Several years ago, Henry Kissinger famously stated that Iran must decide if it wants to be a country or a cause. On May 21, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo re-articulated this question, offering Iran a sharp choice: to be welcomed back into the community of nations if it abandons its destabilizing security policies or be subjected to an unrelenting US-led pressure campaign if not.

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In an audacious speech before the Heritage Foundation on May 21, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo outlined a litany of complaints about the nuclear deal with Iran that accurately reflected some of its gaps, but offered no realistic remedies.

Pompeo’s prescription to achieve his “Plan B”—“unprecedented financial pressure on the Iranian regime”—is unlikely to achieve his stated goals. It could well backfire by encouraging more defiance in Tehran—and in Brussels, Moscow, and Beijing.

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The European Union (EU) on May 18 announced that it was beginning the process to activate its proposed blocking regulation, initially proposed in 1996 to try to counteract what the EU saw as the extraterritorial reach under the United States’ Iran-Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA) and Cuba sanctions program. Those disagreements were settled politically with the Clinton administration, but there has been renewed interest in the draft regulation in the wake of US President Donald J. Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and reimpose US secondary sanctions on Iran. 

It is not clear that proponents of reviving the regulation fully appreciate just how different the global financial and compliance environments are now compared to the mid-1990s.

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Atlantic Council President and CEO Frederick Kempe reflects on President Trump’s Iran decision and the 2018 Distinguished Leadership Awards

It was a piquant coincidence that we scheduled the Atlantic Council’s annual Distinguished Leadership Awards dinner, saluting former President George W. Bush for his life-saving work against HIV-AIDS, opposite President Trump’s most consequential leadership decision to date, the undoing of the Iran nuclear deal.

Receiving his award on May 10, the date on which Winston Churchill became Prime Minister in 1940, President Bush spoke with a clarity that ensured his meaning was not missed:

“Churchill said in his lifetime two world wars had shown that oceans no longer protected the new world from the problems of the old. The only way for peace was through partnership and engagement. If we are together, nothing is impossible. If we are divided, all will fail. That’s why the Atlantic Council is important today. And I appreciate your good works.”

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The European signatories to the Iran nuclear deal are seeking ways to soften the bite of US sanctions on companies doing business in the Islamic Republic, David O’Sullivan, the European Union’s ambassador to the United States, said at the Atlantic Council on May 14.

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.

O’Sullivan delivered a rousing endorsement of the deal and expressed his profound dismay at Trump’s May 8 decision to withdraw from it.

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As reported previously by this writer, senior Iranian former officials repeatedly told him and other Americans in unofficial, track II discussions preceding the nuclear deal, that Iran had no intention of weaponizing nuclear energy. The reason offered had nothing to do with Koranic proscriptions. To paraphrase one of the Iranian ex-officials, “Look at all we have been able to accomplish in the region—in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and now Yemen—without nuclear weapons. Now imagine us going nuclear and provoking nuclear proliferation everywhere in the neighborhood. Do you think we want a nuclear war crisis every time we dispatch General Soleimani somewhere?” When the ex-official was asked “What then is the purpose of these negotiations?” he quickly replied, “We need relief from sanctions.”

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US President Donald J. Trump’s May 8 announcement that he would withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal was broadly consistent with what many observers expected from the administration. However, because the sanctions component proved tougher than most predicted, the full scope of economic and political ramifications remains unknown.

While the United States gears up for the reimposition of broad secondary and narrower primary US sanctions on Iran for its nuclear activity, there will be a wind-down period for ceasing business, allowing for at least some transition time. 

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Three years ago, Iranians celebrated in the streets of Tehran after a deal was struck between their government and the P5+1 countries to curb Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for lifting sanctions on the Islamic Republic.

Three years later, there were once again celebrations in Iran after US President Donald J. Trump announced that the United States was withdrawing from the nuclear deal—formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). This time hardliners in parliament set fire to a photo of an American flag and chanted, “We burned America! We burned the JCPOA!”

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President Trump’s decision today to leave the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) was the most significant foreign policy decision yet for this administration.

It is no accident that Trump announced it even as he dispatched Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. These two engagements will do much to define the Trump administration’s policy toward nuclear proliferators and determine whether Trump’s disruptive approach can produce real results.        

Whether Trump’s decision today proves to be the right tonic to finally counter Iran’s multiple threats depends on whether the administration can craft a strategy that is as coherent as today’s action was bold. At the moment, that is not the case.

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US President Donald J. Trump on May 8 withdrew the United States from the multilateral nuclear agreement with Iran.

The deal—formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)— was struck in 2015 by the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, Germany, and Iran.

Here’s a look at reactions from around the world to Trump’s decision. [Editor's note: We are adding reactions when available. Please check back for updates.]

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