Cross-Examination: What is the Iran Deal? Why Did Trump Withdraw? Why Should You Care?


Donald Trump made his opinions clear from the moment he stepped into the political arena in 2016. He had many complaints, including the United States’ role in the Iran Deal. His predecessor Barak Obama, who negotiated the agreement, saw the Iran Deal as “one of his most important accomplishments.”[1] Trump disagreed, labelling it the “worst deal ever.”[2]Over a year since his inauguration, Trump’s insults have turned into substantive action. The Deal required the President to periodically waive economic sanctions on Iran, leaving United States’ continuing participation in the hands of one person. While Trump previously followed through with waiving sanctions, his compliance come to an end. On 8 May, the United States officially announced it would withdraw from the Iran Deal.[3]

What is the Iran Deal?

The Iran Deal is the colloquial name for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the JCPOA). While the text of the JCPOA carefully outlines the particulars of the agreement, the underlying concept is relatively simple. “Iran would get relief from economic sanctions and, in return, it would dismantle parts of its nuclear infrastructure and place limitations on the rest.”[4] The underlying purpose being that the JCPOA would “ensure the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear programme.”[5]The Iran Deal, despite the controversy, has never been a legally binding instrument in international law. It is a political agreement, held together exclusively by the “political will of all sides.”[6] The reason for this structure relates to the sensitive nature of the agreement. A treaty requires agreement from domestic legislators and thus risks 20 months of negotiations becoming meaningless. Additionally, legally binding instruments are generally “more conservative and restrictive”, meaning a treaty may not have achieved the “ambitious scope” the parties hoped to achieve.[7]Having no legal responsibility attached does not mean the deal is without significance. Even without the United States, the Iran Deal involves the most influential nations in the international sphere – China, France, Germany, Russia, and Britain – as well as the European Union.[8] The agreement also has legal implications. Notably, one of the requirements is that Iran provisionally applies the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) Additional Protocol which requires more expansive declarations of nuclear activity and allows IAEA “access to all sites which information has been provided.”[9] While this still leaves scope for Iran to stop applying the Additional Protocol, they will be responsible for any breach that occurs during the provisional application.[10]

What is the problem with the Iran Deal?

In the United States, support for the Iran Deal has always seen a divide down partisan lines. Republicans have opposed the concept of this deal since before it was even signed. In early 2015, senator Tom Cotton organised a letter, signed by 47 Republican senators, warning Iranian leaders the JCPOA could be reversed “with the stroke of a pen.”[11]Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a speech at the Heritage Foundation explaining the Trump administration’s rationale for withdrawing, reflecting core ideas of the Republican stance.[12] Most predominately is the belief that the Iran Deal does not do enough to “guarantee the safety of the American people from the risk created by the leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran.” Pompeo claimed Iran entered the JCPOA “in bad faith” as they have “lied for years about having had a nuclear weapons program” and “continues to lie” today. (This is despite UN officials repeatedly confirming Iran’s compliance).[13] Moreover, the JCPOA ignores the multitude of destructive regimes Iran supports in the Middle East – Pompeo’s list including the Assad regime in Syria, the Taliban, and Hamas. From the perspective of Pompeo, Trump, and likely many others in their party, all the Iran Deal achieves is enriching Iranians and aiding the “cost-free expansion of Iranian power.”

What now?

As the Iran Deal was not a legally binding agreement, no legal ramifications will follow for the US withdrawal. The question of what happens next is thus open to speculation.The Trump Administration have made their intentions publicly known in Pompeo’s speech.[14] They want a new agreement with Iran, but instead of negotiating, Pompeo gave 12 specific demands. This list includes the content of the original agreement – stopping Iran’s capacity for nuclear weapons – but adds additional conditions, such as Iran releasing all US hostages, ending their support of various “terrorist” groups, and withdrawing Iranian forces from Syria. Until Iran complies, Pompeo said the US would use “unprecedented financial pressure.” The tactic being to force Iran to choose between its economy or “squandering precious wealth on fights abroad.”While the United States’ Government appears firm on their stance, other variables make their plan seem less viable. Firstly, the US were never the only party in this agreement. Academic and CIA veteran Paul R. Pillar predicted that “new sanctions legislation and other Iran-punishing moves by the U.S.” posed the “greatest danger of the nuclear agreement unravelling.”[15] The European states are attempting to save the Deal regardless, but it will not be an easy feat. At a meeting of State officials in Vienna, Iran made its basic demand that Europe cover the cost of US sanctions.[16] The complication here is that the US Treasury imposes ‘secondary sanctions’, fining European firms who trade with Iran. Therefore, the United States’ actions are inherently more significant than solely the possible financial burden on Europe. US sanctions are infringing on other states’ sovereignty, and are doing so on the basis of action Europe did not agree to. Whether or not the Deal survives, Trump has likely done damage to his European relationships, meaning he would struggle to gain their support in his future plans for Iran.An additional element that has received little obvious consideration is the historical context. Iran and the United States’ relationship has been turbulent for decades, with each nation pointing the blame. Americans remember the Tehran embassy invasion and subsequent hostage situation in 1979.[17] Iran’s perspective goes back further, to the CIA supporting the 1953 overthrow of democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh.[18] Tension has consistently underpinned interactions between Iran and the US. In light of this, the fact that the original agreement was reached is itself “remarkable.”[19] Trump’s approach of strength and aggression would logically only inflame feelings of distrust. Potentially, a hard-line tactic would leave Iran no other option but to capitulate. Before this happens though, the strain between Iran and US could have unexpected and unwanted consequences. Especially given that if the Iran Deal does not survive, limits on Iran’s nuclear capability disappear with it.

