(Inspired by another question which was closed and deleted as a push question.)

According to the Financial Tribune:

The US special envoy for Iran, Robert Malley, said the maximum pressure campaign mounted by the former US president Donald Trump’s administration against Tehran “failed miserably” and “hurt US interests.”

Speaking on a television show hosted by MSNBC journalist Mehdi Hasan, Malley said Iran’s nuclear program accelerated only after the former US president launched his maximum pressure campaign.

Malley is US President Joe Biden’s point man for Iran, tasked with reviving the 2015 nuclear accord that Trump unilaterally abandoned in 2018. He was part of the US negotiating team that worked out the deal in 2015.

On the other hand, leaders in Israel and the UAE have praised Former President Trump's stance on Iran. According to CNBC:

Leaders in the Middle East threw their weight behind the “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, just days before U.S. President Joe Biden took office this week.

The United Arab Emirates said it was “absolutely” in favor of continuing to pressure Iran — a policy by the Trump administration aimed at forcing the regime to halt its nuclear activities and cut off support for militants in the Middle East.

Israel’s energy minister said the campaign has been “very productive,” while the deputy mayor of Jerusalem said it is the “only thing” that will work.

So why is Former President Trump criticized for leaving the Iran Deal and his 'Maximum Pressure' campaign? I'm especially interested in answers from US or international community perspective.

  • 1
    I've removed the meta debate on the appropriateness of improving, re-asking, and self-answering previously deleted bad-faith questions - feel free to ask a question on this on meta though.
    – CDJB
    Commented Jul 31, 2021 at 14:00

6 Answers 6


Regardless of the pros and cons of Trump leaving the agreement for, valid or not, issues with JCPOA, this is eroding international trust in the US's capacity to agree to something and then to stick to that agreement.

i.e. governments which sign an agreement * with the US are not assured that the US will stick to its end of the bargain, thus making it less attractive to negotiate with the US in the future.

The same problem was cited when Boris Johnson tried to unilaterally walk back some of the provisions of the Brexit arrangement wrt Northern Ireland. It isn't necessarily that a government doesn't have anything to complain about, it is that in the absence of an overarching legal way to compel sovereign nations, nations are taken to be "as good as their word". Appearing to act in good faith is paramount.

* I specifically don't want to go into internal US considerations such as ratification by Congress or not. Consider the US a "black box" - can another government expect it to abide by agreements or not?

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    Regarding the ratification comment, the alternative interpretation would undercut the President internationally -- when he says or signs anything, the assumption would be that it is provisional unless countersigned by a wide bipartisan consensus.
    – o.m.
    Commented Jul 28, 2021 at 4:55
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    @JonathanReez but you forget that if you are say the UK PM (or rather Iran's PM in this case), you pay the domestic political costs for whatever concessions you made up front, when the agreement is signed. US Congress doesn't ratify? Do you think the UK opposition will give you a pass? No, it won't. In fact, it'll probably push loss-of-face as your sin. So, as per my answer, frequent such happenings make the US a less enticing negotiation partner to everyone else. Most other countries seem to get that, but the US, as usual, sees itself as "very special". Commented Jul 28, 2021 at 23:29
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    @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica "Like I said, I am well aware of ratification procedures (note that JCPOA was not a treaty, hence did not need ratification). That's still somewhat besides the point to an external party." No, that kind of is the entire point: an agreement like the JCPOA is supposed to be a treaty, and the Obama administration making it not a treaty was just an end-run around the Constitution by saying "this is not technically a treaty" because they knew it would never pass Congress. Commented Jul 29, 2021 at 12:12
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    What one President can capriciously and unilaterally agree to, another President can just as capriciously and unilaterally withdraw agreement from. This is why it needed to either be a treaty or not happen at all; otherwise it would never have any semblance of permanence. Commented Jul 29, 2021 at 12:13
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    @MasonWheeler You're right, but my point wasn't about Constitutional arrangements, it was about external governments' calculations on the usefulness, or not, of pursuing agreements with the US. Let's say you're a realtor. You want to buy a house from a couple. You can only talk to hubby, and that's who you draft the contract with, that you have to sign. But that contract has to be signed, or not, by the wife, after you sign. Might you not buy a house from someone else? Esp. with a deadlocked Congress that can't agree on much nowadays and uses anything for partisan gains? Commented Jul 29, 2021 at 17:35

(This is mostly a repost of my answer to the now deleted question.)

