Exiting the Deal Part 6: Obama Officials React

May 8, 2018

On May 8, President Trump withdrew from the landmark Obama-era Iran nuclear deal and re-imposed sanctions on Tehran. Former President Barack Obama and other officials from his administration criticized Trump's move. "Walking away from the JCPOA turns our back on America’s closest allies, and an agreement that our country’s leading diplomats, scientists, and intelligence professionals negotiated," Obama said. "Without the JCPOA, the United States could eventually be left with a losing choice between a nuclear-armed Iran or another war in the Middle East," he added. The following are reactions from Obama officials. 


Barack Obama, Former President

“There are few issues more important to the security of the United States than the potential spread of nuclear weapons, or the potential for even more destructive war in the Middle East. That’s why the United States negotiated the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in the first place.

The reality is clear. The JCPOA is working – that is a view shared by our European allies, independent experts, and the current U.S. Secretary of Defense. The JCPOA is in America’s interest – it has significantly rolled back Iran’s nuclear program. And the JCPOA is a model for what diplomacy can accomplish – its inspections and verification regime is precisely what the United States should be working to put in place with North Korea. Indeed, at a time when we are all rooting for diplomacy with North Korea to succeed, walking away from the JCPOA risks losing a deal that accomplishes – with Iran – the very outcome that we are pursuing with the North Koreans.

That is why today’s announcement is so misguided. Walking away from the JCPOA turns our back on America’s closest allies, and an agreement that our country’s leading diplomats, scientists, and intelligence professionals negotiated. In a democracy, there will always be changes in policies and priorities from one Administration to the next. But the consistent flouting of agreements that our country is a party to risks eroding America’s credibility, and puts us at odds with the world’s major powers.

Debates in our country should be informed by facts, especially debates that have proven to be divisive. So it’s important to review several facts about the JCPOA.

First, the JCPOA was not just an agreement between my Administration and the Iranian government. After years of building an international coalition that could impose crippling sanctions on Iran, we reached the JCPOA together with the United Kingdom, France, Germany, the European Union, Russia, China, and Iran. It is a multilateral arms control deal, unanimously endorsed by a United Nations Security Council Resolution.

Second, the JCPOA has worked in rolling back Iran’s nuclear program. For decades, Iran had steadily advanced its nuclear program, approaching the point where they could rapidly produce enough fissile material to build a bomb. The JCPOA put a lid on that breakout capacity. Since the JCPOA was implemented, Iran has destroyed the core of a reactor that could have produced weapons-grade plutonium; removed two-thirds of its centrifuges (over 13,000) and placed them under international monitoring; and eliminated 97 percent of its stockpile of enriched uranium – the raw materials necessary for a bomb. So by any measure, the JCPOA has imposed strict limitations on Iran's nuclear program and achieved real results.

Third, the JCPOA does not rely on trust – it is rooted in the most far-reaching inspections and verification regime ever negotiated in an arms control deal. Iran’s nuclear facilities are strictly monitored. International monitors also have access to Iran’s entire nuclear supply chain, so that we can catch them if they cheat. Without the JCPOA, this monitoring and inspections regime would go away.

Fourth, Iran is complying with the JCPOA. That was not simply the view of my Administration. The United States intelligence community has continued to find that Iran is meeting its responsibilities under the deal, and has reported as much to Congress. So have our closest allies, and the international agency responsible for verifying Iranian compliance – the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Fifth, the JCPOA does not expire. The prohibition on Iran ever obtaining a nuclear weapon is permanent. Some of the most important and intrusive inspections codified by the JCPOA are permanent. Even as some of the provisions in the JCPOA do become less strict with time, this won’t happen until ten, fifteen, twenty, or twenty-five years into the deal, so there is little reason to put those restrictions at risk today.

Finally, the JCPOA was never intended to solve all of our problems with Iran. We were clear-eyed that Iran engages in destabilizing behavior – including support for terrorism, and threats toward Israel and its neighbors. But that’s precisely why it was so important that we prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Every aspect of Iranian behavior that is troubling is far more dangerous if their nuclear program is unconstrained. Our ability to confront Iran’s destabilizing behavior – and to sustain a unity of purpose with our allies – is strengthened with the JCPOA, and weakened without it.

Because of these facts, I believe that the decision to put the JCPOA at risk without any Iranian violation of the deal is a serious mistake. Without the JCPOA, the United States could eventually be left with a losing choice between a nuclear-armed Iran or another war in the Middle East. We all know the dangers of Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon. It could embolden an already dangerous regime; threaten our friends with destruction; pose unacceptable dangers to America’s own security; and trigger an arms race in the world’s most dangerous region. If the constraints on Iran’s nuclear program under the JCPOA are lost, we could be hastening the day when we are faced with the choice between living with that threat, or going to war to prevent it.

