Citing statements from several high-ranking security officials from the Netanyahu government, a recent article in the Israeli daily Haaretz argues that the U.S. withdrawal in 2018 from the nuclear agreement with the Islamic Republic—flawed though it was—only served to bring that country closer to possessing atomic weapons. Eli Lake rejects this conclusion:
The argument is straightforward: President Trump withdrew from the deal and reimposed economic sanctions, but the Iranians held tight. At first slowly, but then brazenly, Iran’s regime began to stockpile more nuclear fuel, upgrade its centrifuges, and advance its nuclear program. In retrospect, the former Israeli officials now say, it would have been better to remain in the deal.
But context is everything. . . . Iran’s recent nuclear advances—the International Atomic Energy Agency announced this week that Iran is enriching uranium to 20 percent at an underground facility—would have been delayed but not prevented under the 2015 deal. The restrictions on uranium enrichment, for example, would have expired in 2031.
Another important piece of context is that in 2017, when Trump took office, Iran was using the financial windfall from the deal—unfrozen assets and the removal of sanctions—to send cash to its meddling proxies in the Middle East, improve its missile program, and intensify its regional war on U.S. allies. At the very least, Trump’s economic pressure made all those efforts more difficult.
More context: Iran’s leaders bet on the Democrats returning to power in 2021, and that’s why they made no serious effort to negotiate when Trump was president. Had Trump been re-elected in 2020, it’s possible the Iranians would have entered negotiations to avoid four more years of economic pain.