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How Iran might respond to U.S. withdrawing from the nuclear deal

From nuclear deal to no deal, President Trump on Tuesday made good on his vow to get out of the 2015 agreement with Iran -- his predecessor’s signature foreign policy achievement. Nick Schifrin looks back at Trump’s determination to derail the deal, and then joins William Brangham to discuss what happens in Iran now.

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  • William Brangham:

    From nuclear deal to no deal. The president of the United States has made good on his vow to get out of the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran.

    Nick Schifrin begins our coverage.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Today, President Trump delivered on years of promises to unravel his predecessor's signature foreign policy achievement.

  • President Donald Trump:

    I am announcing today that the United States will withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The president could have withdrawn gradually or left ambiguity. But today's action was swift and left no doubt. He reimposed the sanctions the deal lifted and threatened more sanctions.

  • President Donald Trump:

    We will be instituting the highest level of economic sanctions. Any nation that helps Iran in its quest for nuclear weapons could also be strongly sanctioned by the United States.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    President Trump cited longstanding criticisms. The deal doesn't restrict Iranian support of proxies such as Hezbollah, which the U.S. calls a terrorist group. The deal doesn't restrict Iran's ability to develop ballistic missiles that can reach Israel. And the deal includes expiry dates, or sunsets, that allow Iran to eventually enrich and stockpile uranium and restrict inspectors.

  • President Donald Trump:

    this was a horrible, one-sided deal that should have never, ever been made. It didn't bring calm, it didn't bring peace, and it never will.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In Iran, President Hassan Rouhani said he would consider remaining inside the deal, but would only allow negotiations for a few weeks before restarting enrichment.

  • Hassan Rouhani (through translator):

    I ordered the Iranian Atomic Energy Agency to be ready for action if needed, so that if necessary we can begin our industrial enrichment without any limitations.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Europe's top diplomat, Federica Mogherini, criticized Trump's decision and welcomed negotiations with Iran, vowing save the deal.

  • Federica Mogherini:

    It has been working and it is delivering on its goal, which is guaranteeing that Iran doesn't develop nuclear weapons. The European Union is determined to preserve this.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But President Trump has been determined to derail it. For years, he's maligned the deal as candidate.

  • President Donald Trump:

    Never, ever, ever in my life have I seen any transaction so incompetently negotiated as our deal with Iran. And I mean never.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And after taking office.

  • President Donald Trump:

    The Iran deal was one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into. Frankly, that deal is an embarrassment to the United States.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But for the deal's negotiators, it was a hard-fought culmination of a decade of work.

    It began in the mid-2000s with some of the most complex sanctions in history that paralyzed Iran's economy, and united the U.S., Europe, Russia and China. By 2009, President Obama offered Iran negotiations. State Department special adviser Dennis Ross opened a back channel through Oman, taken over by deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns.

    After Rouhani's 2013 election, the talks accelerated. At the end of 2013, the parties signed an interim agreement, and, by 2015, more than 10 years after this process started, they signed the joint comprehensive plan of action, praised by President Obama.

  • President Barack Obama:

    Every pathway to a nuclear weapon is cut off. And the inspection and transparency regime necessary to verify that objective will be put in place.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif.

  • Javad Zarif:

    Today could have been the end of hope on this issue. But now we are starting a new chapter of hope.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The deal froze Iran's nuclear program, allowed unprecedented inspections, and Iran promised never to seek, develop, or acquire any nuclear weapons. In return, the international community promised not to discourage investment in Iran, and lifted sanctions and returned frozen assets worth more than $100 billion.

    In the last few weeks, French President Emmanuel Macron led furious European efforts to save the deal, known by its acronym, JCPOA.

  • President Emmanuel Macron (through translator):

    I always said we shouldn't tear apart the JCPOA and have nothing else. I think this would be wouldn't be the good solution.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu led the international effort against the deal.

  • Benjamin Netanyahu:

    The Iran deal, the nuclear deal is based on lies. It is based on Iranian lies and Iranian deception.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In the end, Trump rejected Israel's argument, and went even further than Israel in suggesting Iran is a present and future threat.

  • President Donald Trump:

    America will not be held hostage to nuclear blackmail. We will not allow American cities to be threatened with destruction.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    President Trump presented Iran's nuclear program as continually advancing. But under the deal, Iran would need more than a year to build a bomb, compared to two months before the deal.

    The International Atomic Energy Agency has confirmed on 10 occasions that Iran was complying with the deal. And that's what former President Obama pointed out today in a rare statement.

  • He said:

    "The JCPOA is working. That is a view shared by our European allies, independent experts, and the current U.S. secretary of defense. The JCPOA is in America's interest. It has significantly rolled back Iran's nuclear program. And the JCPOA is a model for what diplomacy can accomplish" — William.

  • William Brangham:

    Nick, thanks very much for this report.

    Help us understand, what happens with Iran now? You featured President Rouhani in his — in your report saying, we're going to try to talk to the Europeans to see if we can say in some version of the deal.

    But he also seemed to warn that if in a couple of weeks, we decide this isn't going well, we might just reengage our nuclear facilities.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Right. So, they have got about three options, two of which you have pretty much laid out.

    One is stay in the deal, and work with Europe, work with China, work with Russia, the other signatories in the deal to isolate the U.S. Partially, that's about assuaging fears inside Iran. Iran's economy is struggling right now. And the message is don't fear, don't run on the banks, for example, and this isn't a crisis.

    The other version of this is trying to tap into Chinese, European, Russian interests in investment in Iran, especially China. They have invested a lot of money in Iran, thanks to the Belt and Road Initiative.

    China may be willing to put up with some U.S. sanctions. The problem with that medium term or long term, it's a hard argument to make. Investment will go away. Banks do what President Trump did, and Rouhani has promised economic advancement using the money the JCPOA was supposed to give.

    So that leads to option number two, which is enrichment, going basically back to before the JCPOA, so that's enriching maybe to 18 percent, 19 percent, bringing down breakout to about two months or so.

    The third option is going nuclear, so to speak. It's kicking out inspectors, leaving the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the NPT. This will almost certainly yield a U.S. or Israeli response.

    And the wild card in this is those proxy groups that President Trump talked about today. Iran largely controls them and could use them to attack U.S. or allied interests. We may see one of those or we may see a combination of those responses from Iran in the coming weeks.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Nick Schifrin, thanks a lot.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Thank you.

  • William Brangham:

    We will have a full examination of the president's decision, and the reaction to it, after the news summary.

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