QUICK TAKES // BY BEN FRANKELFiasco: How Trump’s 2018 Decision Facilitated Iran’s Nuclear-Weapons Program

Published 28 December 2023

The 2015 nuclear deal between the world powers and Iran made it impossible for Iran to build nuclear weapons for at least twenty years – from 2015 until about 2035. Critics of the deal, lamenting the deal’s sunset clauses, said they were worried about Iran being (relatively) free to build an infrastructure for nuclear weapons in 2030-2035, once some of the deal’s clauses were set to expire. It was a legitimate concern. But the answer to that perceived weakness in the deal was not the answer Donald Trump gave in May 2018: to unilaterally withdraw from the deal and thus make it possible for Iran to build its first bomb in 2024.

In 2006, three years after the United States launched the war against Iraq, Thomas Friedman wrote in his weekly column in the New York Times that there were so many books out on the Bush policy in Iraq with variations of the word “fiasco” in the title or the text, that bookstores had to be redesigned to create shelf space for that war: “Welcome to Barnes & Noble: We have fiction and nonfiction on the main floor, poetry and mystery in the corner, children’s books upstairs, and the ‘Bush Fiasco’ section across the entire basement.”

It is not long now before bookstores will have to be redesigned yet again to devote sufficient shelf space for another wave of books with variations of the word “fiasco” in the title or the text. The books in the “Trump Fiasco” section will be books on Donald Trump’s May 2018 decision to withdraw unilaterally from the 2015 nuclear deal between the world powers and Iran.

There are several worthy contenders for the title of the worst foreign-policy decision by a U.S. administration in the post-World War Two period. We would want to mention the 1965 escalation of the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam war, and then staying in Vietnam for ten years; the decision to invade Iraq in 2003 and stay there for more than a decade; the decision to stay in Afghanistan for twenty years after toppling the Taliban regime. There are other contenders.

In Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, the United States paid dearly in blood and treasure in futile, hopeless, and unwinnable efforts to build Western-style democracies in countries where conditions and traditions were inhospitable, if not outright hostile, to this goal.

In the case of Iraq, the reward for U.S. wasteful sacrifices was turning a Sunni-ruled – if brutally ruled — country and an enemy of Iran’s ayatollahs into a Shi’a-ruled state which is now a tacit ally of Iran.

The U.S. wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq were all exceedingly bad and costly mistakes, but none had the long-term, game-changing, dire consequences as Donald Trump’s flagrantly bad decision to facilitate Iran’s emergence as a nuclear-weapons state by unilaterally withdrawing from the 2015 nuclear deal – and replacing the deal with nothing.