On Nov. 4, 1979, U.S. relations with Iran changed forever. That was the day hundreds of Iranian students invaded the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, taking 52 American diplomats hostage for the next 444 days.
The Trump administration has tellingly chosen Nov. 4 to reimpose severe economic sanctions on the Islamic Republic. So, starting on Sunday, Iran’s oil sales will diminish, international financial transactions will likely grind to a halt, and ordinary Iranians will continue their scramble to simply survive the double onslaught from a regime that cares little for their aspirations and a U.S. government hellbent on making them miserable.
Yet almost four decades of sanctions on Tehran have failed to fundamentally alter Iranian behavior. The odds are they won’t this time, either.
“Sanctions will have an economic impact, but they will not change policy. The United States must learn that,” Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, told CBS News last week. “The U.S. has an addiction to sanctions and they believe that the sanctions are the panacea that resolve all the problems. They don’t. They in fact hurt people.”
If our goal is to free Iran from the mullahs’ tyranny, an entirely new approach is needed. As a president who claims to be an unparalleled businessman, Donald Trump should capitalize on this opportunity. He should open unrestricted commercial trade with Iran.
I know it sounds counterintuitive. Trump has shown himself notably reluctant to make any compromises with Tehran.
Nonetheless, economic engagement offers the greatest potential for undermining Iran’s leaders in a way that promotes the United States’ economic interests while empowering Iran’s impressive class of independent entrepreneurs.
Instead, all we’ve done — and this goes back to the Reagan administration and everyone who has followed it — is to tie the hands of Iran’s private sector, limiting its efficacy as a cultural and economic force. You can’t support Iran’s civil society if you simultaneously favor efforts to destroy the country’s economy.
Another benefit of a “yes to business” approach is that it would create jobs for Americans and increase exports, a goal Trump constantly touts as being at the core of his economic policies.
The Iranians hoped their acceptance of the nuclear deal would loosen sanctions and allow American and European businesses to return to Iran. But that hasn’t happened. One reason, as I’ve learned from business executives I’ve spoken with about the issue, is that Iran has done little to guarantee the safety of foreign workers who might be based in the country.
A Trump outreach to Tehran could expose and exploit that reality. Tell Iranians that they are free to do business with us if they change specific destructive traits, such as taking foreign nationals hostage.
Altering bad behavior through prolonged commercial relations — even with old adversaries — has proved a much more effective strategy for the United States than sanctioning governments into submission. Our strong relations with Vietnam are but one case in point.
No matter how odious the regime in Iran is, plenty of other countries are ready to do business with it. The European Union exported about $12 billion in goods to Iran in 2017. That was led by $3.5 billion from Germany.
That’s not a huge figure, but when compared with the paltry $70 million in exports from the United States, Europe’s exports to Iran look massive.
China, on the other hand, has no problem trading with Iran; its exports reached nearly $19 billion last year, and the amount is rising. Russia’s trade with Iran is worth about $2 billion, but Moscow is eager to boost that number.
Why is this important? Because Russian and Chinese cooperation with the previous sanctions on Iran was an essential component of them having any economic effect. Both countries — along with Europe — say they plan to keep doing business with Iran.
And yet Iranian businesspeople have always viewed their relations with China and Russia as a placeholder for a day when the United States and Europe would once again fully return to Iran’s market. The fact that that isn’t happening isn’t only bad for business — it’s also bad for the future of democracy in Iran.
There are those who will argue that trade with the Islamic Republic would only bolster the regime. Yet recent history shows that building commercial ties with entrepreneurs in environments with governments hostile to the United States is the best way to win local hearts and minds — which can become a leading driver of political change within a society. It’s time to apply this experience to Iran.
Opening markets and supporting private sectors are bad for authoritarian ideologues. While these actions doesn’t guarantee democratization, they would offer a more effective pathway to it than sanctions ever could be.
As Tehran inches ever closer to Moscow and Beijing, the United States should give trade with Iran a shot before it’s too late. Instead of isolating Iran and its people any further, I say embrace them. Selling them our consumer goods, rather than blocking their access to them, would be a great first step.