After the Withdrawal from the JCPOA: Strategies for the Trump Administration

Event Information



The Middle East Policy Council convened its 93rd Capitol Hill Conference on Friday, July 20th: “After the Withdrawal from the JCPOA: Strategies for the Trump Administration.” Following the U.S. pullout from the nuclear deal with Iran, there has been limited debate about what follows. The panelists expressed skepticism about the Trump administration’s sanctions-focused strategy towards Iran, while offering subtle suggestions for how the United States can more effectively exert pressure on Iran in the future.


Richard J. Schmierer (former U.S. Ambassador to Oman; President and Chairman of the Board of Directors, Middle East Policy Council) moderated the event and Thomas R. Mattair (Executive Director, Middle East Policy Council) was the discussant. The panelists were David Albright (Founder and President, Institute for Science and International Security); Karen Young (Senior Resident Scholar, Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington); Michael Eisenstadt (Senior Fellow, Program Director, Military and Security Studies at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy); and Norman Roule (Former Officer, CIA; Former National Intelligence Manager for Iran, DNI).


Mr. Albright outlined the inherent problems with the JCPOA. The deal’s sunset provision could allow Iran to build a nuclear weapon within the next decade. The JCPOA also didn’t resolve past questions about Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Given the high probability for future confrontation with Iran even if the U.S. had stayed in the JCPOA, Mr. Albright explained that the Trump administration decided to confront Iran now rather than pursue smaller fixes to the agreement. The Trump administration appears to be calculating that re-imposing sanctions will entice Iran back to the negotiating table eventually. But as the U.S. has also moved the enrichment goalpost from “limited enrichment” to “zero enrichment,” this outcome is far from certain. Mr. Albright does see a high probability for a future “trainwreck” in U.S. – Iran relations, but hopes that continued IAEA inspections can at least gather some new information on Iran’s past nuclear program and its present compliance with the terms of the JCPOA.


Dr. Young elaborated on the economic dimension of the U.S. withdrawal and how this may impact geopolitics. Clearly, Iran will be more isolated as U.S. sanctions become harsher again, and there is a high probability of a major financial crisis on the horizon there. Already, there have been numerous pre-emptive exits from the Iranian market, and the EU has less ability to intervene on behalf of EU firms operating there. While the U.S. and EU never were large trading partners with Iran, the U.S. withdrawal is likely to impact Russia and China more significantly. Iran stood to be a competitor to Russia in natural-gas exports under the JCPOA, and Iran’s weakened market position after the U.S. withdrawal could bolster Russia. China also stands to benefit, “free riding” off the U.S. security umbrella in the region while being the largest consumer of Iranian oil exports. Dr. Young noted how these dynamics with Russia and China illustrate some of the ways that the “America First” approach benefits U.S. rivals.


Mr. Eisenstadt views the U.S. strategy towards Iran as being unbalanced and overly reliant on sanctions. Admittedly, some of the Trump administration’s Iran policy is rooted in domestic U.S. politics, as candidate Trump made repeated vows to exit the JCPOA. But timing is everything, and the U.S. withdrawal seems badly timed and lacks a back-up plan in the event the current “maximum pressure” approach does not work. Mr. Eisenstadt imagined what a more comprehensive approach could look like, arguing that the U.S. has a credibility gap not having responded more forcefully to Iranian proxies and cyberattacks against the U.S. and its allies. Establishing clearer “red lines” in these areas, as well as pushing back more forcefully (as the U.S. has been doing in Syria against Iranian assets over the past year) could make an impression on Iranian leadership. And while it is possible that the Trump policy might work in the long run, there are always unintended consequences to policy shifts like the JCPOA withdrawal. The U.S. needs to be better prepared for them.


Mr. Roule highlighted how the Iran threat is strategic (markets, geopolitics), lethal (terrorism), and urgent (posing a direct security threat to U.S. allies like Saudi Arabia). The Iranian threat has actually expanded considerably since 2011, particularly through the use of proxies in Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain and Iraq, not to mention various arrests in Europe over the past year of Iranian agents planning terrorist activities there. But despite this expansion, Mr. Roule suggested that the Iranian regime is in a period of uncertainty, and this may limit pursuit of further nefarious activities. The regime needs the financial relief provided by the JCPOA, and may continue to adhere to it in order to preserve ties to the EU. As senior leadership changes in Iran in the coming years and faces growing domestic frustration about living up to the ideals of the revolution, Iranian leadership will face growing pressure to deliver on economic promises to its people.


The full video from the event is available on the Middle East Policy Council website. A full transcript from the event will be posted in a few days at and published in the next issue of the journal Middle East Policy. For members of the media interested in contacting these speakers or other members of the Middle East Policy Council’s leadership, please email

Event Speakers

David Albright

Founder and President, Institute for Science and International Security


Dr. Karen E. Young

Senior Resident Scholar, The Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington

Adjunct faculty member in political science, George Washington University, Johns Hopkins (SAIS)


Michael Eisenstadt

Director, Military & Security Studies Program, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy


Norman T. Roule

Former Officer, Central Intelligence Agency

Former National Intelligence Manager for Iran (NIM-I), Office of the Director of National Intelligence

Senior Adviser to the Counter Extremism Project and United Against Nuclear Iran




Amb. Richard J. Schmierer

Chairman and President, Middle East Policy Council

Former Ambassador, Sultanate of Oman



Dr. Thomas R. Mattair

Executive Director, Middle East Policy Council

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