Trump’s hostility towards Iran: Goodbye Nuclear Deal

  • + Trump removes the only leverage the USA had over Iran and increases hostility.
  • + Worsening of ties and unrest in the Persian Gulf
  • + Trump unable to balance his stance against Iran’s nuclear stockpiles

Source: Foreign Policy; Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

If there’s one thing that Donald Trump understands, it’s that war across the Persian Gulf is bad for business, and threatens an array of his interests abroad, including the oil in Saudi Arabia. In fact, Trump has always positioned himself as anti-war, having once in a Republican Presidential Debate referred to George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq as a “beauty” of a mistake, and one that was responsible for destabilising the Middle East.

However, in a predictable move that has compromised this anti-war stance, Trump decided to withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or to most, the Iran Nuclear Deal of October 2015. In doing so, Trump has made Iran and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei rather cross. Up until the withdrawal on May 8th, 2018, Iranian President, Rouhani Khamenei, was largely content to abide by the demands of the Obama-led deal, which required Iran to comply with the following rules:

  • + Uranium Stockpiles: Give up 97% of its enriched Uranium stocks, thereby reducing stockpiles to 300kg.
  • + Enrichment Levels: Reduce the Uranium enrichment levels to 3.67%, which is considered the minimum threshold required to generate nuclear energy. For context, medical research necessitates a Uranium enrichment of 20% and weaponisation would require a minimum of 90%.
  • + Centrifuges: Shut down the majority of Centrifuges, lowering the total from 20,000 to 6,000, in which 5,000 could be used for the spinning of fissile material and 1,000 for basic research.

Inspections: Afford regular inspections to outside agencies and bodies, to ensure that the requirements were being stuck to and that no secretive breaking of rules was taking place.

The Snowball Effect

In abiding by these rules, Rouhani Khamenei was assured by the Obama administration the economic sanctions that had previously battered the country’s economy, would be lifted and remain unenforced. However, having seen Trump and the US effectively nullify the JCPOA, whilst adding unprecedented sanctions aimed at applying “Maximum Pressure” on Iran’s economy for good measure, Rouhani’s Khamenei’s hand was largely forced. In turn, not only has Iran since gone about increasing its Uranium stockpiles at a greater level of enrichment, but it has also seemingly sensed an opportunity to build its position of power in the region by sparking several regional conflicts. 


Between May and June of 2019 alone, there were multiple Iranian attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman, the alleged arrest of several CIA spies in Tehran, and the infamous shooting down of a US drone. This latter dispute is marred with controversy, with Iran insisting it took place over their own airspace and the USA’s claim of it being over international waters. Showing his trademark eloquence, Trump in an Oval Office interview asserted the incident had certainly taken place over international waters, given it had been “documented scientifically”, and “not just (with) words.”

When Words Speak Louder than Actions?

No matter the true whereabouts of the event, Trump now finds himself in a serious pickle, in which he has been forced to respond to the Iranians with a degree of necessary aggression, without actually creating an unwanted war. In turn, the middle months of 2019 saw a barrage of strongly-worded twitter posts and TV interviews, with Trump claiming “I’m not looking for War, and if there is, it’ll be obliteration like you’ve never seen before. But I’m not looking to do that.” If anything, such erratic statements portray a leader with no true long-term objective or Plan B to fall back on in the event (as has unfolded) Iran does not abide by his administration’s 12 demands (see below). This was perfectly showcased when Trump, after having authorised a retaliation strike on Iran for the Drone clash, cancelled the move and in turn, all but signposted his approach to the situation. 

Subsequently, Trump has been reduced to pretending like a war on Iran is viable, once going as ludicrously far as to suggest that when it came to warfare, “the United States is more prepared than any country in the history of – of – in any history!” Such ill-thought-out, Grandpa-like ramblings are Trump’s tell-tale sign that he is either bluffing or has very little grasp on the topic at hand; with there being a very strong case to argue for both in this instance.

Shifting the Responsibility

With Trump’s bold words failing to resonate with the Iranians, additional hostilities have been exchanged, with the Iranian-backed Houthi Rebels of Yemen attacking a key Saudi Arabian oil refinery in September. In a true case of when people aren’t buying what you say the first time, say it again but louder, Trump responded via a tweet claiming that the US was “locked and loaded” in their preparedness to respond to the “culprit”, of whom it was clear he was alluding to Iran. 

However, in what was perhaps the most revealing insight into Trump’s lack of understanding as to what to do, stated in the same tweet that he was “waiting to hear from the Kingdom (Saudi Arabia) as to who they believe was the cause of the attack, and under what terms we would proceed!” Here alone, Trump has exemplified just how clueless he is, with the ‘leader of the free world’ seeking the wisdom of Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman to determine whether the USA should engage a foe. Simply speaking, Trump does not want a war and in the event that there is one, he does not wish to be responsible for the decision that enforced it.

The Road to Ruin is Paved with Good/Bad/Selfish Intentions!

All criticisms aside, this is a relatively noble stance and perhaps one that several predecessors could have benefitted from. However, Trump’s unwillingness to exercise military force against Iran not only affords them with the flexibility to enhance their nuclear stockpiles and capacities well beyond the original nuclear deal but to also continue carrying out and supporting attacks in the region on US interests with virtually no risk of physical response. Therefore, it can be suggested that the defiant, anti-war pioneer Donald Trump effectively shot himself in the foot upon withdrawing from the JCPOA, thereby affording Iran with newfound leverage to cause trouble and further instability in the region; steady in the knowledge that Trump is simply too invested in his back pocket to retaliate.


Figure 1: The 12 demands required of Iran for the US Economic Sanctions, as part of the Maximum Pressure Campaign, to be lifted

Daniel Bloch

Project Development Team Leader