America’s pressure strategy on Iran is backfiring
During an interview about Iran on May 19, President Donald Trump said, “I just don’t want them to have nuclear weapons and they can’t be threatening us.” But Trump also said, “I’m not somebody who wants to go into war. War hurts economies, war kills people.” He then drew a parallel to North Korea and how nuclear and intercontinental-ballistic missile tests were suspending after his summitry with Pyongyang. One can hope that Trump intends to repeat his playbook with North Korea of ultimately using diplomacy rather than threats and force.
The problem is that Washington’s pressure campaign against Iran is backfiring and may lead to war or even a nuclear Iran.
President Barack Obama bought the end of Iran’s nuclear program by paying for it with sanctions relief — then Trump canceled the check. After a year of complying with the Iran Deal and enduring reimposed U.S. economic sanctions, Tehran announced on May 8 that in 60 days it might start to enrich uranium beyond the limits of the deal. Iran said it would have no choice if the countries still in the Iran Deal could not find a way to trade with Iran and help keep it afloat despite U.S. sanctions. Since then, America has decided to withdraw non-emergency personnel and their dependents out of Iraq, and the Pentagon was told to plan to deploy 120,000 troops if a crisis develops.
America’s approach is failing because it leaves no room for maneuver or negotiation. Iran faces general inflation of 48 percent, with food prices at 73 percent inflation. Tehran faces the most powerful country on Earth and, while costly and horrendous compared to Iraq, America could attack Iran’s regime. To deter a U.S. attack, Iran could consider becoming a nuclear power like North Korea.
Maximum pressure makes Iranian hardliners look like they were right all along. From Iran’s point of view, the Iran Deal was a chance to avoid war, gain breathing space, and test America’s commitment to its international agreements. The deal let Iranians regain access to the international financial system, trade with the world, and export oil. This made daily life easier for millions of Iranians and, in return, they opened up to international inspectors and got rid of most of their nuclear program. Sites were demolished, two-thirds of their centrifuges were dismantled, and all but 2 percent of their uranium stockpile was handed to Russia.
However, in May 2018, Washington reinstated oil sanctions and in November withdrew from the Iran Deal. This was done even though Iran was still compliant with the deal. What is remarkable is that, according to the United Nations and the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran remained compliant with the deal anyway, hoping to convince Europe, Russia and China to make up for America’s broken promise of trade and prosperity. Unfortunately, facing increasing pressure, on May 20 Tehran partially withdrew from the deal by making more enriched uranium — but it is keeping enrichment levels far below weapons grade out of hope for talks.
Yet America’s continuous pressure campaign and military threats may in the end convince Iran to fully withdraw and seek a nuclear deterrent. Such a calamity would negate the purpose of the Iran Deal and U.S. pressure to begin with. If Iran fully left the agreement, it would be used as a pretext to further tighten the screws or take military action. Moreover, even if Iran does not resume weapons grade levels of enrichment come early July, there is now a higher chance of a crisis or war anyway.
Current American policies are pushing Iran into doing the very things Washington does not want, and the risk of an unnecessary war is rising — this is the opposite of Trump’s stated intent, so it is high time to reevaluate his administration’s policy.
Maximum pressure has not and will not change Iran’s behavior. It will not lead to a better deal. The Iran Deal took two years and a lot of mutual confidence building to negotiate and implement — the idea that in the current environment of mistrust and tension Tehran will give in to greater demands is absurd.
Nuclear proliferation control requires deterrence, negotiation, rollback, freezes and step-by-step agreements, not preventive strikes and war. Iran’s decision to partially abandon the nuclear deal should show Tehran is now seriously concerned it may come under attack from America in the near future. If this is true, then Iran would want nothing less than the ultimate deterrent to prevent it.
Trump has said he doesn’t want a war or a nuclear Iran, and that is good. He said multiple times he wants to talk to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and work out a deal. The irony is both Trump and Rouhani face hawkish hardliner advisers and cabinet members who do not want either side to budge and return to the negotiating table first. Rouhani managed to stall announcing any changes to Iran’s status within the nuclear deal for a year, but due to mounting U.S. pressure and domestic politics, he had to respond.
Every time America raises the heat, Iran grows more desperate and more likely to use its proxies to inflict harm or resume its nuclear activities.
If Trump truly wants to preserve the peace and prevent Iran from going nuclear, he must abandon the approach advocated by his national security adviser, John Bolton. Pressure has its time and place, such as when Obama wanted to bring Iran to the table for the Iran Deal. But once a deal is made and its main objective achieved, pressure will only backfire.
American voters elected Trump in part because he was against “endless wars” in the Middle East and had promised to end the wars inherited from George W. Bush and Obama. Now is the chance for Trump to prove he will follow his instincts to avoid “dumb wars” and change course. It is time to talk to Iran, not to start a third Gulf War.
John Dale Grover is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a senior contributor for Young Voices. He is the assistant managing editor for The National Interest.