May 08, 2018 | 3:15 PM
After President Trump said we would pull the U.S. out of the nuclear deal, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani reiterated that Iran complied with its obligations under the accord and that the U.S. did not. (Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA; Iranian Presidency Office via Associated Press)
President Trump said Tuesday that he is pulling the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal, the most consequential foreign policy decision of his presidency so far, and will reinstate a punishing array of U.S. economic sanctions on Tehran that were lifted under the landmark 2015 accord.
Speaking from the Diplomatic Reception Room at the White House, Trump said he would impose the "highest level of economic sanctions" on Iran. Countries or companies that continue to invest in or do business there could risk violating U.S. sanctions, with vast political and economic repercussions.
The decision was more severe than diplomats had expected and sent shock waves around the globe. It could isolate the United States among its largest European allies, all of which had pleaded with Trump to keep the historic pact intact while they tried to fix its flaws.
In an 11-minute address, Trump called the Iran deal "decaying and rotten," but he did not offer any specifics of how he would replace it or how he would restrain Iran from rebuilding its nuclear infrastructure should it choose to do so.
The White House said new sanctions would target Iran's energy, petrochemical and financial sectors. That effectively takes the United States out of the agreement even though the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations nuclear watchdog agency, repeatedly has found that Iran is complying with its requirements.
"We're out of the deal. We're out of the deal," John Bolton, Trump's national security advisor and a longtime opponent of the accord, said emphatically after the president's address.
He said the "only sure way" to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons is to abandon the deal and craft a new pact that also restricts Tehran's support for terrorism, its ballistic missile program and its role fostering turmoil in Syria, Yemen and elsewhere.
Trump had faced a self-imposed Saturday deadline to renew waivers that eased sanctions on Iran's central bank, which deals with that nation's oil exports. Another set of sanctions, focused on more than 400 Iranian companies, individuals and sectors, is up for renewal July 11.
Companies with existing contracts would be given 90 or 180 days, depending on the industry, to wind them down. Countries that buy oil from Iran will have to steadily lower imports. The Treasury Department will begin blacklisting Iranian banks and other entities by November.
Trump's pull-out pleased Iran hawks in Congress and U.S. allies in Israel and Saudi Arabia, which both agreed with Trump that the deal gave Iran too much leeway to someday rebuild nuclear programs that could be used to produce a bomb.
Reinstating sanctions on Iran's oil exports would most directly affect Europe, Japan and South Korea. But it probably would lead to a jump in oil prices and higher U.S. prices at the pump. Beneficiaries of rising crude oil prices would include Russia, Venezuela and other producers.
Trump's decision could ratchet up tensions in the already volatile Middle East, strain relations with U.S. allies in Europe, complicate dealings with Russia and China, and undermine Trump's efforts to get North Korea to give up its nuclear arsenal.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement that Israel "fully supports" Trump's decision.
"Israel has opposed the nuclear deal from the start because we said that rather than blocking Iran's path to a bomb, the deal actually paved Iran's path to an entire arsenal of nuclear bombs, and this within a few years' time," he said. "The deal didn't push war further away, it actually brought it closer."
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said his country would remain in the deal for now and open negotiations with the remaining signatories about preserving the accord. "If we can guarantee our interests, we will save it," he said on Iranian TV.
But he said he had ordered two Iranian atomic energy organizations to be ready to resume industrial-scale uranium enrichment in several weeks if the negotiations are not successful.
Rouhani reiterated that Iran has complied with its obligations under the accord and that it was the United States that did not fulfill its commitments.
"I am sorry for the American people who are a great people but unfortunately administrated by people who are not wise," he said.
Former President Obama, who has rarely criticized Trump in public, staunchly defended what he considered a signature achievement for his administration. In a lengthy statement Tuesday, he called Trump's decision "misguided" and "a serious mistake."
It "turns our back on America's closest allies, and an agreement that our country's leading diplomats, scientists, and intelligence professionals negotiated," Obama said.
He added, "the consistent flouting of agreements that our country is a party to risks eroding America's credibility, and puts us at odds with the world's major powers."
