withdrawing, however, only compounds those problems, shortening the duration and abandoning the deal’s mechanisms to investigate and respond to compliance issues. Ironically, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s recent bombshell revelation of Iranian deceit offered an opening to improve and enforce the JCPOA. Unfortunately, President Trump flouted appeals from our closest allies and chose not to use it.

sahar nowrouzzadeh

Joint research fellow, Iran Project and Project on Managing the Atom, Belfer Center

One of the key questions for U.S. policymakers will be how Iran’s nuclear and perhaps broader national security decision-making will be impacted by Trump’s decision, particularly as it was made in isolation from our P5+1 (U.N. Security Council and Germany) and E.U. (European Union) partners and despite Iran’s verified compliance. After all, we’ve known for many years that Iran does not face insurmountable technical barriers to producing nuclear weapons, as the U.S. intelligence community has repeatedly confirmed publicly. Therefore, Iran’s political will and the result of a cost-benefit analysis of what it views as its core national security interests will continue to be a central question. Among the likely consequences of today’s decision will be that our ability to influence or incentivize Iran’s nuclear decision-making in a manner favorable to U.S. interests will be severely undermined going forward.