The Three Crises Sparked by Trump's Withdrawal From the Iran Deal

The seriousness of the problems caused by the president's abrupt exit will be impossible for him to ignore.

President Trump holding a signed memorandum
Evan Vucci / AP

President Trump has just pushed the plunger on a sequence of crises.

The first will be a crisis with allies and other partners. Will they agree to reimpose their sanctions on Iran? It’s not just NATO countries that will have to be cajoled or coerced. Complying with UN-voted sanctions, India reduced its dependence on Iranian crude oil from 13 percent of its imports in 2009–2010 to 5 percent in 2014–2015. Iran, the second-largest oil supplier to the world’s third-biggest oil importer before the sanctions hit, is rapidly recovering its market share—and India plans to double its imports in the coming year. What’s the plan for getting India back on board?

China has emerged as Iran’s largest trading partner. Its trade with Iran jumped 30 percent in the first six months of 2017. China has extended credits to Iran totaling some $35 billion, a significant sum for the shaky Iranian economy. Who will make China stop?

America’s European allies have been more cautious about expanding trade with Iran. Yet will their publics allow their governments to follow the despised and distrusted Trump administration into an escalating confrontation with Iran? Fifty-six percent of Germans describe relations with the United States as bad or very bad.

Trump has never valued allies or partners. The only relationship he understands is one of power: He commands; others obey. But on Iran, the most relevant partners are precisely those who cannot be compelled to obey. Perhaps he imagines he can blackmail them: Join me in imposing new sanctions or else I’ll start a war that you will like even less. That is a bluff at serious risk of being called.

The second is a crisis with Iran itself. One bad consequence of President Obama’s 2015 deal is that Iran is now a better-armed, better-financed adversary than it was then. Thanks in great measure to Trump’s own decisions, Iran has also gained a big victory for Assad’s client regime in Syria. It can retaliate against U.S. interests in all kinds of ways. It can escalate its terror campaign against Israel by using Hezbollah and Hamas. It can green-light a hot war against Israel in Gaza. It can also accelerate its drive for outright nuclear-weapons-state status.

One reckoning puts the number of U.S. troops in Syria at some 2,000; the Pentagon acknowledges 5,200 U.S. troops in Iraq. That’s a lot of hostages to whatever payback scheme Iran may have in mind.

The third crisis—the most ominous of them all—is a potential crisis with North Korea. Trump admirers are debating whether he should display his Nobel Prize at Mar-a-Lago or Trump Tower. On the evidence of his Twitter feed, Trump has convinced himself that the Kim regime has been subdued, ready to surrender its nuclear weapons at a grand summit with Trump. He may soon face the rude shock of discovering that the Kim regime believes instead that it has bested him. What happens if or when North Korea resumes weapons tests that threaten U.S. cities at exactly the same time as Trump is blustering against Iran? Even one nuclear crisis is a lot; two in the same summer seems overwhelming—especially for a president whose thoughts are day by day consumed by his own ever-intensifying legal troubles.

Hopes in 2017 that Trump would be contained by his aides and advisers have long since been exposed as unrealistic. Trump is being Trump, the chaos president drawing the world into chaos after him.