Newsha Tavakolian/Magnum Photos

Iranians celebrating on the streets of Tehran following the announcement of the nuclear deal, July 2015

When President Trump withdrew the United States last May from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear deal concluded in 2015 between Iran and the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany), and reimposed US economic sanctions in August, the potential consequences for the Middle East were immediately clear. Iran might eventually react by resuming the nuclear enrichment activities that had spurred the signatories to negotiate the deal. That, in turn, could provoke attacks on Iran by the United States, Israel, or both, possibly in coordination with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Asserting that it was merely implementing the will of the international community, the US–Israel–Sunni coalition would attempt to destroy Iran’s nuclear-related infrastructure.

The neutralization of Iran’s air and shore defenses to clear a safe path for the assault would require highly destructive attacks far beyond the sustained air campaign needed to eliminate its dispersed, currently deactivated, nuclear installations: the heavy-water plant at Arak, the uranium hexafluoride storage facility at Natanz, and the deep underground centrifuge cascades within the mountain at Fordow. The targets would also likely include military bases where the United States suspects that nuclear work is being carried out as well as research, development, and testing facilities for ballistic missiles. These would not be pinprick attacks. They could continue for days or even weeks as damage assessments were conducted and further strikes ensured that there was nothing left of the installations but rubble.

Given the vast disparity between US combat power and that of its regional allies and Iran, it is certainly possible that Iran’s leaders would choose not to resist militarily and would instead seek to exploit the attacks as unprovoked aggression to gain European, Russian, and Chinese diplomatic support and perhaps even the reconstitution of its civil nuclear infrastructure. This would at least avoid a regional war. The United States could be isolated diplomatically, but for the Trump administration that would scarcely constitute punishment. And although Iran would probably move as quickly as possible toward a renewed nuclear capability, the success of the first round of strikes would give the attackers confidence in their ability to eliminate it again.

It is equally possible that Iran would resist militarily despite its inferior capabilities. Its options are ample. There are many American civilians in Iraq, in addition to the 5,200 US military personnel deployed there in support of Iraqi forces, and they would be vulnerable to Iranian retaliation. Indeed, Tehran must already be configuring its assets in Iraq to facilitate a rapid response to a US attack. With the formation of a new government in Baghdad now underway following the Iraqi national elections in May, it has the opportunity to press for the appointment of ministers with strong links to Iran who would be inclined to help it strike US targets in Iraq. Iran is capable of carrying out attacks on American personnel in Afghanistan and Syria as well. It could press Lebanon’s Hezbollah to attack targets in Israel, encourage Houthi missile attacks against Saudi Arabia from Yemen, and strike both Saudi Arabia and the UAE with cruise missiles.

Terrorism is also an option: the Iranian-backed attack against the US Air Force housing complex in Khobar, Saudi Arabia, twenty-two years ago took place at a time of similar tensions between the two countries. Congress was debating the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act and had revived the Iran Freedom Support Act after two failed attempts at passage, and the Clinton administration had issued executive orders tightening sanctions on Iran. It was also engaged in a vigorous diplomatic effort to persuade Iran’s trading partners to cut commercial links.

Any of these Iranian actions would demand a US or allied military response. Given the tenor of the Trump administration—and the assertive posture of its allies toward Iran—escalation would be inevitable and aimed at some sort of victory. The resulting spiral, if uncontrolled, would culminate in US attacks against Iranian regime targets and “instruments of regime control”—that is, the internal security services that keep the regime secure and suppress dissent. No one knows exactly how this would play out. If past is prologue, the US would win militarily but find it hard to convert operational victory into a durable political success. In any case, the cost to all the combatants would be high.

War with the Islamic Republic, however, is not the only possible result of the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal. Iranian president Hassan Rouhani has been neutered politically by his failure to deliver relief from economic sanctions. His successor, when the next presidential election is held in 2021, could be someone to his right, such as Saeed Jalili, a former secretary to Iran’s Supreme National Security Council and adamant advocate of nuclear power. If so, the US will have achieved regime change in Iran, just not the kind it was aiming for.


