Top State Department Nuclear Expert Announces Resignation After Trump Iran Deal Exit

Officials warn of brain drain across government offices.

U.S. President Donald Trump leaves after announcing his decision to exit the Iran nuclear deal in a speech at the White House on May 8. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump leaves after announcing his decision to exit the Iran nuclear deal in a speech at the White House on May 8. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

One of the State Department’s top experts on nuclear proliferation resigned this week after President Donald Trump announced the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, in what officials and analysts say is part of a worrying brain drain from public service generally over the past 18 months.

Richard Johnson, a career civil servant who served as acting assistant coordinator in State’s Office of Iran Nuclear Implementation, had been involved in talks with countries that sought to salvage the deal in recent weeks, including Britain, France, and Germany — an effort that ultimately failed.  

He did not give a specific reason for his departure. But in a farewell email to colleagues and staff, Johnson stressed that the 2015 agreement Trump was ditching had successfully curbed Iran’s nuclear program.

“I am proud to have played a small part in this work, particularly the extraordinary achievement of implementing the [deal] with Iran, which has clearly been successful in preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon,” he wrote.

Foreign Policy obtained a copy of the email.

Johnson’s departure leaves a growing void in the State Department’s stable of experts on Iran’s nuclear program and highlights a broader problem of high-level departures from government.

Officials say the trend is particularly evident at the State Department, where Trump sidelined career diplomats and morale plummeted under former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. The office Johnson led has gone from seven full-time staffers to none since Trump’s inauguration.

Tillerson last year shuttered the department’s sanctions coordination office and moved some sanctions experts into administrative roles.

One U.S. official who works on sanctions described Johnson’s resignation as a “big loss” for the department and reflective of a growing sense that the Trump administration is casting aside career experts and ignoring their input as it pushes through a bevy of controversial foreign-policy priorities.

Until the Trump administration moved to dismantle the nuclear pact, Johnson, 38, had planned to remain in government service, according to a former State Department official.

“He’s exactly the kind of person we want to keep in government,” says Brian O’Toole, a former Treasury official who is now a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank.

“The demonization of the civil service is draining experts like Richard. That attitude needs to be reversed if we want to continue being a superpower — you can’t be powerful without good people in government.”

A former State Department official who worked with Johnson described him as “one of the most talented nonproliferation experts in the [U.S. government],” having served at the National Security Council and as an inspector in North Korea.

Johnson is planning to join the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a nonprofit group dedicated to preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The group is headed by a former energy secretary who led the U.S. technical team during the Iran negotiations.

Johnson’s colleagues gave him a send-off at the State Plaza Hotel, blocks from the State Department, on Wednesday night, just hours after Trump announced his decision to withdraw from the Iran deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

The farewell reception drew current and former officials involved in negotiating or overseeing the Iran agreement, including two of the senior-most career diplomats at the State Department: Thomas Shannon, the undersecretary of state for political affairs, and career Ambassador Stephen Mull, the former Iran nuclear implementation coordinator, according to the former official who worked with Johnson.

“[It] was a mini-reunion for the JCPOA negotiating team — much alcohol was consumed,” one of the people who attended says.

“I am not going to speak for everybody, but I, and a lot of other people at that party, believe that Trump has withdrawn us from the deal based on nothing more than animus toward his predecessor,” says Jarrett Blanc, a Barack Obama-era political appointee who worked on the Iran deal and attended Johnson’s farewell dinner.

“I can’t say I know exactly why [Johnson] left, but if this is another example of the Trump administration being unable to keep talent, we should all be worried,” he says.

“In general, we do not comment on matters involving individual employees,” a State Department spokesperson says in an email. “As directed by the President, we will continue to work with nations around the world to create a new coalition to counter Iran’s nuclear and proliferation threats, as well as its support for terrorism, militancy, and asymmetric weapons like ballistic missiles.”

Johnson did not respond to a request for comment on his reasons for leaving. But in his farewell email, he expressed his belief that the Iran nuclear deal “would only further help to lay the foundation for a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction, a goal we all share.”

In a final signoff, Johnson reflected on the reasons why, as a high school student, he was drawn into government service.

“When my father (always the engineer) challenged me to defend my choice to major in international relations at a private liberal arts college, [he asked] ‘what kind of job can you get with that degree?’” Johnson recalled.

“I printed out the job description of a Foreign Service Officer from an early version of the State Department website and said, ‘This is what I could do.’”

FP Chief National Security Correspondent Dan De Luce contributed to this report. 

Update, May 11, 2018, 3:18 p.m.: This article was updated to include comments from a State Department spokesperson. 

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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