“This change is US policy is happening at a time when the region is really combustible,” said Zalmay Khalilzad, president of Gryphon Partners and an Atlantic Council board director. Ultimately, the regional impact of US President Donald J. Trump’s May 8 decision to withdraw from the JCPOA will depend on Tehran, and what it decides to do next: play nice on the world stage, or retaliate in its own backyard.
When the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was agreed in July 2015, the priority for the P5+1 was to keep Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. The United States also hoped to eventually see reforms in Iran. For Iran, the priority was the lifting of sanctions.
How far back the deal set Iran’s nuclear weapons program is up for debate. Critics of the deal argue that, not only did the JCPOA fail to prevent Iran from ever developing nuclear weapons, but it freed up more cash for nefarious activities in the region vis-à-vis Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. Iran defends its activities in these states as necessary to clean up problems the United States and Saudi Arabia created.
European officials have been particularly outspoken, reflecting anger at a potentially fatal blow to a signature diplomatic achievement that touches their core security concerns. Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, addressed the press before the start of a European Union summit in Sofia, Bulgaria, by saying, “We are witnessing today a new phenomenon: the capricious assertiveness of the American administration…. [President Donald Trump] has made us realize that if you need a helping hand, you will find one at the end of your arm.”
While tough on extremist groups threatening its sovereignty or military presence in Syria, the Iranian government has often turned a blind eye to such groups to allow them to fight US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan and to undercut secular nationalist Iranian Kurds.
The United States and other Western nations, as well as Israel, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have often used jihadis to counter nationalist and leftist insurgencies, overthrow adversarial governments or oust foreign occupiers. Unlike these other countries, there is no evidence that Iran has actually financed, armed, or trained Salafi jihadis.
Kayhan, a newspaper that is considered the mouthpiece of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and Javan, an outlet close to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, both said Iran should restart its nuclear project. “Trump has torn up the nuclear deal, it is time for us to burn it,” Kayhan wrote. IRGC Commander Maj. Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari told Fars News that the US exit from the JCPOA was a "good omen" for Iran and called for boosting Iran's defense capabilities. Some hardline analysts went as far to suggest that the IRGC should use the situation to stage a military coup.
On May 9, the Middle East Security Initiative (MSI) in the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security convened a panel of experts for a conference call conversation assessing the implications of President Trump’s decision. Rachel Brandenburg, MSI Director, moderated the discussion, which featured senior fellows Amir Handjani and David Mortlock, board director Dov Zakheim, Future of Iran Initiative Director Barbara Slavin, and Suzanne Maloney, Deputy Director for Foreign Policy and Senior Fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.
Though upset by US President Donald J. Trump’s decision to withdraw from the deal, the European signatories are committed to the agreement. “The European Union (EU) will maintain its commitment to the nuclear deal, as long as Iran does the same,” said O’Sullivan. “We Europeans believe that we are bound by our commitment if we want Iran to stay in the deal,” he added.
Shortly after the president’s speech, Israeli planes launched what seemed to be a pre-emptive strike against an Iranian missile site located in a military base in southern Syria. The following day, Iranian forces fired a barrage of rockets on Israeli posts in the Golan. Israel retaliated (or rather, used the opportunity) to conduct a massive air raid on dozens of Syrian and Iranian targets in Syria.