Trump’s advisers, however, believe that a combustible mix of Iranian economic decline, widespread contempt for the clerical regime apparent in nationwide protests, and indiscriminate government repression will produce an uprising that sweeps away the forty-year legacy of the Islamic Revolution. In the best case, from the administration’s perspective, the disruptive effect of sanctions on a mismanaged economy and plunging currency will suffice to provoke rebellion. The use of military force in response to Iran’s resumption of its nuclear program would add to pressure on the regime by demonstrating its vulnerability and encourage popular resistance by signaling the possibility of US support for anti-regime violence. If a new Iranian regime were secular and pro-American, it would be swiftly embraced by the West and integrated into a peaceful regional order. This is a stirring vision. But the logic behind it implicitly equates a tough regime backed by the Revolutionary Guard Corps with that of the Shah, whose will to power crumbled in the face of enormous demonstrations and whose military deserted him in the crisis.

Other consequences could include difficulty in negotiating future arms control or nonproliferation agreements, as a result of Trump’s dismissal of the JCPOA as a “political agreement” binding only on the administration that signed it; the weakening of the transatlantic alliance against the backdrop of a resurgent Russia; the risk of regional nuclear proliferation should Iran, unconstrained by the JCPOA, sprint for a bomb; the strengthening of China and Russia; and the erosion of the dollar as a reserve currency as a result of secondary sanctions imposed by the Trump administration on firms that violate US sanctions on Iran.

Before the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal, the transatlantic alliance was fraying but still viable. This diagnosis is now subject to change. Walking away from the agreement was a grave affront to the European governments that had worked hard to negotiate it. For the British, French, and Germans, the JCPOA transcended a mere technical arrangement regulating Iran’s nuclear program. It was a symbol of a new European ability and determination to alter the course of international developments in a way that served a serious, shared interest. Even though the pact was primarily between the United States and Iran, Europeans spoke of the JCPOA with pride, in part because it was such an unlikely achievement given the mistrust among the parties, the staggering complexity of the diplomatic coordination involved in establishing a P5+1 position, the intricacy of the technical issues, and the high bar the P5+1 set for an acceptable outcome. For Germany, participation confirmed its status as a European power with global interests.

Thus American rejection of the JCPOA was not simply a matter of discarding an agreement with Iran; it was a repudiation of a European effort to realize its ambitions, demonstrate competence, and embrace a coherent identity just as powerfully entropic forces were jeopardizing these goals. The far right is ascendant in Italy, Greece, Poland, Hungary, Slovenia, and the Czech Republic. The United Kingdom’s planned withdrawal from the European Union has weakened the political center. Right-wing parties in Europe are better organized and more adroit at neutralizing the center-left as well as the center-right than their counterparts in the United States, which has devoured the center-right while invigorating the left.

As the political scientist Ivan Krastev shows in After Europe (2017), the principal attribute of contemporary right-wing governments in Hungary, Poland, Italy, and Austria is that they ground their legitimacy in opposition to Brussels. They have two mobilizing issues with which to bludgeon their liberal opponents: austerity and immigration. Germany, under Angela Merkel, is paralyzed by its deep commitment to austerity and openness to refugees.1 Inspired by the British Conservative Party’s obliteration of the Independence Party, her center-right base sees its best option for undermining the far-right Alternative für Deutschland as appropriating its anti-immigration platform. French President Emmanuel Macron is in a more secure position, which is why he has been so outspoken in methodically pursuing a UK-French-German initiative to sustain the JCPOA in the face of American animus. He is unlikely to have any better luck in London than in Berlin, however, given the UK’s astonishing political disarray and its incapacity to orchestrate any meaningful diplomatic initiatives, including its exit from the EU.

All three countries face yet another stumbling block in the form of Trump’s support for the Continent’s surging right. The US ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, a former Fox News commentator, prompted German politicians’ calls for his expulsion by declaring, “I absolutely want to empower other conservatives throughout Europe, other leaders. I think there is a groundswell of conservative policies that are taking hold because of the failed policies of the left,” and cheerleading for Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz, a fierce critic of Merkel’s immigration policy, as a “rock star.” (In a tweet after Trump announced the US withdrawal from the JCPOA, Grenell also said that German firms should wind down their business in Iran immediately.)