In a dangerous world, America must be able to rely in part on strong, principled diplomacy to secure our country. We have been safer in the years since we achieved the JCPOA, thanks in part to the work of our diplomats, many members of Congress, and our allies. Going forward, I hope that Americans continue to speak out in support of the kind of strong, principled, fact-based, and unifying leadership that can best secure our country and uphold our responsibilities around the globe.”

May 8, 2018, in a statement


Joe Biden, Former Vice President

Today’s announcement that the United States will withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal is a profound mistake. It will isolate the United States from nearly every major world power. It will weaken our credibility and global leadership. It will allow Iran to garner international sympathy while doing nothing to reduce its harmful activities across the Middle East.

All it will likely accomplish is to put Iran back on the path to a nuclear weapon with no clear diplomatic way out. This wholly unnecessary crisis could ultimately put the safety of our country and our fellow citizens, including thousands of men and women in uniform serving across the Middle East, at risk by setting us back on a path to war with Iran.

We should continue to work with our allies and partners to counter Iran’s ability to subvert Israel and other partners in the region. However, the deal provided a long-term check on Iran’s pathways to a nuclear bomb, buying us critical time and space to address the regime’s other destabilizing activities.

The fact is that the agreement has been working to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. The International Atomic Energy Agency says so. Our allies in Europe say so. Even the Trump administration has consistently certified Iran’s compliance, a fact confirmed by now-Secretary of State Pompeo's testimony just last month.

Talk of a “better deal” is an illusion. It took years of sanctions pressure, painstaking diplomacy, and the full support of the international community to achieve that goal. We have none of that in place today.

President Trump’s decision will do the opposite of what he says he intends. It will free up Iran’s path to a nuclear weapon and ultimately force us into a binary choice between engaging in a new military conflict or living with a nuclear-armed adversary, both of which pose grave national security risks. And it puts us at odds with our closest European allies, who repeatedly urged the United States to honor the agreement.

As a result, President Trump has manufactured a crisis for his own political interests that puts us on a collision course not only with an adversary but also with our closest partners. It is just the latest example of how President Trump’s notion of “America First” will leave America more alone and less secure.

―May 8, 2018, in a statement 


John Kerry, Former Secretary of State

“Today's announcement weakens our security, breaks America's word, isolates us from our European allies, puts Israel at greater risk, empowers Iran's hardliners, and reduces our global leverage to address Tehran's misbehavior, while damaging the ability of future Administrations to make international agreements. No rhetoric is required. The facts speak for themselves. Instead of building on unprecedented nonproliferation verification measures, this decision risks throwing them away and dragging the world back to the brink we faced a few years ago. The extent of the damage will depend on what Europe can do to hold the nuclear agreement together, and it will depend on Iran’s reaction. America should never have to outsource those stakes to any other country. This is not in America's interests. We should all hope the world can preserve the nuclear agreement."

May 8, 2018, in a statement


Hillary Clinton, Former Secretary of State


Ernest Moniz, Former Secretary of Energy

“President Trump’s decision today to withdraw from the Iranian nuclear deal is a major strategic mistake that not only damages the United States’ ability to prevent Iran from acquiring the material for a nuclear weapon, but also impairs our ability to prevent the spread and use of nuclear weapons, to work with allies and partners on issues of global concern and to protect our interests in the Middle East for years, if not decades, to come. The Iran nuclear deal rolled back Iran’s nuclear program and imposed uniquely stringent monitoring and verification measures—the most important elements of which were permanent—to prevent the country from ever developing a bomb. The United States is now in violation of the terms of the deal without offering a credible alternative.

“The Iran deal is and has always been about depriving Iran of the nuclear materials—highly enriched uranium and plutonium—needed to make a weapon. As international inspectors, who have been on the ground every day since the deal was concluded, have confirmed: the Iran agreement has accomplished this. The fact that the advice of this nation’s most important allies was ignored in this decision adds to the consequence of the President's decision. 

“Remaining in the agreement was very clearly in the U.S. national interest. It’s hard to predict what will unfold from here, but the President has driven a deep wedge between the United States and our allies in Europe and has withdrawn from the process that would allow a comprehensive investigation of the Iran archives recently revealed by Israel.”

May 8, 2018, in a statement


Antony Blinken, Former Deputy Secretary of State


Susan Rice, Former National Security Advsior and US Ambassador to the United Nations

"This agreement was never about trust. It is about stringent verification — in perpetuity. The deal effectively cut off all potential pathways for Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon.

Now President Trump has ceded the moral high ground and freed Iran from all those constraints. Iran will be able to resume its nuclear activities without being blamed for violating the agreement."

"The nuclear deal was never intended, nor was it able, to address Iran’s other pernicious behavior: its support for terrorism, malign influence in neighboring countries and ballistic missile program. But the deal always made good sense because Iran’s nefarious activities would be far more dangerous if they were backed by a nuclear capability. By withdrawing from the deal, we have weakened our ability to address these other concerns.

