CIA predicted the Iran crisis that spiraled out of Trump pulling the US from the 2015 nuclear deal

President Donald Trump holds up a memorandum reinstating sanctions on Iran after announcing his decision in May 2018 to withdraw the United States from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

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President Donald Trump holds up a memorandum reinstating sanctions on Iran after announcing his decision in May 2018 to withdraw the United States from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
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Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

  • About a year before President Donald Trump pulled the US from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, the CIA circulated a classified report that largely predicted the crisis that would ensue from such a decision.
  • According to The New York Times Magazine, the report warned that “radical elements of the government could be empowered and moderates sidelined, and Iran might try to exploit a diplomatic rupture to unleash an attack in the Persian Gulf, Iraq or elsewhere in the Middle East.”
  • Since Trump pulled the US from the deal in May 2018, tensions between the US and Iran have spiraled toward conflict as Tehran has placed increasing pressure on Europe to save the deal by offering it relief from US sanctions.
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Roughly a year before President Donald Trump withdrew the US from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, the CIA predicted that “radical elements” of the Iranian government would be emboldened by the Trump administration taking a hardline stance against Tehran, according to a New York Times Magazine report.

At the time, the CIA circulated a classified document that offered a “simple” and prescient conclusion, the Times report said – that “radical elements of the government could be empowered and moderates sidelined, and Iran might try to exploit a diplomatic rupture to unleash an attack in the Persian Gulf, Iraq or elsewhere in the Middle East.”

The CIA’s predictions outlined in the Times’ report have largely come true.

Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal created a crisis that’s sparked fears of war

Trump withdrew the US from the Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, in May 2018. His decision went against the advice of foreign-policy and nuclear experts and was condemned by key US allies.

Since then, tensions between Washington and Tehran have steadily increased, reaching a boiling point this summer and sparking fears of a new war in the Middle East, particularly after the US deployed military assets to the region in May.

Read more: Here’s what’s in the landmark nuclear deal that Iran just violated amid tensions with Trump

The Trump administration has pursued a “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran since withdrawing from the deal, slapping it with harsh economic sanctions with the goal of pushing it toward negotiating and accepting a more stringent version of the 2015 deal. Foreign-policy experts and former national officials have expressed skepticism at the notion that Trump could negotiate a “better” deal than the Obama-era nuclear pact, to which key US allies remain committed.

Iran remained in compliance with the 2015 deal until July, when it began violating key portions by increasing its uranium stockpile and exceeding limits on uranium enrichment. This came not long after oil tanker attacks in the Persian Gulf, which the Trump administration blamed on Iran.

Iran also shot down a US drone in June, which almost led Trump to approve retaliatory military strikes, and in July it seized a British-flagged tanker in the Gulf of Oman in retaliation for the UK’s seizure of an Iranian tanker in Gibraltar.

Current and former US officials have pointed to Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 deal as the catalyst for Iran’s aggressive behavior.

Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut in May told Insider that while he did not defend Iran’s actions, “we knew this was the likely outcome” of “backing out of the JCPOA.”

“We’re backing them into a corner, and you just don’t know what happens when a country as belligerent as Iran starts to panic,” Murphy said.

Similarly, Aaron David Miller, a former State Department adviser, in June told Insider that we were witnessing an “unraveling” that began when Trump withdrew from the deal.

Trump’s hawkish advisers have driven the crisis with Iran

Trump’s Iran policy has been driven by advisers with reputations as foreign-policy hawks: John Bolton, the national security adviser, and Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state.

In the past, Bolton has openly advocated military strikes against Iran. And though the Trump administration has maintained that its policy is not designed to lead to regime change in Tehran, some in Washington aren’t entirely convinced.

The Trump administration in late July sanctioned Iran’s top diplomat, Mohammad Javad Zarif. Matt Duss, a foreign-policy adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, told Insider that this move showed there was “clearly a faction inside” the Trump administration whose goal with Iran is “clearly regime change,” pointing to Bolton and Pompeo.

Duss said these advisers, who are supported by anti-Iran groups in Washington, had “this fantasy” that if they maintain “maximum pressure” on Tehran then “something will happen, and we’ll end up with an Iranian government that’s better.”

“The problem is that’s never happened,” Duss said, describing their approach to US-Iran relations as “unfalsifiable” and “completely ideological.”

The 2015 nuclear deal is crumbling

In late August, Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani signaled that they’d be open to holding talks under the right conditions. Rouhani, perhaps under pressure from hardliners in his government, quickly clarified that he would sit down with Trump only if the US lifted sanctions that have crippled the Iranian economy.

Rouhani on Tuesday ruled out bilateral discussions with the US but said Iran would be open to multilateral discussions if the US agreed to lift all sanctions.

Read more: The US hit Iran with a secret cyberattack to disrupt oil tanker attacks the same day Trump almost authorized military strikes

On Wednesday, the Iranian president said Iran would soon take an “extraordinary” step away from the 2015 nuclear accord, giving European countries who have rushed to save the deal a two-month deadline to alleviate the harm of renewed US sanctions, The Guardian reported.

In his comments on Wednesday, Rouhani blamed Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 deal – and hardliners within his administration – for the situation.

“Hardliners, neocons and racists in the US do not want the relationship between Iran and the US to be right – whenever we move forward, they spoil it,” he said, according to The Guardian. “The US exit from the nuclear deal was the result of this triangle of radicalism inside the White House.”

Later in the day on Wednesday, Rouhani announced Iran will begin developing more advanced centrifuges in what represents the country’s third step away from the JCPOA. The move could enable Iran to develop a nuclear bomb more rapidly.

“From Friday, we will witness research and development on different kinds of centrifuges and new centrifuges and also whatever is needed for enriching uranium in an accelerated way,” Rouhani said in a televised speech. “All limitations on our Research and Development will be lifted on Friday.”