Although President Donald Trump is wisely resisting starting a new war in the Middle East, the dead-end nature of his failed “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran has put him on the spot to do something, especially after last month’s attacks on Saudi oil facilities, that appears forceful. The torrent of criticism he has received after pulling back U.S. troops in Syria—with much of the criticism identifying Iran as supposedly one of the “winners” from this action—has increased the pressure on Trump to exert more pressure on Iran. In response, the administration has been doing two things.
One has been to go yet again to the sanctions well. It is a well that is running dry, with the United States having already sanctioned almost every sanctionable thing in the Iranian economy. About the only practical effect of the administration’s most recent move on this front, which involved placing a terrorist designation on the Iranian central bank, has been to remove the remaining financial channel for paying for imports of food, medicine and medical devices—thus contradicting past administration assurances about allowing humanitarian goods to enter Iran. A just-released University of Maryland poll shows that most Iranians don’t believe those assurances.
One possible interpretation of this latest sanctions move is that the administration’s assurances have been not only false but especially pernicious in that making the Iranian population suffer in every way possible was always central to the strategy. The civilian suffering would, under this hoped-for scenario, lead either to a popular uprising and regime change or to the Iranian regime lashing out in a way that would give U.S. hawks the war they always wanted.
Another possible interpretation is that the civilian suffering from things like shortages of medicines is not part of the strategy but rather collateral damage, as the administration has become so fixated on the pressure campaign as an end in itself that everything else has become a lower priority.