Trump’s cabinet changes have big implications for Iran nuclear deal

By: Nathan Lake, Middle East Section
Analytical Question: Will the P5+1 continue to support the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in 2018?

US President Donald Trump recently fired and then replaced two key members of his cabinet who had significant influence on foreign policy and national security. The firing of the National Security advisor and the Secretary of State, as well as the replacements for those positions, indicate that the US will withdraw from Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in 2018.

In the summer of 2015, the P5+1 came to a legally binding agreement with Iran that provided economic sanctions relief in return for constraints on Iran’s nuclear program. The P5+1 are the six countries bound to this agreement with Iran —namely the US, the UK, Russia, China, France, and Germany. In January of 2018, US president Donald Trump de-certified the deal and threatened to withdraw if specific aspects of the deal were not amended.1 President Trump’s original Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, and National Security advisor H.R. McMaster have both been reported to have tried to dissuade president Trump from withdrawing from the deal.

On March 13, 2018, President Trump announced that Mike Pompeo would succeed Secretary of State Tillerson, although the Senate must approve this nomination. On March 22, John Bolton was named by the White House as the replacement for National Security advisor following the dismissal of H.R. McMaster.

These developments may have important ramifications for the continuation of Washington’s support for the Joint Compressive Plan of Action. That is because the individuals that replaced Tillerson and McMaster have fundamentally different views on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action than their predecessors. While McMaster and Tillerson generally advocated for the US to stay in the deal, their replacements have not done so, and have called for the US to have a tougher foreign policy stance regarding Iran. Appointing John Bolton to National Security advisor seems to be the most indicative event of these developments, as he has been the most vocal in his opposition to continued American support for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of action. Just last year Bolton, a former US ambassador to the United Nations, wrote an article titled “Trump must withdraw from Iran nuclear deal —now”. In addition to calling the nuclear agreement a “strategic debacle” for the US4, Bolton has also compared trying to fix the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action to “putting lipstick on a pig”. John Bolton went on to clarify what he meant by this, by saying that the agreement “would make no difference”. Mike Pompeo has said “Congress must act to change Iranian behavior, and, ultimately, the Iranian regime.” This quote may be aimed directly at the Iran Nuclear Deal, given that Congress holds the power to re-impose sanctions on Iran, effectively ending American participation in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

Considering these developments, it can be said with high confidence that the P5+1 will not continue to uniformly support the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. The action taken by the president of the United States to dismiss two senior officials that lobbied for the US to stay in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, and replace them with two critics of the deal, indicate that a US withdrawal may be imminent. The reporting on these developments is reliable because of the transparent nature of the American government regarding who holds government positions. President Trump has also personally verified this personal change in his administration via the social media outlet Twitter, thus adding to the legitimacy of these reports.



“Fact Sheets & Briefs” Timeline of Nuclear Diplomacy With Iran, April 2018.

Ackerman, Betsy Woodruff Spencer. “McMaster Rushes to Save the Iran Deal That Trump Promised to Kill” The Daily Beast, 10 Jan. 2018.

Lee, Matthew, and Josh Lederman. “AP Interview: Tillerson Eyes Fix to Keep US in Iran Deal” The Associated Press, Associated Press, 6 Jan. 2018.

Macias, Amanda. “Where John Bolton Stands on Iran Nuclear Deal, North Korea and Other National Security Matters” CNBC, 23 Mar. 2018.

Gaouette, Nicole, et al. “Trump Fires Tillerson, Taps Pompeo as next Secretary of State” CNN, Cable News Network, 13 Mar. 2018.

Bolton on Trump’s Iran Deal Meeting: ‘Putting Lipstick on a Pig’ Won’t Make a DifferenceFox News, FOX News Network, 20 Mar. 2018 .

Bolton, John R. “Trump Must Withdraw from Iran Nuclear Deal – Now” TheHill, 16 July 2017.