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This week, one year after President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, relations between Washington and Tehran approached a crisis, with an American carrier strike force headed for the Persian Gulf and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo making a sudden trip to Baghdad to consult with Iraqi officials. In fact, precipitating a crisis was the point of the administration’s strategy; the question now is how well they manage it.
Pulling out of the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was not just an attempt to dismantle a cornerstone of President Obama’s legacy. Nor was it fundamentally a disagreement about how to constrain Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program, though prominent hard-liners in the Trump administration surely hated the agreement. Instead it was a long-shot bet that a U.S.-imposed economic embargo just short of war could bring Tehran to its knees, forcing a fundamental change in the Iranian regime’s policy, or even regime change itself.
Now the rewards and risks of that strategic gamble are becoming apparent.
Recently the Trump administration doubled down on its “maximum pressure” campaign targeting Iran, for instance, announcing that it will no longer grant sanction waivers to any country importing Iranian oil, and effectively clamping a de facto oil embargo on Iran. This week the White House tightened the squeeze, imposing additional sanctions on Iranian steel, aluminum and copper sectors. Tehran responded by announcing this week that it would no longer fully comply with limits on uranium production imposed in the JCPOA, possibly putting it back on the path toward acquiring a nuclear weapon.
In April, the Trump administration also designated Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps as a foreign terrorist organization, the first time the State Department named part of another nation’s government as terrorists. The designation was opposed by U.S. military leaders concerned about possible retaliation against U.S. military personnel in the Middle East. On cue, Iran’s Supreme National Security Council responded by labeling U.S. military forces as part of a “terrorist organization.”
The tit-for-tat escalation accelerated dangerously this week. U.S. intelligence agencies issued credible warnings that Iranian proxy forces were preparing for attacks against U.S. troops in the Middle East. The White House responded to the threat by announcing the deployment of an aircraft carrier strike force to the Persian Gulf, and on Tuesday, Pompeo scrapped a planned visit to Germany to make an unannounced stop in Baghdad. After meeting with Iraqi leaders, Pompeo warned that “we don’t want anyone interfering in their country, certainly not by attacking another nation inside of Iraq,” referring to the roughly 5,200 U.S. troops deployed there.
With both sides reacting to each other with provocations and rhetorical bluster, foreign-policy experts are concerned the situation is one miscalculation from spinning out of control.
“I take the Trump administration at its word that the economic pressure on Iran is a means to the end of renegotiating a better and more comprehensive deal. That hasn’t worked yet, however, and in response the U.S. keeps doubling down and ratcheting up the pressure,” said Michael Singh, managing director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and formerly the senior director for Middle East affairs on the National Security Council. “Given that pressure campaign it’s really hard for me to see the United States and Iran reaching some grand bargain. It’s easier to imagine this pressure campaign leading to a prolonged state of tension, and an escalation dynamic that can be very difficult to control diplomatically or militarily.”
Despite those tensions, Trump administration officials believe the “maximum pressure” campaign is already reaping major dividends. Sanctions have sent the Iranian economy into a deep recession. According to the International Monetary Fund, Iran’s gross domestic product has fallen by 6 percent over the past year. The inflation rate is nearly 40 percent, and the Iranian currency has lost nearly two-thirds of its value.
“By every measure the Iranian regime is weaker today than when President Trump took office, and its proxies are underfunded and demoralized. For the first time [the Iran-supported Lebanese terrorist group] Hezbollah is publicly pleading for money to sustain its operations,” said Brian Hook, the State Department’s special representative for Iran, speaking Wednesday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. He noted that leaving the Iran nuclear deal enabled the Trump administration to impose its campaign of pressure, and restore demands that go far beyond the JCPOA. Trump administration demands — which include Iran ending all production of nuclear materials, fully disclosing past nuclear activities, halting development of ballistic missiles and ending support for terrorists and nonstate proxies — strike at the at the fundamental nature of the Iranian regime itself.