In the meantime, the Trump administration is encouraging the European right through its surrogate Steve Bannon. In France, onstage with National Rally president Marine Le Pen in March, he exhorted his audience to “let them call you racist, xenophobes, nativists, homophobes, misogynists—wear it as a badge of honor!” In Prague, he declared the postwar international order to be a “fetish.” In Hungary, he praised Viktor Orbán. And then there is the American president himself, who disparaged NATO as playing the US for “schmucks” and the EU as “brutal” to the US, made a mockery of the G-7 summit, slapped EU states with tariffs on steel, aluminum, and an array of lesser imports, withdrew from the Paris Climate Accord, and has embraced Russia as a de facto ally even though it overtly threatens European security. The Trump administration is clearly trying to drive a wedge between France, Germany, and the UK, on the one hand, and the rest of Europe on the other. The effort is paying off. Jeremy Shapiro, research director at the European Council on Foreign Relations, notes that the Poles and Italians regard Trump as their shield against Berlin and Brussels. This perception is likely to spread.

In this already toxic situation, it’s difficult to say how much transatlanticism will suffer as a result of US withdrawal from the JCPOA. But it could get worse. If the EU follows through on its current commitment to the JCPOA in the hope of keeping Iran corralled, it will eventually have to grapple with the imposition of secondary US sanctions on European firms dealing with Iran. Total, Airbus, and Fiat, for example, have major deals with Iran that were signed upon the suspension of economic sanctions under the JCPOA. The EU can retaliate against these secondary sanctions by sanctioning US firms operating in Europe. But Brussels cannot effectively indemnify European firms that do business in dollars or in the United States.

This subjugation will be difficult for the EU to endure. French finance minister Bruno Le Maire, referring to the US as the “world’s economic policeman,” asked, “Do we want to be vassals who obey decisions taken by the United States while clinging to the hem of their trousers? Or do we want to say we have our economic interests, we consider we will continue to do trade with Iran?” His preferred answers are, of course, No and Yes. But the questions are probably moot, given the pressures the US can bring to bear. In all likelihood, European business interests in the United States will ultimately outweigh countervailing interests in Iran, and the JCPOA will collapse.

The effect of US withdrawal from the JCPOA on future arms control and nonproliferation agreements is tricky to predict. It would be fair to assume that reneging on the deal is unlikely to enhance the United States’ reputation for integrity. In the near term, the North Koreans do not seem to have focused on the US withdrawal from the JCPOA at all. Yet when National Security Adviser John Bolton pointed to the “Libya model” as the organizing principle for the US approach to denuclearization talks with North Korea, the response was swift and censorious. Whatever Bolton thought he was referring to, Kim Jong-un saw Muammar Qaddafi tortured to death in a drain ditch. Clearly, the US has won a reputation for pursuing regime change at the point of a bayonet.

From a North Korean perspective, though, Washington already had a reputation for walking away from deals. George W. Bush unilaterally abandoned the 1994 Agreed Framework negotiated by the Clinton administration, dashing North Korean confidence in America’s reliability. That agreement had frozen North Korea’s operation and construction of reactors that the US had concluded were components of a secret nuclear weapons program. In return, the North Koreans were to get two reactors whose fuel would be difficult to reprocess into weapons-grade nuclear material and, until these were up and running, fuel oil to sustain their economy. Experts estimate that in the absence of the Agreed Framework North Korea would have had hundreds of nuclear bombs by now, not the thirty to sixty it has fabricated since Bush abandoned the agreement.

When the Bush administration took office and set up its Korea policy review, however, it learned that North Korea was covertly experimenting with uranium enrichment. It could have demanded a halt to enrichment activity while keeping the constraints of the Agreed Framework in place. But for Bolton, then a high-ranking figure in the Bush State Department, the choice was clear: “This was the hammer I had been looking for,” he later wrote, “to shatter the Agreed Framework.”2 His candor would undoubtedly have made an impression in Pyongyang. While withdrawal from the JCPOA has no doubt registered, the fate of the Agreed Framework and, more recently, White House talk about Libya probably weigh more heavily in North Korean calculations regarding Trump’s trustworthiness.

