CBRN Assessment

US president adopting policy of testing limits of nuclear agreement, increasing risk of deal's collapse

30 July 2017

Key Points

  • President Trump has previously twice certified Iranian compliance with the JCPOA, primarily to buy time while his administration reviews and formulates its Iran strategy.
  • The JCPOA is likely perceived by Trump as rewarding what he sees as Iran's malign regional behaviour. It is also a major impediment to his administration's preferred policy option of tightening sanctions on Iran, as the administration currently appears unwilling to commit to game-changing military action against Iran.
  • While Trump seeks to undermine the agreement and re-impose nuclear sanctions on Iran, he is likely to prioritise actions intended to force Iranian withdrawal or re-negotiation. Nonetheless, a unilateral US withdrawal remains on the table.


US President Donald Trump said in an interview on 25 July that he would be "surprised" if he declared Iran in compliance with the nuclear agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), in October.

US options

Then-presidential candidate Donald Trump at a Capitol Hill rally against the Iranian nuclear agreement on 10 September 2015. (PA: 24048418)Then-presidential candidate Donald Trump at a Capitol Hill rally against the Iranian nuclear agreement on 10 September 2015. (PA: 24048418)

Under the United States' Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act 2015, the president must certify to the US Congress Iran's compliance with the nuclear agreement every 90 days. President Trump's statement on 25 July comes after he certified Iranian compliance in April and July, albeit begrudgingly, following recommendations of the realist wing of his national security team (National Security Advisor Herbert McMaster, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson), who argue that a US-instigated collapse of the JCPOA would isolate the US and weaken its ability to re-enforce multilateral sanctions on Iran. However, reports of Trump assigning the Iran file to a group of more hawkish advisers, including Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka, who are less committed to the JCPOA's survival, indicate the president's increasing frustration with the status quo, efforts at expanding the administration's options vis-à-vis Iran, and commitment to a high-profile campaign promise.

Beyond military action, the US has limited options in exerting pressure on Iran via sanctions while it remains compliant with the JCPOA, which allowed for resumption of critical non-US trade and investment in Iran.

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