Implications for New Zealand

Although New Zealand was not part of the negotiations or the 2015 agreement, that does not mean we have been unaffected by the Iran Deal. While this is a deal motivated by security concerns and issues of nuclear weapons, its economic tools are employed to achieve the ultimate aims. Lifting sanctions is not just relevant for Iran, but any business wishing to trade with Iran.New Zealand was not obliged to lift sanctions, but the Iran Deal created the political environment when it could follow suit. In early 2016, then Foreign Minister Murray McCully announced that sanctions would be lifted to enable “New Zealand businesses to deal with Iran again without having to get special approval from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.”[20] Previously, Iran was one of New Zealand’s largest export markets. Sanctions left little room for a thriving economic relationship, with exports dropping from $163 million in 2014 to under $90 million one year later. In 2017, after sanctions were lifted, figures begin to rise again, with exports reaching $120,000 million.[21]

Previously, Iran was one of New Zealand’s largest export markets... In 2017, after sanctions were lifted, figures begin to rise again, with exports reaching $120,000 million.

The potential of the Iran Deal failing and Iran’s external relationships deteriorating leaves a question mark above New Zealand’s position. Minister for Trade and Export David Parker in a recent interview clearly articulated the New Zealand’s general stance on the matter. "We favoured the deal because we thought it was important to try and prevent nuclear proliferation in the Middle East. We would prefer that the deal stick."[22] In reality, New Zealand does not have deep involvement in this area, and likely the only option is to wait to see the outcome of negotiations overseas. However, Parker suggested that the budget was tuned to expect complications. Iran "is yet another example of the real complexity in shifting sands in relation to trade and other foreign affair issues”, and it forms one of the reasons the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade received more money in the budget – to ensure they can “look after New Zealand's interests."[23]The views expressed in the posts and comments of this blog do not necessarily reflect those of the Equal Justice Project. They should be understood as the personal opinions of the author. No information on this blog will be understood as official. The Equal Justice Project makes no representations as to the accuracy or completeness of any information on this site or found by following any link on this site. The Equal Justice Project will not be liable for any errors or omissions in this information nor for the availability of this information.Featured image source:[1] Dennis C. Jett The Iran Nuclear Deal (Palgrave Macmillan, Cham, 2018) at 40.[2] “Iran nuclear: Trump extends Obama’s ‘worst deal ever’” (17 May 2017) BBC <>.[3] Mark Landler “Trump Abandons Iran Nuclear Deal He Long Scorned” The New York Times (online ed, New York, 8 May 2018).[4] Jett, above n 1, at 1.[5] Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Preamble and General Provisions, at ii.[6] Daniel H. Joyner Iran’s Nuclear Program and International Law (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2016) at 243.[7] Joyner, above n 5, at 228-229.[8] Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Preamble and General Provisions, at i.[9] Joyner, above n 5, at 234.[10] Joyner, above n 5, at 233.[11] Michael C. Dorf “The Senators’ Letter to Iran and Domestic Incorporation of International Law” (2016) 131 Political Science Quarterly 45 at 45.[12] Mike Pompeo, US Secretary of State “After the Deal: A New Iran Strategy” (speech at the Heritage Foundation, Washington DC, 21 May 2018).[13] Hassan Rouhani “World leaders react to US withdrawal from Iranian nuclear deal” (9 May 2018) Al Jazeera <>.[14] Pompeo, above n 11.[15] Paul R. Pillar “What Would Be Most Likely to Unravel the Iran Nuclear Agreement” The National Interest (online ed, United States, 4 February 2016).[16] Patrick Wintour “Iran lists demands for staying in nuclear deal” The Guardian (online ed, Britain, 25 May 2018).[17] Jett, above n 1, at 25.[18] Jett, above n 1, at 1.[19] Jett, above n 1, at 1.[20] Claire Trevett “New Zealand lifts sanctions against Iran” The New Zealand Herald (online ed, New Zealand, 19 February 2016).[21] Kim Baker Wilson “NZ exporters cautious about dealing with Iran” (10 May 2018) Radio New Zealand <>.[22] Wilson, above n 21.[23] Wilson, above n 21.