Assessing the broader and longer-term effect of withdrawal from the JCPOA is hard because diplomatic arms control and nonproliferation efforts have been enervated for decades. Since the mid-1990s new agreements, let alone treaties, have been increasingly elusive. The Senate, for example, refused to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (1996), and the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (known as New START) was ratified in 2010 only because its ambitions were so limited. It would clearly not have countenanced the JCPOA in treaty form. This record suggests that Trump, having promised a treaty to North Korea, may have inadvertently set up his initiative for failure. The sour congressional reaction to the Singapore Joint Statement could hardly be called encouraging. The Senate seems no more likely to approve a treaty with North Korea than with Iran or Russia. Trump himself, in withdrawing from the JCPOA, has demonstrated the worthlessness of the only alternative—an executive agreement.

China, the most obvious partner for a future arms control agreement, has set two preconditions that will never be met by the US or Russia. The first is that the size of China’s nuclear weapons stockpile should constitute the approximate ceiling for Russian and US inventories. China has only about 260 weapons, while the US has 6,800 and Russia 7,000, and neither would agree to such a huge reduction. China’s other precondition is that India be included in any agreement, but New Delhi would insist that Islamabad be included as well. So whatever effect the JCPOA withdrawal has had on Beijing’s strategic calculations won’t be reflected in an arms control agreement. Russia is not a candidate either, given Vladimir Putin’s renewed emphasis on nuclear weapons in Russia’s overall military strategy and insistence on limits to ballistic missile defenses and “Prompt Global Strike,” the US plan for conventionally armed ICBMs, which Washington has rejected. US claims that Russia is cheating on its obligations under the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty also appear to be an insuperable obstacle to ratification of a new START treaty.

Other potential proliferators, such as Syria, Libya, or Iraq, have been either crushed or disarmed, so there is little prospect that broader perceptions of US perfidy in the Iranian case will matter very much in future arms control negotiations with them. The most likely potential proliferators—Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Japan, and South Korea—are more or less in the US camp. The Trump administration does not appear to be focused on limiting the capabilities of its allies, or for that matter forestalling their desire for nonconventional weapons by promising the protection of the US nuclear deterrent.

This rather bland appraisal of the effect of withdrawal from the JCPOA on future arms control agreements, however, should not be reassuring. If Trump’s decision does lead to the pact’s collapse, it will have seriously damaged the credibility of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) just before the next Review Conference in 2020. The Iran nuclear deal was ultimately grounded in Iran’s adherence to the NPT and included an Additional Protocol that required Iran to submit to unusually intrusive inspections, as well as in the authority of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which conducts the monitoring. The negotiation of the JCPOA clearly reaffirmed both Iran’s NPT commitments and the legitimacy of IAEA inspections. By contrast, the United States’ withdrawal from the JCPOA has subverted the NPT, leaving force the default option.

Ali Shaigan/Fars News Agency/AP Images

Iranian clerics in front of air defense rockets during war games in Arak, Iran, November 2009

A nuclear-armed Iran was long thought to be the catalyst for proliferation on the Arab side of the Gulf. Experts have questioned this conventional wisdom for several reasons.3 A nuclear fuel cycle is extremely difficult to engineer, build, and maintain. Fabricating a weapon with the enriched uranium or plutonium produced by the fuel cycle is yet another immense challenge. And having weaponized the fuel, there remains the task of reducing the size of the “physics package” to fit on a missile and harden it enough to survive reentry into the atmosphere. For the handful of states that have succeeded in creating a stockpile of deliverable nuclear weapons, the effort has been sustained, intensive, immensely expensive, and generally reliant on outside help. On the Arabian Peninsula the money is ample, but the expertise and technological infrastructure are not. Ironically, the decision to go for a bomb would be complicated by the multilateral measures put in place over the last decade to hinder Iran’s nuclear program. Furthermore, the A.Q. Khan network that aided regional nuclear efforts has been shut down, while North Korean assistance would presumably be curtailed as long as negotiations with the United States were going on.

