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The anatomy of a sanctions failure

There is now consensus that the Iran sanctions have failed. This leaves a mess.

Deputy Secretary General of the European External Action Service Enrique Mora and Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Bagheri Kani, in Vienna on Dec. 9. (EU Delegation in Vienna/EEAS/Reuters) (Handout/Reuters)

Labeling something a “success” or a “failure” in foreign affairs is tricky work. Part of it depends on the moment in time when one is assessing. What looks like a colossal failure in retrospect might seem like a good idea in the moment — and vice versa.

When the federal government decided not to bail out Lehman Brothers, there was a half-day of great press extolling the decision. Pundits proclaimed the end of moral hazard. Then credit markets started seizing up and the true ramifications of Lehman’s bankruptcy became apparent. Neville Chamberlain earned some wonderful press immediately after the Munich agreement. Only later did “Munich” acquire the symbolism of “foreign policy catastrophe.”

Similarly, policy outcomes that are judged to be failures in the moment can be reinterpreted as successes in later years. In 1975, the Helsinki Final Act was viewed by many American observers as a capitulation to the Soviet Union’s forcible annexation of territory after World War II. Only in later years did observers — including the Soviet leaders who rejoiced in the deal — realize that the agreement would empower Charter 77 and other civil society movements within the Warsaw Pact.

So when I say that the Trump administration’s 2018 exit from the Iran nuclear deal and reimposition of economic sanctions have proved to be a colossal failure, it is fair to wonder whether such a definitive conclusion is warranted. But let’s sort through the evidence.

The sanctions to date have failed to achieve the United States’ stated intentions. The most obvious example of failure has been Iran’s decision to restart its nuclear program in 2019. It is now much closer to building a functional nuclear device. As Politico’s Nahal Toosi and Stephanie Liechtenstein noted late last month, Iran “is increasing its stockpile of 60 percent-enriched uranium. The estimates for how long it would take Iran to build a nuclear bomb have fallen from a year under the 2015 deal to a few months, or even weeks.”

Surely, however, Iran has curtailed its adventurism in the Middle East because of the crippling effect of the sanctions, right? Apparently not. Economic sanctions failed to prevent Iran’s proxies from increasing their influence in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan over the past three years. The 2019 terrorist attack on Saudi Aramco appears to have emanated from Tehran, as did the June 2019 attacks on oil tankers and U.S. drones in the Persian Gulf. Nowadays, Iran is even trying to expand operations into Latin America.

None of this describes a weakened Iran. It is undeniably true that the sanctions have hurt Iran’s economy and increased domestic unrest. But Iran’s supreme leader was able to handpick his hard-line prime minister this past summer. Despite Trump administration officials repeatedly claiming that Iran’s regime was close to collapse, the theocracy outlived their time in office. There is no success to locate in this case.

Maybe I’m biased. After all, three and a half years ago, I categorically asserted that this was a dumb move. I warned Iran hawks about their “hope that renewed sanctions will lead to regime change in Tehran. … Hope is not a viable Plan B. It is far more naive than anything contained in the (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action).” I have some skin in this game.

So don’t take my word for it — take the word of those who initially supported the idea of reimposing sanctions against Iran. Last month, Ha’aretz reported that former Israeli defense minister Moshe Ya’alon acknowledged on the record that “looking at the policy on Iran in the last decade, the main mistake was the withdrawal from the agreement.”

Ya’alon is just the most prominent former Israeli official making this point. My Washington Post colleague Shira Rubin reports, “a growing number of former Israeli security officials are publicly faulting their government for opposing a nuclear deal negotiated in 2015 between Iran and world powers, and warning that economic sanctions on Iran are not deterring it from dangerously advancing its nuclear program.”

Bloomberg’s Eli Lake supported the 2018 move and in a recent column tried to claim that the gamble was still worth it. The best that Lake can come up with, however, is that “Trump’s decision to leave the nuclear deal is not necessarily an open-and-shut case of foreign policy malpractice.” This is not exactly a ringing endorsement. And even Lake concedes that “it is true that Trump’s gamble did not pay off.”

The New York Times’ Thomas Friedman did not mince words: “President Donald Trump’s decision to tear up the Iran nuclear deal in 2018 — a decision urged on by his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, and Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu — was one of the dumbest, most poorly thought out and counterproductive U.S. national security decisions of the post-Cold War era.”

The problem now is that the lack of a Plan B is becoming more disconcerting. The Vienna negotiations about Iran and the United States rejoining the JCPOA are not going well. The Iranians are being intransigent. Everyone else is worried about the lack of progress, except the Israelis, who are worried that there’s some secret progress being made.

Catastrophic policy failures live in infamy. The best Iran hawks can hope for in the next few years is a policy failure that does not quite compare to Munich.