What You Need To Know About The Iran Nuclear Deal

May 7, 2018
Originally published on May 8, 2018 3:37 am

President Trump says he will announce Tuesday whether he is going to keep the U.S. in the Iran nuclear deal. This comes after Trump has allowed the deal to stay in place through the first 15 months of his presidency while frequently criticizing it and threatening to pull the U.S. out of it.

In recent weeks, foreign leaders including France's Emmanuel Macron and British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson have come to Washington to try to persuade Trump to stick with the deal.

If Trump pulls out, it would be another step he has taken to nullify a move by his predecessor, Barack Obama. It would set off an unpredictable series of events and reactions from Iran and several U.S. allies.

The deal, signed in 2015, placed strict limits on Iran's nuclear program to keep it from developing nuclear weapons. It required ongoing inspections and the destruction of nuclear equipment. In return, Iran got relief from some economic sanctions.

Six nations signed the deal with Iran — the U.S., U.K., France, Germany, China and Russia. It was approved by the U.N. Security Council. (It's titled the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.)

Why is this coming up now?

Over the years, Congress has passed numerous sanctions against Iran but given the president the power to waive their enforcement. They come up for waiver or renewal every few months, and the next deadline is Saturday. Under its part of the bargain in the deal, the U.S. has been waiving some of the sanctions — that is, kept them from being enforced — repeatedly. Trump has threatened to stop issuing the waivers, meaning they would be reimposed on Iran.

That would place the U.S. in breach of the agreement. The sanctions coming up for continued waivers this week are key. If they were reimposed, they would penalize countries or companies buying oil from Iran by making it hard for them to do business with U.S. banks and markets.

What are the arguments for and against the deal?

Trump and opponents to the deal say it is flawed because it gives Iran access to billions of dollars but does not address Iran's support for groups the U.S. considers terrorists, like Hamas and Hezbollah. They note it also doesn't curb Iran's development of ballistic missiles and that the deal phases out by 2030. They say Iran has lied about its nuclear program in the past.

Deal supporters say it keeps Iran from building nuclear weapons and that will make it easier to deal with Iran's other behavior around the region — better to have an Iran without nukes than with them, in other words. They say evidence that Iran has lied in the past makes it all the more necessary to have a deal that keeps inspectors on the ground in Iran. They say ending the deal could prompt Iran to develop nuclear weapons and even set off a nuclear race in the Mideast.

The International Atomic Energy Commission, which enforces the deal, and U.S. officials have said Iran is complying with its terms.

If the U.S. pulls out of the deal, how can it expect Iran to react?

Iran has been issuing warnings about vague but dire consequences. It would have a few choices. First, Iran could wait and let the U.S. take some blame from around the world for violating an agreement it signed just three years ago.

It could in the meantime lobby other countries — some of its biggest oil consumers are in Asia — to continue buying Iranian oil by evading the new U.S. sanctions. In that case, Iran might promise to keep the deal and continue to limit its nuclear program even though the U.S. has pulled out.

But it could also pull out of the deal itself, expel the inspectors and start ramping up its nuclear program. That could put the region on a short fuse, opening the possibility that Israel might strike at Iranian nuclear facilities with its air force. Iranian leaders have threatened Israel repeatedly over the years.

How might the other countries in the deal respond?

This could be key. Led by France, which had taken a hard line against Iran during the talks, the other countries in the deal have asked Trump to stay in it and let them help him put pressure on Iran to stop missile tests and other destabilizing behavior around the region.

If the U.S. pulls out, other countries involved in the deal might try to talk Iran into sticking to the agreement without the U.S. in it, promising Iran that the rest of the world will keep buying its oil and investing in its economy. That would isolate the U.S.

But it would be difficult and risky for companies and countries doing business with Iran. They might get cut off from doing business with the U.S.

Is there a middle ground?

Possibly. Trump could announce that he is pulling out of the deal and reimposing the sanctions. But economic sanctions are complicated and the details have to be spelled out in U.S. Department of the Treasury regulations. In the past, the oil sanctions still allowed countries to continue buying oil, with some limits, from Iran. And certain types of industries can be exempted from sanctions.

If that's something Trump has in mind, it might soften the blow for U.S. allies — and for Iran.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


President Trump could change the direction of U.S. relations in the Middle East with a single statement today. This afternoon, the president reveals his decision on whether he will make good on his 2016 campaign promise to undo the Iran nuclear deal.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I have been in business a long time. I know deal-making, and let me tell you - this deal is catastrophic for America, for Israel and for the whole of the Middle East.

MARTIN: America's allies in Europe and elsewhere have been trying to caution the president to keep the pact in place. Larry Kaplow is NPR's Middle East editor. He's been following this closely, and he joins us in the studio now. Hey, Larry.


MARTIN: All right. So if the president goes ahead, as we expect him to today, and announce that the U.S. is going to reimpose sanctions on Iran, what's that going to look like?

KAPLOW: Well, we don't know what that will set in motion. It's, in essence, an act of brinksmanship to see what other countries will do. A European diplomat told NPR and some other reporters that they expect the president to withdraw from the deal, and that will have consequences that we don't totally understand. Let's just step back - remind people what the deal is.


KAPLOW: The U.S. - five other countries - agreed to lift some economic sanctions on Iran. In return, Iran allowed inspectors to go into its nuclear facilities. They destroyed a whole bunch of their nuclear equipment. And supporters say this will keep Iran from getting a nuclear bomb. Opponents, including the president, say, well, it doesn't deal with other things Iran is doing, like support for Hezbollah, Hamas testing ballistic missiles.

MARTIN: So we know that Donald Trump has hated this deal for a really long time, so why is this the moment that he's deciding to make a change?

KAPLOW: Under the deal, the U.S. committed to lift sanctions that the U.S. had already put in force in the past. Those sanctions come up for renewal every several months. And he has continued to lift these sanctions to provide this economic relief partly because his own administration was split on what to do and partly because there were allies like Europe urging him to continue to stay in it. But he kept vowing and threatening that he would get out.

MARTIN: What does this mean for Iranians?

KAPLOW: Well, right now, the Iranians overnight were saying they could handle this. They are saying, well, there could be a tough period for - for a couple of months. But they'll continue, and they'll try to establish - continue good relations with Europe and other parts of the world.

MARTIN: Does that mean they'd stay in the deal?

KAPLOW: It sounds like they're offering that maybe as a way to say, well, Iran's playing ball. It's the U.S. that's acting like the rogue partner in this case. In another scenario, they could ultimately say, well, if the U.S. has gotten out, then Iran's going to get out and kick out the inspectors and ramp up its nuclear program again.


Larry, there's a thing I want to figure out here. Of course, Iran is a huge oil producer. The price of oil has been creeping up just with the anticipation that sanctions might be reimposed. If sanctions are reimposed - if oil sales are in some way blocked, doesn't that mean that Saudi Arabia and also, by the way, Russia - huge oil producers - would get to sell a lot more oil to the world?

KAPLOW: Right. Oil is a commodity. There aren't - you can substitute it from one place when another place is taken out of it. You raise a good point. These sanctions, which are coming up for renewal or reimposition on Saturday, are about their sales of oil and how companies - countries can buy oil from them. But the U.S. - the devil's in the details. How does the U.S. enforce this? It could reimpose sanctions but also give some thresholds that lets countries continue to buy oil from Iran.

INSKEEP: Buy some oil from Iran. That could happen.

MARTIN: All right. We'll have to stay tuned. NPR's Middle East editor Larry Kaplow, thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.