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As Iran talks resume, Trump's failure starts to look even worse

As international nuclear talks with Iran continue, Donald Trump's spectacular failure in this area is coming into sharper focus.

Two and a half years after the Trump administration abandoned the international nuclear agreement with Iran, diplomats returned to the negotiating table yesterday in Vienna, hoping to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

The odds of success aren't great. When the historic agreement was reached in 2015, Iran was led by a government that was ready to reach a deal. More than six years later, Tehran is led by a more conservative government, which began making unrealistic demands before yesterday's talks even got underway.

What's more, as The New York Times reported, the Iranian negotiator has indicated that Tehran is prepared to "further escalate its nuclear program" if its demands go unmet.

All of which is to say, it's probably best to keep expectations low.

That said, as the latest round of diplomatic talks continue, Axios reported that Israel has shared intelligence with Western powers that suggested Iran "is taking technical steps to prepare to enrich uranium to 90% purity — the level needed to produce a nuclear weapon."

Enriching to 90% would bring Iran closer than ever to the nuclear threshold.... Iran is already enriching uranium to 60%, far beyond the levels allowed under the 2015 nuclear deal that Donald Trump abandoned and President Biden is now attempting to salvage. There is no civilian use for 90%-enriched uranium.

In case this isn't obvious, it's worth emphasizing that it takes more than enriched uranium to produce a nuclear bomb, and by most accounts, Iran is still a year or two away from having the technical wherewithal to produce such a weapon.

As for the Axios reporting, which has not been independently verified by MSNBC or NBC News, it's difficult to say with any confidence whether the intelligence from Israel is reliable. What's far easier to say is that we wouldn't be in this position at all if Donald Trump hadn't failed so spectacularly.

Joe Cirincione, whose expertise in international nuclear diplomacy has few rivals, wrote a piece for NBC News in the spring explaining that international negotiators have been tasked with trying to "undo the damage Donald Trump caused when he left an agreement that had effectively shrunk Iran's program, frozen it for a generation and put it under lock and camera."

That's an underappreciated truth. As we've discussed, the Iran deal did exactly what it set out to do: The agreement dramatically curtailed Tehran's nuclear ambitions and established a rigorous system of monitoring and verification. Once the policy was in place, each of the parties agreed that the participants were holding up their end of the bargain, and Iran's nuclear program was, at the time, on indefinite hold.

And then Trump took office.

One of my favorite stories about the Iran deal came a few months into Trump's term, when the then-president held a lengthy White House meeting with top members of his national security team. Each of the officials told Trump the same thing: It was in the United States' interest to preserve the existing JCPOA policy.

The Republican expected his team to tell him how to get out of the international agreement, not how to stick with it. When his own foreign policy and national security advisers told him the policy was working, Trump "had a bit of a meltdown."

Soon after, he abandoned the deal anyway, not because it was failing, but because Trump was indifferent to its success. The effective policy was soon replaced by a new strategy known as the "maximum pressure" campaign.

Iran almost immediately became more dangerous, not less. If Axios' report is accurate, the threat — which had been contained — is even more serious now.

In Republican circles, it's simply assumed that the Obama-era Iran deal "failed." That gets reality backwards: The real failure is the policy Trump tried to implement, not the policy he tried to replace.

Restoring what worked may prove impossible, but there should be no question as to who's responsible for making this mess in the first place.