With Iran unconstrained, Saudi Arabia and others in the region may push to obtain a nuclear capacity. The hard-liners in Iran who never liked the nuclear deal will be strengthened in their bid to destabilize the region, leaving relative moderates like President Hassan Rouhani sidelined. In light of America’s abrogation of its commitments, Russia and China’s position in the region will be bolstered at our expense. Israel may now rush into conflict with Iran, betting it can draw in the United States. Under any scenario, America will be less safe; and in the worst case, we could face the choice of going to war or acquiescing to a nuclear-armed Iran."

May 8, 2018, in a New York Times Op-ed


Ambassador Wendy Sherman, Former Chief Negotiator of the Iran Nuclear Deal

"Iran could start on its way back to getting a nuclear weapon. It raises risk of conflict in the Middle East. It could potentially put our forces at risk everywhere. It also puts Americans being held in Iran more at risk. It will weaken our alliances with Europe, and for that matter Russia and China, who are important to the North Korea negotiation. This is a crisis that Trump is precipitating himself." 

May 8, 2018, according to the Times of Israel

Ben Rhodes, Former Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications


Jarrett Blanc, Former Deputy Lead Coordinator and State Department Coordinator for Iran Nuclear Implementation 

"The Iran deal, formally the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, is dead. This is a dangerous new reality because the deal was working. Iran is complying with its commitments, meaning that it is not threatening the United States and Europe or further destabilizing the region by restarting its historical nuclear weapons program."

"The United States will be worse off from leaving the Iran deal. Either Iran will succeed in exploiting a wedge between America and its allies created by Trump, leaving Washington isolated and unable to lead a coalition to address other provocations, or Iran will return to an unconstrained and uninspected nuclear program. Worst of all, there is little the United States can do to choose between these outcomes. Iran can decide its minimum price from Europe in order to stay in the deal. After decades of America driving the international agenda on Iran, Trump has succeeded only in handing the initiative to Tehran."

May 10, 2018, in an op-ed for The Hill


Ilan Goldenberg, Former Iran Team Chief in the Office of the Under-Secretary of Defense for Policy


Richard Nephew, Former Lead Sanctions Expert for the U.S.-Iran Negotiating Team and Former Director for Iran on the National Security Staff

"Today’s announcement that the president was withdrawing the United States from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is hardly a surprise. Though the JCPOA has withstood many challenges in its short operational period, including campaigns by well-funded and organized groups attempting to kill it, the agreement has been in doubt since the day Donald Trump was elected president. As I noted on Election Day 2016 (to some criticism from my fellow JCPOA proponents), a Trump presidency meant saying “goodbye” to the JCPOA because the United States and Iran both would take steps to raise tensions and undermine the foundations of the agreement. This day has now come.

A fundamental question is where things go from here."

May 8, 2018, in a commentary for the Center on Global Energy Policy 

"The president’s decision to restart the U.S. sanctions effort against Iran is a massive gamble that the threat of exclusion from the U.S. economy will be sufficient to bring Iran back to the negotiating table to renegotiate the JCPOA. Iran has been steadfast in its opposition to this concept, as have U.S. negotiating partners. To be effective, the United States will likely have to threaten and perhaps invoke sanctions that damage its own economic interests and those of its allies. Moreover, the United States will have to do so in the absence of international agreement on the necessity of sanctions or their utility in this context. The Trump administration is likely to find that completely coerced cooperation is less effective than a multilateral approach accepted by the rest of the world.  And, in the end, the United States unintentionally encourages its partners and its adversaries to band together in opposition to a presidential decision, damaging the use of sanctions as a tool in the future. This is a very dangerous moment both insofar as Iran policy and sanctions policy is concerned."

May 8, 2018, according to the Brookings Institution 


Jon Wolfsthal, Former Senior Director for Arms Control and Nonproliferation at the National Security Council

"Trump claims he wants a better deal, one that will constrain Iran’s nuclear ambitions and also address Iran’s missile and regional activities. But the president has shattered global unity, leaving no way to recreate the kind of pressure that forced Iran to end its nuclear efforts in 2015.

And even if there were, why would Iran accept a new agreement with America after having done so with this result? Trump just made the Iranian supreme leader look honest and Iran like a reliable state. No small task. The Iranian people has been taught for a generation that America can’t be trusted, and Trump just proved them right."

May 8, 2018, in an article for USA Today


Robert Malley, Former Special Assistant to the President


Colin Kahl, Former Deputy Assistant to the President and Former National Security Advisor to the Vice President




Click here for President Trump's remarks. 

Click here for the U.S. Treasury's statements on sanctions. 

Click here for Iran's response. 

Click here for world reactions. 

Click here for congressional remarks. 

Click here for analysis by foreign policy and non-proliferation experts. 

Click here for responses from around the Middle East. 

Click here for Iranian media coverage.