Although the Saudis have contended that nuclear power is economically essential and have negotiated with a range of suppliers, they have moved slowly until now. Under a new leader, this could change. In an attempt to transform the kingdom, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has proceeded aggressively, especially in security matters. Under his command, Saudi forces are engaged in Yemen and the kingdom has put itself forward as a bulwark against Iran. In March, he said, “Saudi Arabia does not want to acquire any nuclear bomb, but without a doubt if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible.”4 That the Saudis have wanted to preserve the nuclear weapons option is evident from their unwillingness to agree to a US prohibition on enrichment as a condition for the transfer of American nuclear technology. The crown prince’s declaration does not magically erase the obstacles to a nuclear weapons capability. But his resources, determination, and pattern of risk-taking behavior could propel Saudi Arabia toward a nuclear capability faster than expected. It is not certain that the Trump administration would object.

Finally, unilateral American sanctions on Iran could produce an economic boomerang effect. Successive US administrations have relied on sanctions in the absence of other coercive alternatives to the use of force. In most cases, they are counterproductive. They strengthen authoritarian regimes and punish ordinary people. But they satisfy the need to be seen to be doing something to defend US interests where the will to fight for them is tenuous or the stakes are not that high. Under some conditions they can also be effective, as they were against Iran in the years preceding Tehran’s agreement to negotiate stringent limits on its nuclear program. The sanctions were especially punitive because they were multilateral, and Iran had no way to evade them. Domestic political circumstances made sanctions relief essential, the election of the moderate Hassan Rouhani as president provided an opening, and the Obama administration was prepared to deal.

But Trump also intends to levy sanctions against countries that violate US unilateral sanctions against Iran. These measures could be extremely effective since international transactions are largely denominated in dollars. Trump has been clear that the US will enforce sanctions on any country that, for example, buys Iranian oil by seizing its US-based assets and barring it from doing business in the US.

This will probably work in the short term. Over the long term, nations will develop countermeasures. Most obviously, they will shift incrementally and slowly toward other currencies for trading purposes, probably the euro or the renminbi. The Chinese are already establishing companies whose only trading partner is Iran. The Germans are thinking of doing the same.5 Dollars would not be a factor in these arrangements nor would there be US-based assets for Washington to hold hostage. Other countries would have an incentive to follow suit.

As China becomes the champion of free trade and the US bows out of multilateral trade pacts, while using its power over transactions in dollars as a weapon against Iran’s trading partners, including US treaty allies, the advantages of the dollar as a reserve currency will slowly shrink. This is not necessarily a bad thing from a purely economic perspective, and to some extent international reliance on the dollar has been declining already, albeit in small steps. From a foreign policy perspective, however, the emergence of rival currencies chips away at American influence. It’s worth recalling that British sterling was a reserve currency for a century and then, rather suddenly, it was not.

The postwar liberal order had many elements: cultural, economic, strategic. US leadership inspired and energized these elements. In some situations, American involvement was disastrous, as it was for millions of Vietnamese. For Eastern Europeans dominated by the Soviet Union, the postwar order was not liberal at all, a dispensation in which the US declined to intervene because of forbidding strategic circumstances. Yet over the course of decades and a vast geographic area, the liberal order fostered by the US elevated billions from extreme poverty and created a model for broad political participation and freedom of expression.

Alliances led by the US proved durable because its allies did not fear it. And this encouraged the adoption of trading and security systems based on negotiated rules that the US, despite its hegemonic status, played by more often than not. Until now, every US administration since Franklin Roosevelt’s had attempted, some more adroitly than others, to reinforce this liberal order. A global loss of belief and confidence in that order has been growing since the end of the cold war. Yet the American withdrawal from the JCPOA is so striking because it reflects not just the abandonment of this order but its systematic annihilation, and with it the end of US international leadership and the relative stability that it secured.

—August 29, 2018