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5 years after Trump's withdrawal from the Iran deal, international diplomacy remains vital to US and global interests.

5 Years On: Where Trump’s Iran Deal Exit Leaves Us Now

The state of Iran's nuclear program and international diplomacy after Trump's withdrawal.

In 2018, President Trump unilaterally abandoned the Iran deal, promising that his “maximum pressure” approach of new sanctions and an aggressive military posture was a better strategy to stop Iran’s nuclear program, weaken its hardline leaders and protect American interests in the region.

Five years later, his withdrawal is widely seen as a major failure. 

“Iran has more nuclear material than ever before, launched direct strikes on American targets and our allies, and now has an even more brutal and repressive officials terrorizing its own citizens,” said Dylan Williams, VP of Policy and Strategy at J Street. 

“By every metric, we were in a better place when we were engaged diplomatically with Iran, had imposed strict limits on their nuclear program, and had international monitoring equipment and an unprecedented verification regime working around the clock,” Williams said. 

Before and After: What Iran’s Nuclear Program Looks Like Today

The Obama-brokered agreement, which provided sanctions relief in exchange for verifiably blocking each of Iran’s paths to a nuclear weapon, included a complete ban on highly enriched and weapons-grade uranium.

Since President Trump’s exit, Iran has resumed stockpiling material that was banned under the agreement, with current stockpiles of this more highly enriched uranium in excess of one metric ton.

That includes 1,000 kilograms of uranium enriched above 20% and 70 kilograms of uranium enriched to 60%. Concerningly, in February 2023, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported that it had detected particles enriched to 83.7% – alarmingly close to the 90% threshold that’s considered “weapons-grade.” 

Under President Obama’s nuclear agreement, Iran was blocked from enriching any uranium above 3.67% – a threshold considered adequate for civilian energy programs.

The original agreement imposed strict monitoring, inspection and verification measures to ensure compliance, including access to all nuclear facilities, the entire nuclear supply chain, and cameras in facilities 24/7. 

Since Trump left the deal, Iran has switched off dozens of cameras, leaving the IAEA struggling to gain the level of information on Iran’s nuclear activities guaranteed under the original deal. After ongoing negotiations with the IAEA, Iran has switched some cameras back on and reconnected online monitoring systems.

Following the restrictions of Obama’s original deal, it would have taken Iran 12 months or more to enrich enough fissile material to build a nuclear weapon if they chose to break the agreement and make a ‘dash’ toward that amount of weapons-grade uranium. That window of time, known as “breakout time,” is now significantly shorter following Trump’s withdrawal. 

According to General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Iran’s stockpiles and advancing technical abilities have narrowed that breakout time to a matter of days, should they decide to dash toward a bomb.

“Iran could produce fissile material for a nuclear weapon in less than two weeks,” Milley told Congress in March 2023, “and would only take several more months to produce an actual nuclear weapon.” 

International negotiators also imposed restrictions on specific nuclear sites and the number and types of enrichment centrifuges Iran could possess. 

Since Trump left the deal, Iran has revived higher levels of uranium enrichment production at three facilities and built new nuclear infrastructure

Where to Next?

Following President Trump’s exit from the nuclear deal – and international negotiations to restore the deal floundering in an atmosphere of broken trust – there are now much narrower options for containing Iran’s nuclear program. 

Hawkish voices in the United States and Israel have suggested military strikes to thwart Iran’s weapon program, though with Iran’s increasing sophistication and array of underground facilities, that may prove a challenge. American voters are also deeply wary of starting yet another military engagement in the Middle East, especially one that regional security experts have said would risk engulfing the entire region into chaos.

“Military confrontation would be catastrophic,” wrote Council on Foreign Relations experts Julien Barnes-Dacey and Ellie Geranmayeh in Foreign Policy. “War would have significant and counterproductive consequences for the West, Israel, Iran’s neighbors and the Iranian people.”

Recently, world leaders have expressed increased willingness to return to a diplomatic path to help reduce tensions and block Iran’s nuclear weapon program.

After an enduring stalemate between the US and Iran, officials from the two countries reportedly held indirect talks in Oman last month. These are the first known indirect engagements between the two parties in several months. 

Thomas Countryman, Chairman of the Arms Control Association, said that Biden’s only route to avoid a nuclear crisis with Iran is through another version of the Iran deal.

Iran’s activities which threaten American interests in the region, its provision of drones to Russia for use in Ukraine, its brutal response to peaceful protests and its lack of transparency “all point to a regime that views itself as having run out of good options,” Countryman wrote in a recent editorial for The Hill.

“If the [Iranian] government perceives further provocation with no exit strategy on the table, what — absent a new, sustained diplomatic push — is to stop it from racing for the bomb as a tool of last resort?” he wrote. “Direct or indirect engagement with Iran is not a matter of trusting the regime, it is about having the political courage to use diplomacy to prevent the twin horrors of an Iranian nuclear arsenal and a new Middle East war.” 

A diplomatic approach to stopping Iran’s nuclear program continues to have widespread support among Americans — including over 78% of all voters and 83% of Democrats.

It’s an approach the Biden administration continues to pursue.

“We will continue to send a clear message about the costs and consequences of going too far,” said President Biden’s National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan, “while at the same time continuing to seek the possibility of a diplomatically brokered outcome that puts Iran’s nuclear program back in the box.”

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