Iranian President Rouhani is a moderate (by Iranian standards) who took a risk signing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with the US, the EU, and others. Let's look at some background on the deal first:

From the Iranian standpoint, the deal made sense because it provided economic relief. According to the Council on Foreign Relations:

The EU, United Nations, and United States all committed to lifting their nuclear-related sanctions on Iran. However, many other U.S. sanctions on Iran, some dating back to the 1979 hostage crisis, remained in effect. They cover matters such as Iran’s ballistic missile program, support for terrorist groups, and human rights abuses. Though the United States committed to lifting its sanctions on oil exports, it kept restrictions on financial transactions, which have deterred international trade with Iran.

In return for this, Iran committed to nuclear restrictions. Again from the Council on Foreign Relations:

The accord limits the numbers and types of centrifuges Iran can operate, the level of its enrichment, as well as the size of its stockpile of enriched uranium. (Mined uranium has less than 1 percent of the uranium-235 isotope used in fission reactions, and centrifuges increase that isotope’s concentration. Uranium enriched to 5 percent is used in nuclear power plants, and at 20 percent it can be used in research reactors or for medical purposes. High-enriched uranium, at some 90 percent, is used in nuclear weapons.)

This deal was risky for President Rouhani because he put Iran's ambitions as a regional power on hold for economic relief. Now that the US backed out of the deal, Iran misses out on years of enrichment and it doesn't have economic relief. Since then, elections in Iran took place which were won by a more conservative candidate. His views on reviving the nuclear deal, according to the BBC:

Mr Raisi said his approach to foreign policy would not be limited by the nuclear deal negotiated by Mr Rouhani, which saw Iran agree to limit its nuclear programme in return for sanctions relief.

On the Vienna talks, he said: "We will not allow negotiations to be for negotiations' sake. Negotiations should not be dragged out but each sitting should bear results. A result-oriented [negotiation] is important to us and it should have an outcome for the Iranian nation."

He likewise dismissed the possibility of any negotiations over Iran's ballistic missile programme and its regional policies, including its support of armed groups in several countries, despite calls by Western countries for them to be part of any new agreement reached in Vienna.

By exiting the JCPOA the deal is rendered ineffective and Iran took that as an opportunity to increase its enrichment activity. According to CBS News:

President Hassan Rouhani set a 60-day deadline for new terms to be reached by the nations still trying to keep the deal viable, and said if that didn't happen, Iran would resume enriching uranium to higher levels.

That's a totally expected outcome. There was a deal between Iran, the US, and other nations. The US exited the deal so that Iran would no longer benefit from some parts of the deal. As such, there is no reason for Iran keep its promises under that deal. It can now blame its breaches of the deal on the US because the US exited first.

As for calling Trump's decision a miserable failure, I would point to an opinion column on Politico. Specifically, the following paragraph sums it up:

Barring a miracle, Iran’s next president will be Ebrahim Raisi, the current head of the judiciary — a man with an atrocious human rights record, including a role in a 1988 campaign of summary executions. Raisi’s likely presidency also makes him the top candidate to replace 82-year old Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as the next Supreme Leader of Iran, to the disappointment of many who thought it would be Rouhani. This will have huge repercussions for Iran’s foreign policy, and its domestic policy, including human rights.

By taking a hard line with Iran, President Trump helped oust a Reformist in favor of a Principlist politician (both by Iranian standards). On the broader scale of things, that's not in the US interest. Instead of keeping Iran in a place where the international community could keep a lid on the situation (e.g. through the JCPOA) it pushed them away to a place where it is less likely that there will be cooperation and it's more likely that Iran will continue its nuclear proliferation at a higher pace.

Regarding the terms moderates and conservatives, Wikipedia draws a distinction between two political factions: the Iranian Principlists and the Iranian Reformists.

The Principlists, also interchangeably known as the Iranian Conservatives and formerly referred to as the Right or Right-wing, are one of two main political camps inside post-revolutionary Iran, the other being Reformists. The term hardliners that some western sources use in the Iranian political context usually refers to the faction, although the principlist camp also includes more centrist tendencies.

The Iranian reformists are a political faction in Iran. Iran's "reform era" is sometimes said to have lasted from 1997 to 2005—the length of President Mohammad Khatami's two terms in office. The Council for Coordinating the Reforms Front is the main umbrella organization and coalition within the movement; however, there are reformist groups not aligned with the council, such as the Reformists Front.

