The tragedy of the Trump administration’s approach is that it has alienated European allies who share the common goal of curbing Iran’s most worrisome behavior. The United States once stood shoulder to shoulder with not only France, Germany and Britain — but also with Russia and China — to isolate Iran. Now, it is the United States that is isolated.
The bigger question is whether the American efforts to invoke snapback will kill the nuclear deal, which the other parties have been trying desperately to keep alive. Iran had been widely seen as keeping its commitments under the deal until the U.S. exit. Afterward, it increased its production of fissile material, as a calibrated response to the American withdrawal.
Now, the agreement is in tatters. If Mr. Trump is re-elected, the chances of reviving the accord are slim to none. Iran could walk away from the nuclear deal altogether and resume its previous levels of production of fissile material, which it claims will be used as fuel for a peaceful nuclear reactor. This will set the country back on a collision course with the United States and Israel.
The deal could still get back on track. Iran’s actions are not irreversible. The fissile material it has produced could still be secured and sent out of the country. There’s also a chance that behind-the-scenes diplomatic efforts might lead to informal agreements to refrain from significant arms sales to Iran that would inflame the situation. The arms embargo does not actually expire until October, so there is still time for diplomacy to work.
But the Trump administration has squandered the unity that the international community once had on Iran. It has also squandered the chance to fix the flaws in the Obama-era agreement by failing to pair its dramatic exit with meaningful diplomatic overtures that might have made renegotiation possible. At the time, American diplomats bragged to their European counterparts that the Iranians would soon be brought to their knees, and come begging to reopen talks. That hasn’t happened.
The Iranian people are undoubtedly suffering from the U.S. sanctions, all the more so during the pandemic, which has left them short of medicines. But the regime has not come begging for a deal with Mr. Trump. In fact, the Trump administration’s policies have made fools of the moderates in Iran, who argued that the United States could be trusted to keep its end of the bargain. The Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has publicly called the deal a “mistake.” Nevertheless, Mr. Trump has portrayed himself repeatedly as capable of quickly achieving a deal with Iran. “Don’t wait until after U.S. Election to make the Big deal,” he tweeted at Iranian leaders in June. “I’m going to win. You’ll make a better deal now!”
Like so much of Mr. Trump’s gamesmanship, there’s no Plan B behind the bluster. Today, Iran is closer to having enough fissile material to build a nuclear bomb than it was when he took office.