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.
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.
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.
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.