Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently announced that he had created an Iran Action Group to coordinate and implement policy toward Tehran, saying Iran had unleashed “a torrent of violence and destabilizing behavior against the United States, our allies, our partners and, indeed, the Iranian people themselves.” Coming after the administration’s decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal and reimpose sanctions, this announcement signaled again that the Trump administration intends to act more aggressively against Iran.
So how likely is it that this pressure campaign will change Iranian behavior? Research about international coercion conducted by social scientists suggests that success is more likely if the U.S. makes its demands clear, imposes costs on Iran that outweigh the benefits of standing firm and clearly and credibly offers a diplomatic off-ramp to end the pressure.
1. The Trump administration’s demands are not clear
In a speech in May, Pompeo laid out the United States’ core demands of Iran. Pompeo identified 12 areas in which Iran is expected to change its behavior. Four of these relate to the administration’s desire for a stronger nuclear deal: provide more information on past nuclear weapons work; end all uranium enrichment and reprocessing; stop developing and exporting ballistic missiles; and allow inspectors unlimited access to any sites potentially related to nuclear weapons work.
The additional eight demands are about other aspects of Iran’s behavior. For example, Pompeo demanded that Iran release all American citizens held as prisoners; end support for militant and terrorist groups — particularly in Yemen, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, Afghanistan and Iraq; withdraw its troops from Syria; and “end its threatening behavior against its neighbors,” including verbal threats against Israel, cyberattacks and “threats to international shipping.”
The 12 demands are relatively clear. Here’s what’s not: Is the Trump administration also trying to change Iran’s domestic policies? None of Pompeo’s 12 demands involve changing how Tehran treats its own citizens.
And yet his other statements do. In unveiling the Iran Action Group, Pompeo stated that the goal is pushing for “major changes in the regime’s behavior both inside and outside its borders.” Note that phrase: “inside and outside.”
And when the United States reimposed sanctions in early August, Pompeo tweeted that the aim was to “deny Iran’s leadership the funds to oppress the Iranian people and to foment terrorism around the world.” Once again, he’s stating a desire to change how Iran treats both its own citizens and others.
2. The United States isn’t imposing high enough costs to force change
Here’s an even bigger problem in Trump’s Iran strategy: It’s making extensive demands without imposing enough pressure. The Trump administration is mainly reimposing the sanctions that had been lifted under the nuclear deal. But these sanctions will almost certainly be less powerful than they were before 2015 because the United States is doing this alone, without Europe and others.
This reduced pressure is supposed to force not just greater nuclear restrictions but also fundamental changes in Iran’s foreign and domestic policies.
Historically, nations have usually resisted giving in to such extensive demands, even when facing powerful opponents such as the United States. Indeed, nations tend make such comprehensive and radical policy changes only after a revolution or a catastrophic defeat in war.
What’s more, political science research suggests that economic sanctions are rarely effective at compelling major policy changes on their own, particularly if they lack multilateral support. In fact, if Iranians perceive U.S. demands as extreme and unreasonable, the sanctions could backfire, strengthening state power or pushing citizens to “rally round the flag.” Buckling in the face of U.S. demands would be publicly humiliating for Iran’s leaders, who would have to worry about damage to their country’s international power and reputation.
3. The United States isn’t offering Iran a clear path out
It’s possible that Pompeo’s 12 demands are simply an opening bargaining position and that Iran might be able to win relief with more modest concessions, maybe just on its nuclear and missile programs. But for this strategy to work, Iran would have to see a clear pathway to negotiations and trust that Trump would indeed lift sanctions after it makes concessions.
That would be hard — because the Trump administration has sent jumbled signals about when it would be willing to talk. In late July, President Trump said he’d be willing to talk to Iranian leaders without preconditions. Pompeo then walked this statement back, saying that the United States would negotiate only if Iran would “demonstrate a commitment to make fundamental changes in how they treat their own people, reduce their malign behavior” and agree to a stronger nuclear deal. So which is it — negotiations any time, or negotiations only after concessions? Asked about this confusion, the head of the Iran Action Group could say only that economic pressure and negotiations “proceed in parallel tracks,” without offering specifics.
Even if these negotiations took place and Trump promised to lift sanctions in exchange for more moderate concessions, why would the Iranians trust him to keep his word? After all, Trump already pulled out of one deal with Iran. What’s to stop him from doing the same again if he decides another of the 12 demands needs to be fulfilled?
What’s really going on here?
Why is the Trump administration pursuing a policy that appears to have such low odds of success? It’s possible the administration has an exaggerated sense of what sanctions can achieve.
What’s more likely is that the Trump administration’s real goal is replacing the current government entirely. U.S. officials probably know Iran cannot accept the demands being made of it. Instead, they’re probably hoping that the sanctions will encourage internal dissent and the overthrow of the leadership.
This would be consistent with what Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton have said they would prefer. It would explain why the Trump administration is vocally encouraging Iranians to protest the regime. Indeed, according to Reuel Marc Gerecht, a neoconservative supporter of the new policy, the Trump administration is “essentially establishing a regime-change strategy” without calling it that.
If this is, indeed, the administration’s true aim, Americans should be concerned. Recent U.S. experience and scholarly studies show that efforts at regime change — even when they succeed at overthrowing leaders — tend to backfire in costly and unpredictable ways.
Nicholas Miller is an assistant professor in the department of government at Dartmouth College and author of “Stopping the Bomb: The Sources and Effectiveness of U.S. Nonproliferation Policy,” (Cornell University Press, 2018).