“Iranian actions and operations are at the heart of nearly every problem in the Middle East,” said Hook. “They support Palestinian terrorist groups responsible for the recent barrage of missiles targeting Israel. They fuel the humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen by backing the Houthi rebels. In Syria, Iran has supported the [Bashar Assad] war machine that has killed hundreds of thousands of people. Under cover of that war, the Revolutionary Guards are trying to establish a new strategic base in Syria to threaten neighbors like Israel. In Lebanon, Iran-supported Hezbollah is using murder and terror to intimidate other Lebanese parties. And until we address all of Iran’s destabilizing actions, we should expect more of the same. So we have to make Iran’s revolutionary foreign policy prohibitively expensive.”
U.S. officials also estimate that between 2003 and 2011, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and the associated Quds force were responsible for the deaths of some 600 U.S. troops in Iraq. The fingerprints of Iran and Hezbollah were also on the terrorist bombing of the U.S. Air Force Khobar Towers housing complex in Saudi Arabia in 1996 that killed 19 service members, and on the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Lebanon that killed 241 Marines and 58 French military personnel.
“The Revolutionary Guards have the blood of more American service members on their hands than almost any other terrorist organization, so it’s hard to fault the Trump administration for acknowledging the obvious and designating them terrorists,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a defense expert and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. While withdrawing from a flawed Iran nuclear deal to try and renegotiate a better one was a defensible policy, he said, the more recent “maximum pressure” campaign “takes the confrontation to a whole new level.”
“Trying to reduce Iran’s oil exports to zero is a very dramatic policy, and it’s fraught with risks,” said O’Hanlon. “Iran could respond with terror attacks on U.S. personnel in the region, which they’ve done in the past, or by walking away from the nuclear deal altogether. We are forcing them to make some really tough decisions, and I’m not sure the Iranians themselves have figured out what they are going to do.”
The administration’s pressure campaign is also forcing close allies to make tough decisions and take sides in a confrontation they tried hard to avert. Britain, France and Germany all strongly opposed Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear accord last year, and they have tried to keep the deal alive by establishing a bartering system to help European companies doing business with Iran evade U.S. sanctions. The Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign has stymied those efforts, leaving bruised feelings across the Atlantic.
“Europeans have been trying to hold Iran to the nuclear deal, even creating a payments system to skirt dollar sanctions, but European businesses are simply too dependent on the U.S. market to risk using it,” Kori Schake, deputy director-general of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, explained in an email. “So the gap between the U.S. and its closest allies on this issue is wide, and Europeans blame the United States. They are unlikely to support or contribute to any military actions against Iran.”
With its “maximum pressure” campaign, Trump administration officials are betting that Iran can be coerced into fundamentally changing its ways, or else risk economic collapse and regime change from within. In their view the JCPOA got in the way of that reckoning, because it made the international community complacent over Iran’s other aggressions. If Trump administration officials are right and Iran capitulates in the showdown, it will be a strategic game changer for the Middle East and a legacy defining moment. If they are wrong, the United States could find itself locked into an escalating confrontation with an implacable foe once again on the road to acquiring nuclear weapons. That too would define a presidential legacy.
Wendy Sherman is the director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard’s Kennedy School, and the former lead negotiator of the JCPOA for the Obama administration. “I would note that the Trump administration’s ‘maximum pressure’ campaign has not succeeded to date. Although Iran has continued to comply with the terms of the nuclear agreement, it has actually stepped up its malign behavior in the region, Americans remain in prison, and the Iranian people have no more freedoms,” she told Yahoo News. “So Trump’s campaign so far has greatly increased the possibility that Iran shifts gears and moves once again to try and acquire nuclear weapons, bringing us right back to the crisis that the JCPOA was designed to avoid, only a much worse crisis this time around. We are in an escalation cycle that is incredibly dangerous.”
James Kitfield is a senior fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress.
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