Donald Trump vowed to raise pressure on Iran and cripple its economy. Did it backfire?

Deirdre Shesgreen

WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump says he just doesn’t want Iran to get a nuclear weapon. Trump’s secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, has demanded a dramatic change in Iran’s activities across the Middle East. And the president’s national security adviser, John Bolton, has long rooted for regime change.

All of those goals seem increasingly out of reach – despite more than a year of the Trump administration’s "maximum pressure campaign" designed to cripple Iran’s economy and force its leaders to the negotiating table.

“It is clear that maximum pressure has rendered the Iranians more – not less – belligerent,” said Ali Vaez, the Iran project director at the Crisis Group, a nonpartisan group focused on preventing conflict.

'You'll soon find out': Trump warns Iran after it shoots down US drone

Iran drone strike: Escalating crisis with Tehran looks like the path US took to Iraq war

On Thursday, Iran's Revolutionary Guard shot down a U.S. surveillance drone, an aggressive move that drew a sharp warning from Trump and prompted top Pentagon officials to examine a possible military response. The U.S. has also blamed Iran for a series of recent attacks on oil tankers, which Pompeo and others say were aimed at disrupting the flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz, a strategic waterway.

Meanwhile, Iran's president, Hassan Rouhani, has warned that his country will increase uranium enrichment starting July 7 unless European countries find a way to ease the Trump administration's sanctions, which have devastated the Islamic Republic's economy.

Trump administration officials and Iran hawks say their strategy has been effective and what looks like brinkmanship could be a precursor to success.

'Forceful diplomacy'

“Our maximum pressure campaign is working. We must continue to meet their aggression with forceful diplomacy,” Brian Hook, the State Department’s special representative for Iran, told the House Foreign Affairs Committee during a hearing Wednesday on Iran. 

Hook said Iran has been forced to curb its support for extremist groups and has sliced its military spending. "Today, by nearly every metric, the regime and its proxies are weaker than when our pressure began," Hook said.

But some national security experts and lawmakers say Trump’s approach to Iran has been incoherent and ill-advised from the start – and that it has created the current crisis.

Risk of stumbling into war

Critics fear that Trump is inadvertently headed to a military confrontation, precisely the opposite of what the president said he wants. He campaigned in 2016 on a pledge to avoid costly, far-flung wars and vowed to bring American troops home.

“I see a growing risk of miscalculation,” Rep. Eliot Engel, chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee, said at Wednesday's hearing. “I see more and more scenarios that could spark a conflict, that could lead to the United States stumbling into war.”

Natan Sachs, director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, a left-leaning Washington think tank, said divisions inside the Trump administration have laid the groundwork for the escalating tensions.

“There seem to be two rather different impulses driving the administration’s behavior,” Sachs said. “One is a very tough stance that fits with certainly the position of John Bolton and others."

'I'd like to see them call me'

Bolton and Pompeo seem to hope that U.S. sanctions on Iran will force the regime to capitulate to U.S. demands – or spark an internal uprising that results in regime change.

But Sachs notes that Trump has said he does not want regime change, and he has publicly urged Iranian leaders to negotiate with him.

“I’d like to see them call me,” Trump said last month.

Iran has flatly rejected Trump’s overtures for talks, at least in public. Experts differ on whether that’s a negotiating tactic, or if Iran truly has no intention of sitting down with Trump.

“Partly, it’s their form of negotiation – to say we won’t negotiate in order to basically start from a hardline,” said Blaise Misztal, a Middle East expert with the conservative Hudson Institute.

He said Iran took the same approach with President Barack Obama, resisting his entreaties until that administration tightened “the noose” on Iran with sanctions. Then Iran relented – first through back channels and then publicly negotiating a multilateral agreement to curb its nuclear program.

Trump withdrew from that 2015 deal, saying it did not do enough to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions and didn’t address the regime’s other malign behavior, including its support for terrorist groups in the Middle East.

Domestic politics in Iran, which are built on vilifying the United States, are another reason its leaders are resisting talks, Misztal said. “It’s hard for a regime that’s built on opposition to the United States to embrace negotiations with the ‘Great Satan,’ as they call us.”

Lessons from Trump's trade talks

Misztal rejected the notion that a military conflict is imminent or inevitable.

“I don’t think (Trump is) looking for another Middle Eastern adventure, and I think the Iranians know from past experience that a conflict with the United States will not go well for them,” he said. He said the bellicose actions and rhetoric from both sides are an extension of negotiations, as both sides jockey for a strong negotiating position.

But Vaez and others expressed skepticism that Iran would ever sit down with Trump or his national security team.

Rising tensions: What Iran and the United States are saying

“The Iranians will not negotiate with a gun to their head,” said Vaez. “They’re afraid that if they accept to engage the Trump administration – which is strangulating their economy – this would not alleviate pressure but only invite more.”

He said Iran's leaders watched as Trump negotiated a new trade deal with Canada and Mexico, only to turn around and threaten Mexico with tariffs to extract concessions on immigration.

“Also, the North Koreans tell the Iranians all the time that even if you get a deal with Trump, as soon as he turns around, Bolton and Pompeo will shred it apart,” he said. “So the Iranians also doubt that, given the level of hostility against them within the president’s national security team, they actually have an interlocutor on the U.S. side who is seeking a mutually beneficial agreement.”

What's the end game?

Misztal said it was only a matter of time before Trump's decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal and reimpose sanctions provoked a response from Iran – including this week's attacks and its threat to increase uranium enrichment.

Misztal agreed the Trump administration's strategy has been somewhat disjointed.

"It's not been entirely clear what the administration's end game has been," he said.

Mistake by 'someone stupid': Trump suggests Iran drone attack was not intentional

The contradictory signals continued Thursday, even as Trump's national security team gathered at the White House to discuss a possible response.

"Iran made a very big mistake," Trump warned, adding that "you'll soon find out" if the U.S. will retaliate.

But Trump later suggested that Iran's attack on the American drone might have been inadvertent.

“I find it hard to believe it was intentional," Trump told reporters during an Oval Office meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. "I think it could have been somebody who was loose and stupid that did it."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Donald Trump vowed to raise pressure on Iran and cripple its economy. Did it backfire?