Tillerson’s Exit Could Doom the Iran Nuclear Deal

The accord's survival was already tenuous. But after Trump's Cabinet shakeup, it's likely to end.

Outgoing U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson making a statement on his departure at the State Department in Washington, D.C. on March 13. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Outgoing U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson making a statement on his departure at the State Department in Washington, D.C. on March 13. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

President Donald Trump’s sacking of his top diplomat, Rex Tillerson, signals America’s likely withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement, and raises the risk of a possible military confrontation with the regime in Tehran.

The future of the Iran deal was already in serious doubt after Trump issued an ultimatum in January, warning he would pull the United States out of the accord unless European allies or Congress managed to “fix the deal’s disastrous flaws.”

But by picking CIA Director Mike Pompeo, an avowed Iran hawk, to succeed Tillerson as secretary of state, Trump sent a clear message that Washington was hardening its stance as a May 12 deadline approaches for the possible reimposition of U.S. sanctions.

Talking to reporters Tuesday about his decision, Trump cited his disagreement with Tillerson over the Iran nuclear agreement as an example of how the outgoing secretary of state had “a different mindset” than his own.

“When you look at the Iran deal, I think it’s terrible. I guess he thought it was okay…. So we were not really thinking the same,” Trump said before departing for California.

In recent weeks, Tillerson’s deputies have worked to hammer out an arrangement with European allies that could preserve the deal while addressing Trump’s concerns about its shortcomings, including Iran’s ballistic missile arsenal and provisions that expire in the next decade and beyond.

“I think it spells trouble for the nuclear deal,” said Colin Kahl, who served as the national security advisor to former Vice President Joe Biden.

While Tillerson often found himself on the losing side of many issues at the White House, he was a voice of caution and “he did appear to have some impact in delaying Trump dumping the Iran deal,” Kahl said.

The next round of talks among the United States and diplomats from the United Kingdom, France, and Germany aimed at salvaging the agreement is due to go ahead as planned in Berlin this week, officials say. And a meeting of all the signatories to the Iran deal, which includes the U.K., France, Germany, Russia, China, Iran, and the United States, is scheduled for Friday in Vienna.

Despite Trump’s abrupt firing of Tillerson, the outgoing secretary of state’s top aide, Brian Hook, will attend the meetings in Europe, a State Department spokesperson said. Hook was an influential figure on Tillerson’s staff and it’s unlikely he will stay on under Pompeo.

The 2015 agreement between Iran and world powers, which former President Barack Obama touted as a diplomatic breakthrough, imposed elaborate restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program while lifting an array of U.S. and international sanctions that had damaged the country’s economy. In his 2016 presidential campaign, Trump railed against the agreement as the “worst deal ever,” saying Iran had won relief from sanctions without having to give up enough in return.

As president, Trump bristled when faced with a U.S. law that required him to regularly certify to Congress whether Iran was complying with the deal and whether the agreement was in America’s interest. In October, Trump told Congress he could not certify that the agreement was in the national interest but stopped short of pulling the United States out.

Over the past 14 months, Tillerson, along with Defense Secretary James Mattis, repeatedly argued in White House meetings against abandoning the agreement on grounds that it had imposed important limits on Tehran’s nuclear work. Instead, Tillerson proposed trying to address the president’s concerns by negotiating a supplemental agreement or other arrangement with the Europeans, while retaining the benefits of the current deal.

Trump’s January ultimatum set May 12 as the next key deadline, when he will have to decide whether to re-impose a slew of U.S. sanctions that were lifted as part of the nuclear deal.

Critics of the nuclear agreement welcomed Tillerson’s departure.

“The selection of Mike Pompeo at State should remove any doubt about the president’s intentions,” said Mark Dubowitz, chief executive of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “Two months to go and President Trump will snap back the most powerful economic sanctions against Iran unless there’s a real not a fictional fix to the Iran nuclear deal.”

Omri Ceren, managing director of the Israel Project, a Washington organization that works on Middle East issues, said that with or without Tillerson’s exit, the president had made clear he would not keep sanctions relief in place without concrete improvements to the agreement.

“In recent days the Trump administration has, if anything, been toughening its stance on what it would take to make the Iran deal worth staying in,” Ceren said.

If Trump opts to reimpose U.S. sanctions on Iran after May 12, European Union officials have warned that Brussels might try to block the American measures and protect European companies investing in the Iranian market. But analysts said European banks and other firms are already reluctant to do business in Iran due to the threat of a possible “snap-back” of U.S. sanctions and don’t want to lose their access to the vast American market. A U.S. withdrawal could wreck the agreement, scaring off European investment that Iran saw as a key reward for agreeing to limit its uranium enrichment and other nuclear work.

In Washington, Democrats in Congress and retired diplomats voiced concern that the collapse of the Iran deal could undermine high-stakes talks planned for May between Trump and North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong Un, by calling into question if Washington would stand by its international commitments.

“The North Koreans will wonder about whether one can have credible negotiations with the United States,” said a former senior U.S. official.

U.S. military commanders and intelligence officers mostly view the Iran deal, officially referred to as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as a useful — if imperfect — check on Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.

If the deal unravels and Iran concludes it has no economic incentive to hold back on its nuclear work, then Tehran could expel U.N. inspectors and head down a fast track to building nuclear weapons — possibly in a matter of months. Under that scenario, the United States — and Israel — may decide to take military action to prevent Iran from obtaining the bomb or at least slow down a bid for nuclear-tipped missiles.

The head of U.S. Central Command, U.S. Army Gen. Joseph Votel, who oversees American forces in the Middle East, warned lawmakers on Tuesday about the consequences of the agreement unraveling.

“The JCPOA addresses one of the principle threats that we deal with from Iran, so if the JCPOA goes away, then we will have to have another way to deal with their nuclear weapons program,” said Votel.

Dan De Luce is Foreign Policy’s chief national security correspondent. @dandeluce

Keith Johnson is Foreign Policy’s global geoeconomics correspondent. @KFJ_FP

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