Trump and nuclear Iran: What has the president gotten right or wrong

18 months after he pulled the US out of the 2015 nuclear deal: tactical successes, but apparent failure to stop Tehran's march toward a nuclear weapon.

US President Donald Trump announces his intention to withdraw from the JCPOA Iran nuclear agreement during a statement in the Diplomatic Room at the White House in Washington, US, May 8, 2018 (photo credit: REUTERS/JONATHAN ERNST)
US President Donald Trump announces his intention to withdraw from the JCPOA Iran nuclear agreement during a statement in the Diplomatic Room at the White House in Washington, US, May 8, 2018
Three years into his presidency, 18 months after he pulled the US out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and six months after he ended sanctions waivers, we have a pretty good idea of what President Donald Trump has gotten right on the nuclear standoff with Iran and what he has gotten wrong.
In one line, Trump has succeeded in winning many tactical battles, but appears to be consistently failing at stopping Iran’s slow but steady march toward a nuclear weapon.
On the one hand, Trump gets accolades from much of the Israeli defense establishment for his maximum pressure campaign on Iran, including from officials such as former IDF chief Gadi Eisenkot, who might otherwise not be his natural supporters.
They say that once Trump snapped sanctions back onto Iran, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Hezbollah and some Iranian allies in Iraq started to feel the economic squeeze.
Many people attribute the protests against Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Iraqi government to the success of the Trump pressure campaign in reducing the legitimacy of the Islamic republic’s radical adventurism in the region as well as that of its proxies.
Supporters of Trump’s Iran policy also note that the European Union has finally regained some backbone as France, England and Germany have called on the UN to condemn Tehran next week for its ballistic missile program.
Although, after the 2015 nuclear deal, the EU – and the US under the Obama administration – largely turned a blind eye to Iran’s ballistic missile program, now there is finally some pressure to crack down on it.
The ballistic missile program is a hot-button issue, since it was technically exempted from the 2015 deal’s punitive provisions, based on Iran’s claim that the missiles are only for defense.
Israel, the Trump administration and now finally the EU, have pointed out that the ballistic missiles can be dual-use for nuclear warheads, so that testing those missiles moves Iran close to being able to deliver a nuclear weapon. They also note that the program violates broader UN resolutions, though technically there are currently no specific, punitive provisions for these violations.
Finally, the US-Israel confrontational approach, including a Mossad operation in 2018 revealing new nuclear sites, has moved the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) somewhat into confronting Iran about its Turquzabad nuclear facility and about traces of undisclosed nuclear material which the agency found there.  
So Trump has gotten many things right about Iran.
BUT ON THE most crucial point – actually stopping the Islamic republic from getting nuclear weapons – he may be failing.
While the regime in Tehran is under pressure, it is nowhere near to be falling. Its proxies are under pressure, but are still making trouble.
The Islamic republic has used US actions as an excuse to violate the nuclear deal four times since May, and is expected to violate the deal again in the coming weeks.
These violations include enriching more uranium, enriching it to higher levels, activating more advanced centrifuges and some reduced cooperation with the IAEA, among other issues.
David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, told The Jerusalem Post that these violations have collectively brought Iran several months closer to a bomb than it was in May – and Albright was not a fan of the JCPOA.
He warned that if Tehran restarts a significant number of its IR-2m centrifuges (more advanced than the standard IR-1s), the time to make enough enriched nuclear material for a bomb could quickly drop to six months.
Bottom line: Iran is closer to a nuclear bomb now than it was in May, and may be closer than it would have been had Trump not pulled out of the deal.
In the midst of this deterioration, most observers also believe that Trump’s deterrence against Iran suffered after he failed to respond with even just a targeted use of force to the Islamic republic’s shooting down of an expensive US drone and Tehran’s striking Saudi oil fields.
These more aggressive activities by Iran were also likely brought on by the Trump pressure campaign – though in fairness to the president, Tehran was also getting away with arresting US sailors under the Obama administration without much consequence.
There are also warnings that Trump may seek to cut a new, weak deal to save face and get a good photo-op for his reelection campaign.
How did it come to this? What went wrong for Trump on Iran, despite some notable tactical successes?
THE OBAMA administration sealed the 2015 nuclear deal, making a number of bets. Its bet – that Iran would start behaving better to rejoin the world as a more normal actor – was wrong, and part of what Trump’s change in policy was designed to address.
But another bet the Obama administration made seems to have been correct: that they could only retain Chinese and Russian support for pressuring Iran up to a certain point.
Some in the Obama administration revealed quite frankly in the years after the deal that they might have liked to have pushed for a better deal in some areas, but believed that they would have lost Chinese and Russian support. They said that without that support, Iran would no longer be pressured.
When Trump pulled out of the deal and then ended sanctions waivers, he made the opposite gamble: that he could force China and Russia to toe the line longer than Obama did, to force Iran into cutting a better deal.
It now seems clear that Trump’s gamble on this issue was wrong.
China has periodically cut back business with Iran for months at a time, but has always counter-rallied to continue importing oil from the Islamic republic at some later date.
Likewise, Beijing has rescinded some very important public deals with Tehran, but has made a variety of off-the-books or untraceable economic deals with Iran to keep it afloat despite US pressure.
For example, China at one point reduced its purchasing of Iranian oil to almost zero, only to jump it later back up to 800,000 barrels per day in April.
China then briefly dialed down its purchasing of Iranian oil again after the US ended sanctions waivers in May, but has steadily increased back to 186,000 barrels per day, and is expected to continue increasing the oil imports.
There are also reportedly around 20 million barrels of Iranian oil in bonded storage off the Chinese coast, and Beijing and Tehran are using goods to effectuate trade that do not leave footprints the way currency transfers do.
Earlier this week, Iran announced that Russia would be extending to it a $5 billion loan.
Moscow also continues to be involved in a variety of aspects directly supporting Iran’s nuclear program, and Albright warned that it may even be giving Iranian scientists additional know-how that it is prohibited from giving.
As long as China and Russia have Khamenei’s back, it is very likely that Iran can ride-out the Trump pressure campaign just as it has for the last 18 months.
If Tehran no longer believes that Trump is willing to use military force against it, then there is also no reason for it not to continue creeping closer to the nuclear threshold.
This would leave Israel as the only party that could possibly block Iran with a military strike on the Islamic republic’s nuclear facilities.
All of this could come to a head in 2020 – whereas, if the nuclear deal had continued, it might not have come to a head until 2023, 2025 or even a bit later.
Some will argue that it was better to confront Iran earlier so that it could not “walk-out” to a nuclear weapon at the end of the 2015 nuclear deal, because the deal’s sunset provisions put no real limits on Tehran once it expires.
Whether this is true, the fact is that Trump’s notable tactical successes on Iran do not cover the strategic failure and, absent a major new development, the day when Israel will need to make its own fateful decision continues to creep closer.