The other signatories to the Iran accord — Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany — vowed to continue to honor the agreement, although it's not clear how they will negotiate the web of U.S. sanctions.
French President Emmanuel Macron, who visited the White House last month to urge Trump to stay in the deal and spoke to him by phone early Tuesday, tweeted a warning: "The nuclear non-proliferation regime is at stake."
In a joint statement, Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Theresa May expressed "regret and concern" about Trump's decision. They said the Iran deal "remains important for our shared security."
The European Union's top diplomat, Federica Mogherini, said the bloc would do all it could to maintain the pact. "It belongs to the entire international community," she told reporters in Rome. "The European Union is determined to preserve it."
Underscoring the U.S. isolation, the U.N. secretary general, Antonio Guterres, said he was "deeply concerned" and called on other parties to "abide fully by their respective commitments" under the accord.
Turkey, a NATO ally, vowed to defy the sanctions. Turkey's economy minister, Nihat Zeybekci, told CNN Turk that to the extent possible, Turkey would continue trade with Iran.
It wasn't immediately clear if Russia, China and other major trading partners would also attempt to buck the sanctions. That could increase tensions with those countries or weaken the U.S. effort to pressure Iran.
"I don't think China's going to play ball at all," said Richard Nephew, who was the Obama administration's lead sanctions adviser in crafting the nuclear deal. "I think they're going to push back real damn hard."
Trump's new national security team, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Bolton, were vociferous critics of the deal. Trump said Pompeo is en route to North Korea for the second time in a month to help prepare for a planned summit with ruler Kim Jong Un.
"As we exit the Iran deal, we will be working with our allies to find a real, comprehensive and lasting solution to the Iranian threat," Pompeo said.
"As we build this global effort, sanctions will go into full effect and will remind the Iranian regime of the diplomatic and economic isolation that results from its reckless and malign activity," he added.
In a speech that frequently echoed his campaign rally rhetoric, Trump denounced the deal in harsh terms and accused the Obama administration of producing "a great embarrassment."
"This was a horrible, one-sided deal that never, ever should have been made," Trump said. "It didn't bring calm. It didn't bring peace, and it never will."
Trump said his decision sends a "critical message" to friends and adversaries: "The United States no longer makes empty threats."
The Iran accord lifted crippling sanctions that had locked Iran out of international banking and the global oil trade. In return, Tehran limited its ability to enrich uranium, reconfigured a heavy-water reactor to block it from producing plutonium, drastically reduced its uranium stockpile and agreed to international inspections and monitoring.
Critics of the deal argue that its inspection provisions are too weak, that its restrictions on enrichment of uranium and nuclear development are time-limited and that the deal did not address Iran's development and testing of ballistic missiles, or its support for militant groups in Yemen, Lebanon and elsewhere in the Mideast.
Supporters say that Iran has abided by the terms and that ending the agreement would cut off the ability of United Nations nuclear inspectors to keep an eye on the potentially dangerous government.
Reaction tended to break on partisan lines on Capitol Hill, with Democrats broadly critical of the decision .
"An agreement that prevents Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon is one thing that should never be undone," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) "The greatest threat to the United States and Israel is a nuclear-armed Iran, and the agreement prevents that. There is absolutely no sound reason to exit at this time."
Even some congressional opponents of the deal urged Trump not to withdraw from it shortly before he appeared at the microphone.
Rep. Ed Royce, the Fullerton Republican who heads the House Foreign Affairs Committee, pointed to his own past criticism of the deal, which he has called fundamentally flawed. But he urged Trump to "double down on diplomacy" to fix it. He said tearing up the deal would not reverse Iran's ability to collect its previously frozen assets.
"That toothpaste isn't going back into the tube," he said. "It also won't help galvanize our allies into addressing Iran's dangerous activities that threaten us all. I fear a withdrawal would actually set back these efforts. And Congress has heard nothing about an alternative."
Times staff writers David S. Cloud, Laura King and Sarah Wire in Washington, Alexandra Zavis in Jerusalem, and special correspondent Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran contributed to this story.