A handout satellite image shows Iran's Natanz nuclear facility after a fire on July 8, 2020.

A handout satellite image shows Iran's Natanz nuclear facility after a fire on July 8, 2020. MAXAR TECHNOLOGIES

Gaslighting Can’t Obscure Trump’s Iran Failures

The Biden administration must make a firm break from Trump’s approach and restore the status quo ante.

Among the self-congratulatory tweets that might be Mike Pompeo’s take on a farewell address, the outgoing Secretary of State has spiked the football on Iran. “We have stood with the Iranian people,” Pompeo tweeted on Jan. 12. We sanctioned their oppressors...Beyond a shadow of a doubt #MaximumPressureWorks.” 

As one of “the most sycophantic and obsequious people around Trump,” Pompeo has learned directly from the President on how to gaslight the American public. Facts can’t be allowed to intrude on his swaggering campaign to cover up the embarrassment of four years of failure. 

The rest of the world, however, can look at the facts. By nearly every measure, the decision to leave the Iran nuclear deal—formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action—has backfired against U.S. interests. This underscores the urgency of revitalizing the accord, as both President Elect Biden and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani appear intent on doing.

From Implementation Day in January 2016 until May 2019, a year after the Trump administration withdrew from the JCPOA, Iran adhered to its nuclear obligations as verified by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Uranium enrichment was limited to the facility at Natanz, Iran’s enriched uranium stockpile was capped and limited to low levels. The IAEA, as well, had expansive access to Iran’s nuclear program, monitoring progress in real time and conducting dozens of “complementary access” visits each year under the Additional Protocol to verify information or investigate unresolved issues. 

While Trump promised to work with allies on “a real, comprehensive, and lasting solution to the Iranian nuclear threat,” his withdrawal caused a major break with our former negotiating partners while unraveling hard-fought diplomatic gains. Responding to the administration’s violations of the accord, Iran halted its own compliance with various limits under the deal. Iran has resumed uranium enrichment at the deeply buried Fordow site, blown past limits on its stockpile, and recently resumed enrichment to 20 percent for the first time since 2013, before the interim nuclear deal struck under the Obama administration. Iran’s breakout time—the time it would take Iran to enrich sufficient fissile material for a single nuclear weapon—has dropped from over a year under the JCPOA to a few months. Moreover, Iran’s parliament has mandated limits on IAEA inspector access and ever-growing stockpiles of uranium if the U.S. fails to return to the deal.

On nonproliferation, Trump’s approach has been an abject failure. But the damage doesn’t stop there.

Obama administration officials made clear that the JCPOA was a nuclear agreement only, and not intended to solve the many remaining disputes between Iran, the U.S. and various regional actors. Despite a false narrative that the deal led to expansionism, Iran’s regional activities remained largely unchanged amid sanctions relief. While Tehran continued to back the Assad government and gradually deepened its support for Houthi rebels in Yemen, Iran also loosely coordinated with the U.S. coalition to roll back ISIS in Iraq. Moreover, the preponderance of Iran’s economic relief was not spent on military adventurism abroad, but rather on civil and domestic infrastructure.

Trump, meanwhile, said in exiting the deal that the U.S. would “block” Iran’s “menacing activity across the Middle East.” But while Iran’s regional activity remained largely unchanged under the JCPOA, few would dispute that it has become more problematic under maximum pressure. Iran has been linked to a series of asymmetric strikes to push back on the U.S. and regional partners and deter a strike on its homeland under Trump’s watch. Trump’s team itself blamed Iran for sabotaging oil tankers in the Persian Gulf and a daring strike on Saudi oil facilities using cruise missiles. Similarly, the U.S. nearly went to war with Iran after a U.S. drone was downed in 2019, and again last year after the U.S. ordered the assassination of Qassem Soleimani. And while U.S.- and Iran-linked forces operated in close proximity to roll back ISIS under the JCPOA, Iraq has more recently become a major flashpoint for U.S.-Iran tensions, with Shia militias routinely firing mortars and rockets at U.S. targets. Once again, Trump’s approach has delivered worse results for regional security.

The U.S. should be humble regarding its ability to favorably manipulate politics in other countries, particularly given the long-term repercussions that followed the overthrow of Iran’s democratically elected government in 1953. However, it appears impossible to dismiss that America’s reversal on the JCPOA did longlasting damage to the Iranian people and the cause of internal moderation in Iran.

Many hoped that the nuclear deal would allow, over time, further diplomatic agreements and a reduction to the repressive security environment in Iran. This notion was never truly tested: the deal was only implemented for a year before Trump assumed office, began undermining the deal, and started lobbing threats at Iran. However, moderates did make significant gains amid the deal’s implementation. Most notably, moderates and reformists triumphed in the 2016 parliamentary elections, with a reformist-backed slate securing victory in all 30 seats allocated to Tehran. The next year, Rouhani squared off against a hardline candidate in Ebrahim Raisi, and defeated him decisively and won a mandate to continue his moderate approach.

The decision to withdraw from the deal and impose crushing sanctions on Iran reversed these dynamics, undermining moderates who had made consistent but methodical gains under the JCPOA while vindicating hardliners who warned the U.S. could not be trusted. Far from topple the regime or force it to bend the knee, these sanctions decimated ordinary Iranians who suffered from skyrocketing inflation and unemployment even before the onset of pandemic. In an almost mirror image of 2016, last year’s parliamentary elections delivered a sweep for conservatives and hardliners, including in Tehran that had backed reformists four years ago. Rouhani’s image has been tarnished, while Raisi has been appointed head of the powerful judiciary, where he has started to repair his reputation by launching an anti-corruption campaign. Many observers expect a hardliner, or at least a Rouhani critic, to secure the Presidency in Iran’s June elections— particularly if the JCPOA remains in tatters.

Again, maximum pressure appears to have helped shift the political pendulum in Iran away from moderates who led negotiations over the country’s nuclear program toward those advocating resistance abroad and a hard line on internal dissent, working against America’s ability to secure concessions from Iran through diplomacy.

Undoubtedly, the architects of Trump’s foreign policy will want it to continue. However, that approach has delivered nothing but failure, as Iran’s nuclear program has advanced, threats to America’s security in the Middle East have grown and hardliners appear poised for further gains in Iran’s domestic politics. There is no easy offramp from an approach that risks nuclear proliferation and war, save one: the incoming Biden administration must make a firm break from Trump’s approach and restore the status quo ante. This will necessitate a swift push to restore U.S. compliance with the JCPOA, then build on it through follow-on negotiations.