Where Trump's Scorn for Iran Nuclear Deal Could Lead: QuickTake

(Bloomberg) -- Donald Trump has been complaining about the 2015 Iran nuclear deal since before he became president. Speaking alongside French President Emmanuel Macron on April 24, he said the agreement was “insane, ridiculous, should never have been made.” He’s repeatedly threatened to scrap the accord and reimpose U.S. sanctions eased under it unless European allies join in fixing what he calls the deal’s “significant flaws.” It soon will be time for action, not just words.

1. Why is this an issue now?

Iran negotiated the agreement -- providing for curbs on its nuclear program in return for relief from many of the sanctions weighing on its economy -- with China, France, Russia, Germany, the U.K. and the U.S. in 2015. As part of a law passed by the U.S. Congress, the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, Trump has to waive sanctions on Iran’s banks and oil sales every 120 days, with the next deadline falling on May 12. In January, he did so but vowed he would not do it again unless the "terrible flaws" in the 2015 agreement were fixed.

2. What is Trump demanding?

Trump says steps must be taken to stop Iran’s continued development of its ballistic missile program and its support for terrorism. Those issues aren’t part of the nuclear deal, and Iran remains under separate U.S. sanctions related to them. Trump has dispatched teams of negotiators to work with European allies on new restrictions on Iran; in early April, U.S. and European officials said they were making progress on meeting Trump’s concerns.

3. Has Iran stuck to the accord?

Regular assessments by the International Atomic Energy Agency since the deal took effect have found Iran in full compliance with its obligations. In October 2016, Iran slightly surpassed a limit on its stockpiles of heavy water, which is used in medical imaging and can also fuel reactors that produce plutonium, a weapons material. But it addressed that within weeks by shipping the surplus to Oman. In a surprising statement for someone close to Trump, CIA Director Mike Pompeo said in Senate testimony that Iran “wasn’t racing to a weapon before the deal” and there was no indication that it would do so if the deal ended. Pompeo, Trump’s nominee to be the next secretary of state, opposed the agreement as a congressman from Kansas but signaled he would try to work to improve the accord if possible.

4. What does Iran say?

Speaking on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” on April 21, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said Iran was “ready” to accelerate its nuclear program to "a much greater speed" if Trump reimposes sanctions and backs out of the nuclear deal. Iran has said it would resume enrichment of uranium to 20 percent -- banned under the deal because such material can rapidly be further enriched to weapons-grade material -- if another party breaches the agreement.

5. What do the Europeans say?

Leaders of France, Germany and the U.K. have urged Trump not to scrap the deal, and their representatives are working closely with administration negotiators on setting up side agreements to put further limits on Iran. Macron has outlined one way forward: limiting Iranian nuclear activities beyond 2025, blocking its ballistic missile programs and containing its regional influence. This would be in addition to maintaining the current nuclear agreement. A new agreement might require buy-in from Russia and China, which is unlikely. And it’s not clear how France, the U.S. and any other participants would get Iran to go along.

6. What’s the issue with Iran’s missile program?

Iran has been developing a homegrown missile program since finding it was unequipped to respond to missile attacks from Iraq in the 1980s war between the neighbors. A UN resolution from 2010 stated that “Iran shall not undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons.” But in the hard-fought negotiations over the nuclear accord, Iran won acquiescence from the U.S. for a UN resolution that simply “called upon” it to refrain from work on such missiles for as long as eight years. Iran says its missile program is essential for its defense and can’t be for nuclear weapons because it has none and no intention to build any.

7. What’s the issue with the deal’s duration?

In the agreement, Iran pledged that it would refine uranium to no more than 3.7 percent enrichment, the level needed to fuel nuclear power plants, and pledged to limit its enriched-uranium stockpile to 300 kilograms, 3 percent of its stores before the deal was reached. U.S. officials estimated that the agreement extended the time it would take Iran to produce enough fissile material for a bomb from a few months to a year. The trouble is, those terms last 15 years, or until 2030. At that point, in the absence of another arrangement, Iran would be free to return to refining uranium to a higher level, and to building greater stockpiles. At the same time, Iran also committed never to seek to develop a nuclear weapon.

8. Does Iran sponsor terrorism?

Iran has been on the U.S. government’s list of state sponsors of terrorism since 1984. Among the groups it supports that the U.S. considers terrorist are the Palestinian group Hamas, the Lebanese organization Hezbollah and one of the Shiite militias in Iraq. Iran considers these groups fighters in righteous causes. In addition, Iran-backed forces in Syria have been cited by some U.S. officials as a reason for the Pentagon to maintain a presence in the war-torn country.

9. How’s Iran respond to talk of limiting it further?

In a tweet on April 23, Zarif said there’s no “Plan B” for the nuclear agreement. “It’s either all or nothing,” he wrote, saying that European leaders including Macron should encourage Trump to stay in the deal and “begin implementing his part of the bargain in good faith.”

The Reference Shelf

  • A QuickTake explainer of the Iran deal.
  • A guide to the Iran nuclear deal by the Belfer Center.
  • A Federation of American Scientists overview of the effectiveness of applying sanctions on Iranian nuclear facilities.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.