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President Donald Trump is trying to max out on his “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran weeks before the election, setting up a messy diplomatic fight — and potential volatility in the Middle East — just as the president pitches himself as the region’s chief peacemaker.
The Trump administration on Saturday is expected to declare that international sanctions on Iran, including a conventional arms embargo, have been reimposed — an attempt to strike a final blow to the 2015 agreement limiting Tehran’s nuclear program, which Trump withdrew from two years ago after calling it “horrible” and “one-sided.”
The so-called snapback of the sanctions will put Trump’s deal-making skills, which his allies say deserve a Nobel Peace Prize, on the campaign stage: The president claims he can force Iran to the table for a better deal for the United States — “and Iran,” he says — after the election. But neither Iran nor the other countries that participated in the Iran nuclear deal agree that the U.S. has the right to snap back the sanctions, meaning it’s not clear whether the world will respect Trump’s declaration.
Trump in recent days has slapped fresh sanctions on Iranian intelligence and security entities over cyberattacks. He also has threatened to retaliate “1,000 times greater” against Iran after POLITICO reported on a plot to kill the U.S. ambassador to South Africa.
His latest anti-Iran moves are all part of an election-year strategy to sound like a peacemaker who is still talking tough. Despite trumpeting a series of peace agreements, including the Abraham Accords between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain this week, many of Trump’s biggest foreign policy promises — a nuclear deal with North Korea, the toppling of the Maduro regime in Venezuela and a better deal with Iran — have gone largely unfulfilled just weeks from Election Day.
Saturday night’s intended implementation of the snapback sanctions is designed to further dismantle the Obama administration’s Iran agreement so Trump can start from scratch after the election. It’s also seen as an attempt to prevent a potential Biden administration from resuscitating the 2015 deal.
“The U.S. goal is to completely obliterate the nuclear agreement and leave it in shambles,” said Henry Rome, Iran analyst at the Eurasia Group. “What will the Iranians do? Do they look at this and say, 'snapback has happened, we are out of the deal and we’re ramping up further our nuclear developments'? Or do they say, 'let’s wait until the election and just see what happens'?”
Although the United States left the Iran deal —formally the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — in May 2018, the Trump administration claims it still has the right to reimpose the arms embargo and other restrictions, including sanctions related to Iran’s nuclear program, because it was an original participant in the agreement. But some of America’s closest allies question the legality of the move, including Germany, France and the United Kingdom, and wrote a letter in August disapproving of Trump’s decision. It’s expected many countries will ignore the U.S. sanctions.
“It’s a kind of an Alice in Wonderland situation where it depends on your definition of the term ‘participant,’ and you can take away whatever you’d like on that,” said Naysan Rafati, an Iran researcher for the International Crisis Group. “If you think the U.S. process is null and void because the U.S. lacks standing, then technically nothing happens on Saturday because there is no snapback that comes into place.”
The administration is “trying to put down a marker before the election,” said Jon Alterman, senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank. But with just weeks before the election, it’s unlikely many countries will comply, he said.
“People don’t want to concede preemptively to the administration,” Alterman said. “So they’ll try to drag it out, and diplomats in general are good at that.”
Nonetheless, the U.S. says it expects U.N. member states to implement and uphold the original sanctions.
“Five years of JCPOA meetings have not moderated Iran’s tactics or choices at all,” U.S. Special Envoy for Iran Elliott Abrams said this week. “It’s time for peace-loving nations to recognize this reality and join us in imposing sanctions on Iran.”
Wendy Sherman, who led the U.S. negotiating team for the Iran deal in 2015, said the U.S. does not have the legal ability to move forward with the sanctions, because Trump himself said he backed out of the agreement.
“They will assert they have snap-backed the sanctions, but most countries will ignore the actions,” she said.
Trump’s former national security adviser, John Bolton, called the snapback decision “diplomatic CPR” for the Iran deal and a gift for Democratic nominee Joe Biden ahead of the 2020 election.
“By asserting that the U.S. has any rights in even one aspect of the deal, Trump opens the possibility for creative diplomats to find other rights,” Bolton wrote in a Bloomberg op-ed. “This would give legitimacy to any Biden administration effort to fully re-enter the JCPOA.”
In a Sunday op-ed responding to Trump’s call for the snapback sanctions, Biden wrote that is exactly what he intends to do.
“I will offer Tehran a credible path back to diplomacy,” Biden said. “If Iran returns to strict compliance with the nuclear deal, the United States would rejoin the agreement as a starting point for follow-on negotiations.”
Rich Goldberg, a former White House Iran analyst, slammed Biden’s op-ed as “a lot of bumper sticker language about Iran without really addressing their vision of whether the arms embargo should expire.”
“I think it’s because they know they’re in a box,” said Goldberg, now senior adviser at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a national security think tank.
The political maneuverings come as Trump is eager to claim foreign policy victories ahead of the election. Many of his 2016 pledges remain unfulfilled. Among them: The wall along the border with Mexico remains incomplete. Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner presented a plan but did not make peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. And troops remain in Afghanistan.
Critics say the administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign has turned up the temperature with Iran, but with little to show for it, as the regime won’t budge and has continued to increase its stockpile of enriched uranium, according to the latest report from the U.N.’s atomic watchdog.
“The main result of the Trump administration’s ‘maximum pressure’ campaign has been the fraying of U.S. alliances and the steady expansion of Iran’s enriched uranium stockpile,” wrote Kelsey Davenport, the director for nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association.
Trump is expected to discuss Iran on Tuesday in his virtual speech before the United Nations General Assembly. But the sanctions he’ll defend will be seen as more of his go-it-alone, “America First” strategy. Of the 15 U.N. Security Council members, only the Dominican Republic gave support for the U.S. decision to indefinitely extend an arms embargo on Iran.
“There’s no question that the actions taken by the Trump administration continue to isolate America, not isolate Iran,” Sherman said. “The U.S. is more isolated at the U.N. and more isolated in the world.”
The decision to ramp up pressure on Iran comes at an especially fraught moment in relations between Washington and Tehran. In January, Trump ordered the killing of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the leader of the elite Quds force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, which the U.S. has designated a terrorist organization. Since then, the two countries have exchanged repeated threats, including a warning by Trump to “shoot down and destroy any and all Iranian gunboats if they harass our ships at sea.”
POLITICO reported this week that Iran was weighing a plot to kill Lana Marks, the U.S. ambassador to South Africa, as part of its efforts to avenge Soleimani’s death. The U.S. learned of the general threat months ago, two officials said, but the information had become more specific in recent weeks.
In the days since, Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien have, without confirming the plot, nonetheless warned Iran against any move that would hurt U.S. interests. “Any attack by Iran, in any form, against the United States will be met with an attack on Iran that will be 1,000 times greater in magnitude!” Trump tweeted.
On Friday, South Africa’s State Security Agency issued a statement saying that it was talking to the “relevant stakeholders.”
“At present, the information provided is not sufficient to sustain the allegation that there is credible threat against the United States ambassador to South Africa,” it said. “The South African officials have requested additional information from the United States government. Once the information is forthcoming, the facts will be reviewed and re-assessed.”
The United States and South Africa’s law enforcement and intelligence services have what former diplomats and former spies describe as a “cordial” relationship — language that usually indicates a level of coolness and distrust. It’s not at all clear that the United States would share details about what it knows with South Africa, given the desire to protect U.S. intelligence sources and methods.
South Africa and Iran, meanwhile, have a relatively warm relationship and have for years, another reason the U.S. might be wary of sharing information with South Africa. At the same time, Iran may not want to risk that warm relationship by ultimately going through with a plot against Marks.
Nahal Toosi contributed to this report.