President Rouhani is indeed considered more of a reformist, according to Wikipedia

He was elected as president with heavy reformist support, and he pledged to follow through with reformist demands and to bridge divides between reformists and conservatives.

President-Elect Raisi is described as a principlist politician on his Wikipedia page.

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    The hardliner IS in Israel's interest though. A common enemy is useful to all who seek office.
    – Stian
    Commented Jul 28, 2021 at 10:06
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    @Heinzi Because maintaining an enemy is essential to political organisations who only define themselves by fighting an enemy. In Israel, this was well demonstrated by Ariel Sharon who intentionally destroyed a fragile but working peace process with Palestine, and swept to power as then being the "strongman" who could fight the enemy (whom he himself had provoked in order to renew the conflict). His successors have maintained this strategy, and it has kept their faction in power for 20 years.
    – Graham
    Commented Jul 28, 2021 at 10:49
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    @StianYttervik: I think you are confusing Israel with Bibi (and conservative politicians in general).
    – tomasz
    Commented Jul 28, 2021 at 10:58
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    @Graham religion is absolutely a factor, Iran is Shia not Sunni
    – Jack
    Commented Jul 29, 2021 at 3:37
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    @AbdelAleem that's fair, will remove that term in favor of Conservatives.
    – JJJ
    Commented Jul 29, 2021 at 20:48

In addition to the answer from Italian Philosophers 4 Monica, the US entered a wide, international agreement. According to most experts, Iran largely stuck to their side of the deal until the US left. The deal wasn't all that ex-President Trump might have hoped for, but it was the international framework.

Then the US left and tried to make other countries go along with it. The EU waffled a bit, but then it tried to actively subvert US foreign policy with their INSTEX system. This episode weakened the attempt to maintain a rules-based international order.

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    tried to make other countries go along with it The US did not try, they told us that if we do not comply there will be repercussions. The EU tried to save face but the sad fact us that we gave way and left Iran. At least France tried to have the EU compensate companies that would stay in Iran despite the US threats but the net effect was zero. This is unfortunately how the world works - there is zero trust between the EU and the US, and a weak one withoin the EU.
    – WoJ
    Commented Jul 29, 2021 at 19:24
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    "Iran largely stuck to their side of the deal until the US left." There's perhaps an argument that they stuck to the letter, but it's quite clear that they did not stick to the spirit of the UN Security Council Resolution that implemented it. Iran was testing ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons more than a year and a half before the Trump administration's decision to pull out of JCPOA.
    – reirab
    Commented Jul 30, 2021 at 6:15
  • According to the text of that resolution, "Iran is called upon not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology." One could argue that the poorly-worded language of the resolution doesn't firmly ban such tests, but it's very clear that they weren't consistent with the stated intent.
    – reirab
    Commented Jul 30, 2021 at 6:17
  • Hmm... Actually, it seems to go back even farther. Apparently Iran conducted such a test less than 3 months after JCPOA UNSC resolution. "The Security Council’s Panel of Experts on Iran said in a confidential report, first reported by Reuters, that the launch showed the rocket met its requirements for considering that a missile could deliver a nuclear weapon." This test was on Oct 10, 2015, over a year before Trump's election.
    – reirab
    Commented Jul 30, 2021 at 6:25
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    A missile "capable of delivering nuclear weapons" is any missile with a payload large enough to carry them. If we are talking about "fat boy" style bombs, no, Iran has tested no nuclear-capable missile. If we are talking about the state-of-the-art miniaturized nukes that the USA and Russia have, I have probably tested one of those in the 2018 Falles (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Falles).
    – Rekesoft
    Commented Jul 30, 2021 at 8:37

Because the Iran Nuclear Deal was a landmark act of diplomacy, the culmination of significant negotiation with one of the most politically-isolated nations in the world. It was applauded within Washington, D.C. by foreign-policy experts. The JPCOA wasn't a political issue; it was a success by several major counts.

To be certain, not every diplomat, think-tanker, and analyst was in agreement with the full terms of the JPCOA. Some thought it was too weak on Iran with regards to how parts of the deal expired after 10 or 15 years. On the whole of things, however, the deal broadly succeeded in bringing international oversight to Iran's nuclear program. Overall, the JCPOA was a good example of the Western international order bringing diplomatic pressure to reduce a threat to world peace.

