The Trump administration’s post-JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) strategy is to put Iran’s economy in a stranglehold, by among other things, ending waivers for allies that purchase Iranian oil. There are a few serious problems with this strategy.
First, it’s not clear that five powers (China, Japan, India, South Korea and Turkey) that are the intended targets of the pressure campaign will all comply. “The Iranian economy is already reeling from sanctions that have also led to a shortage in critical medicine, and Iranian-backed militias have been forced to tighten their payrolls,” the New York Times reported. “By retracting its oil exemptions, the Trump administration is encroaching on China’s energy security even as Washington is trying to strike an all-important trade deal with Beijing. The United States also needs China’s help in controlling North Korea’s nuclear weapons development.”
Aaron David Miller and Richard Sokolsky argue that the United States will not be able to drive Iranian oil exports to zero:
Saudi Arabia and the UAE are unlikely to sustain higher production levels for very long, out of concern for stability in oil markets. Iran’s “heavy oil,” which many countries need for refined oil products, cannot be replaced by Saudi light crude. Turkey, China, India and possibly some European allies will find ways to work around U.S. sanctions for both economic and geopolitical reasons. And Iran can reduce oil supplies leaving the Persian Gulf. It has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, and could conduct cyber operations against oil infrastructure on the other side of the Gulf.
Moreover, if sanctions pressure does increase, it’s not at all clear that Iran is going to return to the bargaining table to redo the deal, and even less clear that it will give President Trump a better deal than it got with President Barack Obama. Iran, after all, has been muddling along under the cloud of sanctions on and off for decades. Having divided the United States from its negotiating partners (or rather watched as Trump divided the alliance) and seen Trump abandon anti-Assad allies in Syria, it reasonably or not sees less reason to capitulate.
Suzanne Maloney writes that Trump’s long-stated position is "based upon his conviction that his background in wrangling real estate deals will enable him to extract a better bargain from the Islamic Republic than more than a decade of diplomacy and coercion applied by his Republican and Democratic predecessors managed to produce.”
However, it is far from clear Iran will be willing to reenter talks — or that the rest of the administration would even welcome such an overture. Indeed, the administration sometimes sounds as though it expects the Iran problem to be resolved through regime change, without a rational plan to accomplish that.
Miller and Sokolsky observe: “Both Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton are longtime champions of regime change. The 12 demands Pompeo issued last year to Tehran were, for all practical purposes, a demand for Iran’s surrender on the nuclear deal, its regional behavior, its testing of ballistic missiles and other Iranian practices the U.S. doesn’t like.” That’s not happening anytime soon. In the meantime, “Iran is in no hurry to negotiate, preferring to wait Trump out in hopes he will be a one-term president and the next administration will return to the nuclear deal.”
A long-standing and wrongheaded assumption — that we can bring the regime to its knees by unyielding economic pressure alone — has guided presidents of both parties, but especially Republicans. Miller and Sokolosky warn:
The Iranian regime remains legitimate in the eyes of millions of Iranians, has been in place for four decades, retains tremendous repressive power, enjoys the support of Russia and China and faces no organized opposition on the ground. It is fantastical thinking to believe that Washington could get rid of the regime. If internal changes come, they will be driven primarily by Iranians themselves. In fact, Trump is likely to leave before the mullahs do.
The Trump administration can cause Iran severe pain, but it cannot trigger massive internal unrest that that will precipitate the collapse of the regime or a fundamental change in Iran’s regional behavior.
So if the administration isn’t entirely sold on negotiations as opposed to regime change, and the Iranians are unlikely to deliver a diplomatic victory to a president that could be gone by or before 2020, what’s the game plan? That’s got a lot of veteran negotiators and experts scratching their heads, especially since the Trump team has simultaneously let up pressure on Iran by, for example, bugging out of Syria.
Miller tells me, “If they really are serious about getting Iran back to [the] table they would have to consider actually negotiating, which means give and take. Neither Trump nor the regime are prepared for that.” He adds, “Iran will try to wait Trump out in hopes of a change in 2020. And squeezing a nasty regime until then is good politics. We’ll be lucky to avoid an escalation. But that might very well be what the Administration wants.”
In fact, one can imagine a new Democratic administration playing the “good cop” game effectively — offering to rejoin the JCPOA in exchange for modifications in the deal (or extension beyond the sunset-clause time period). For now, the administration is prepared to sound tough but not do what is necessary either to ratchet up pressure (e.g. reengage in the region) or prepare for the give-and-take of negotiations. In all likelihood, having inherited a flawed JCPOA that nevertheless kept the West’s anti-Iran alliance together, Trump is likely to leave without improving the deal and with less credibility in the region. Maybe the next president can start winning again.