Maximum pressure could still deliever stategic outcomes.
It has been more than a year since U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. From the beginning, the controversial decision to leave the accord has faced more than its fair share of criticism. Among critics, a primary line of attack has focused on the administration’s heavy dependence on sanctions as the primary tool of its maximum pressure campaign. They have made three major arguments: First, that in the absence of international support, unilateral U.S. sanctions would not be able to muster a sufficiently powerful blow to Iran’s economy. Second, that even if sanctions proved more potent than anticipated, they were incapable of achieving any of the administration’s vague, maximalist objectives. And third, that unilateral sanctions pursued over the vocal opposition of other world powers risked causing a backlash that could fatally undermine the United States’ future ability to wage economic warfare against its adversaries.
While it’s still too early to make definitive judgments about many elements of the administration’s still unfolding Iran strategy, that’s definitely not the case when it comes to assessing the power of U.S. unilateral sanctions. Without a shred of support from the world’s other major powers—indeed, often in the face of their active resistance—U.S. sanctions have on their own proved devastating to the Iranian economy. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani acknowledged as much in early May when he made the stunning admission that Trump’s maximum pressure campaign had inflicted more economic damage on Iran than it had suffered during its eight-year war with Iraq in the 1980s.
Though clear in hindsight, the ability of the United States operating on its own to wreak so much havoc on Iran’s economy so quickly was anything but obvious a year ago.
it’s worth remembering former Democratic Sen. George Mitchell’s quip about his years spent trying to broker peace in Northern Ireland: Before one day of success, the negotiations failed for 700 days. That’s often the nature of foreign policy. It requires time for a strategy to take hold. The process is often not linear. What looks like failure could quickly turn to progress and success within a relatively short time frame.
By comparison, Trump announced his intention to reimpose sanctions against Iran’s Central Bank and oil sales about 14 months ago. Those only went into effect in November 2018, about eight months ago. By the yardstick of the process that ultimately led to the Iran deal, Trump’s maximum pressure campaign is therefore still in its early stages. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to suggest that some caution is warranted before rushing to pass final judgment on the administration’s strategy. The mere fact that Trump’s goals, so far as those can be discerned, have not yet been realized is certainly grounds for concern and legitimate criticism. But perhaps not yet for panic and despair.
While the tightening squeeze may not yet have translated into a noticeable retrenchment of its regional activities, the regime’s day of reckoning is almost certainly coming as the specter of financial insolvency looms on the horizon. It is lashing out now precisely because it feels the walls closing in and hopes to force the United States to back off before its situation becomes much more perilous. Iran’s decision to escalate is, paradoxically, a sign that the maximum pressure campaign may be working, not failing.
Trump has staked his Iran policy on the coercive power of U.S. unilateral sanctions. His bet that they could inflict unprecedented economic pain on Iran has been proved right. The chances that the European Union or other world powers will be capable of circumventing the U.S. sanctions wall, now or in the foreseeable future, are slim. What remains in serious doubt, however, is whether Trump’s maximum pressure policy can be translated into strategic outcomes—by significantly eroding the regime’s ability to project power and forcing it back to the negotiating table to work out a new agreement that substantially improves on the 2015 deal. All, of course, while containing Iranian escalation and avoiding a costly war. Trump’s critics are betting that it can’t be done. They could eventually turn out to be right. But for now, that judgment remains premature. The ultimate success or failure of Trump’s Iran policy, as well as the utility of economic coercion as a strategic weapon in the U.S. foreign-policy arsenal, is still very much an open question.
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