Contrast the minor weaknesses of the JCPOA with the "maximum pressure" campaign you described and withdrawal from the deal. These actions accomplish nothing but lose very much. The United States abandoned its allies in the West and broke its commitment to negotiation. Military disputes with Iran break out and tensions increase. Consequently, Iran is much closer to arriving at a bomb than it was under the deal. The withdrawal from the JCPOA was quick, but the return from this disastrous route will take years of re-building diplomatic effort.

  • You wrote: "the deal broadly succeeded in bringing international oversight to Iran's nuclear program". Incorrect. As long as Iran has been a member of the IAEA, it has always been compliant with international supervision of their nuclear program, so international oversight predates the deal. Commented Jul 29, 2021 at 20:41
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    "landmark act of diplomacy" That wasn't official because Obama used a "pen and a phone" and didn't get congressional support (Read: Made official by becoming an ACTUAL treaty). It's the same problem with the Parris Accords. Without ACTUALLY being an official treaty? That "act of diplomacy" is meaningless grandstanding...
    – WernerCD
    Commented Jul 30, 2021 at 6:45
  • @WernerCD: Requiring all diplomacy to go through congressional and senate support (Even if that is what would be needed for an "official" treaty) ignores the value of multi-track diplomacy - and ignores that, unlike a prisoner exchange that avoids congressional and senate support, the JCPOA involved more than two countries in the deal, and got all of them to agree to its terms from various executive branches at minimum. Commented Oct 4, 2021 at 8:11
  • @AlexanderThe1st but if it doesn't go through congress and official channels, it's not "all of them to agree" - which is why the next POTUS can undo it on a whim: It's not legally binding. Same for EOs vs actual laws. There's a reason Paris Accords are dead and the ACA isn't. Two people saying "okay" isn't landmark... and it lasts as long as the air it's whispered into. Two COUNTRIES didn't agree - else it'd be made permanent via official channels.
    – WernerCD
    Commented Oct 5, 2021 at 0:00
  • @WernerCD: My point isn't about the U.S. and Iran agreeing - it's Iran and all the other countries agreeing, and the U.S. being the only country that was wobbling on whether they agreed to it - they did technically sign for it, and in most countries, the executive signing a document is de-facto proof that they will support the treaty. Commented Oct 5, 2021 at 0:36

Just so it's said, from the political science perspective Trump's actions were (as best anyone can tell) capricious and arbitrary. Trump didn't seem interested in whether the pact was working, what it might be accomplishing, what its greater goals might be, how much work went into it, or what Iran or our allies thought about it. He declared it 'bad' for reasons of his own, refused to consider amending or updating it, and baldly asserted the US would walk away.

Now, there is a certain respect in political science for bold, strong action, on the "someone has to make the hard decisions" principle. But hard decisions are usually made within a carefully considered framework, where risk are calculated to a fault. Even if we give Trump the benefit of the doubt about the sureness of his gut instincts, wildcard actions like this merely increase uncertainty and tensions, which is essentially the antithesis of diplomacy (where one tries to ease tensions and increase respectability and trust). The JPCOA may have its flaws as policy, but it is formal policy that can be read, examined, discussed, etc to work around those flaws. The capricious and arbitrary nature of Trump's actions makes it impossible to see flaws or problems in advance so that they can be circumvented. It is not a rational way to do politics.

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    "wildcard actions like this merely increase uncertainty and tensions, which is essentially the antithesis of diplomacy (where one tries to ease tensions and increase respectability and trust)." This isn't really true. The point of diplomacy is coercion through softer means than outright warfare. "Speak softly and carry a big stick".
    – nick012000
    Commented Jul 30, 2021 at 10:42
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    @nick012000 A foreign policy centered on coercion simply drives other countries into an adversarial relationship with you in which they seek to reduce your influence and increase their own. But this does highlight the attitude Trump had towards diplomacy: coerce Mexico into paying for the wall, coerce China into giving us better trade terms, coerce Iran into giving us a better nuclear deal, coerce Ukraine into producing anti-Biden propaganda. Commented Jul 31, 2021 at 0:43
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    @nick012000: you have that backwards. War is diplomacy by other means, not the other way around. Coercion is sub-optimal, since it breeds resentment and evasion. Diplomacy builds cooperation. Commented Jul 31, 2021 at 2:07

Israel's endorsement can be seen as a warning sign: Decades of hard-line Israel foreign policy were unable to make much progress with the pressing issues it is facing.

The main successes were sabotage and military interventions. This reliance on superior intelligence and firepower is the logical base of policies that leave the negotiation table, and the policy was criticized because it was actively pruning possible futures that did not involve military conflicts.

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