“When I became president — hard to believe — two and a half years ago, now more, Iran was a true state of terror. They still are, but they were undisputed champions of terror, and that’s a bad thing. And we had 14 different locations where they were fighting … between Yemen and Syria, but many other locations and many other battle sites. And it was all about Iran. They were behind every one of them. They’re not doing that anymore. They’re doing very poorly as a nation. They’re failing as a nation.”
“Look what has happened to Iran. Iran, when I first came into office, was a terror. They were fighting in many locations all over the Middle East. They were behind every single major attack, whether it was Syria, whether it was Yemen, whether it was individual smaller areas, whether it was taking away oil from people. They were involved with everything. Now they’re pulling back because they’ve got serious economic problems.”
On May 8, 2018, President Trump withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal) and announced his intention of “instituting the highest level of economic sanction.” So began his administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran.
It has now been more than a year, and the president has repeatedly claimed his policy has had an impact in changing Iran’s regional behavior. Is this really the case?
Iran has significant ties to Hezbollah, a Shiite Islamist political party and militant group in Lebanon that is considered a terrorist group by the United States and several other nations. Tehran has leveraged Hezbollah to intervene in Syria on behalf of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, another Iranian ally. Other militant groups, including Islamic Jihad and Hamas in Gaza, are backed by Iranian funding. Iran has also funded powerful Shiite political and militia forces in Iraq. And when Saudi Arabia became involved in the conflict in Yemen, Iran began backing the Houthi rebels to counter the kingdom’s influence.
Iran’s support can be as hands-off as extending a line of credit or as involved as sending the Quds force, from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), to train fighters and supply weapons.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo outlined 12 demands for Iran, many of which aimed to curtail its support of militants and political groups.
Intense economic sanctions have been the Trump administration’s primary method to push Iran toward meeting the demands. By Nov. 5 last year, these sanctions were as widespread as those under the Obama administration — just before negotiating the Iran nuclear deal. They have become even more expansive since, with the goal of bringing Iran’s oil exports to “zero across the board,” according to Pompeo.
The Trump administration argues that by hitting Iran’s economy hard enough, it can cripple Tehran’s ability to fund proxies in neighboring countries.
Reports do indicate Hezbollah has seen its funding reduced in recent months, but, according to Dennis Ross, a former U.S. ambassador and a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, there is “no indication whatsoever that Hezbollah is stopping any of its bad behavior.” This reduction in funding also coincides with a downturn in the Lebanese economy and, therefore, may not solely be a result of sanctions.
The key here is that Iran’s regional activities are designed to be cost-effective.
A report from the International Crisis Group looked at 40 years of Iran’s economic performance and its regional activity. They found that even in times of extreme economic distress, Iran continued to supply its proxies. For example, when Iran’s economy was struggling under the weight of revolution and the Iran-Iraq war, the country also began cultivating Hezbollah. And under the Obama administration’s sanctions, when Iran’s oil revenue was plummeting, Iran began its support of Houthi rebels in Yemen. There appears to be little correlation between Iran’s support for proxies and shifts in its economy or oil revenue.
Iran compensates for shortcomings in conventional military capability by funding its proxies. “Their last dollar will go to Hezbollah and Hamas and to other groups,” says Ali Vaez, director of the Iran Project at the International Crisis Group, because Iran sees them as key to its national security.
At this point, Trump’s renewed sanctions have not been able to cut off Iran’s ability to fund proxies. The sanctions have, however, invoked other responses from Iran.
To start, the Iranian regime has begun to ignore restrictions on enriched uranium set by the nuclear deal. Until recently, Iran remained in compliance with the agreement and its remaining members: China, France, Germany, Russia and the United Kingdom. Now, Iran is stockpiling more than 300 kilograms of low-enriched uranium and enriching it beyond 3.67 percent purity. Neither puts Iran on the cusp of obtaining a nuclear weapon — which Iran insists it has no interest in building — but both are forbidden under the deal.
Iran has also shown signs of increasing aggression in the Middle East, particularly in the past three months.
When the Trump administration withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal and reinstated sanctions on Tehran’s oil exports, it also issued temporary waivers to several countries allowing them to keep importing Iranian oil. But Iran’s oil exports were still cut by more than half — from 2.5 million to around 1 million barrels a day.
On May 4, the Trump administration announced it would not renew those waivers. This cut Iran’s oil exports again, bringing them down to between 300,000 and 600,000 barrels a day. And this appears to be the turning point. Iran shifted from waiting out the Trump administration to what seems like direct action.
Here’s a truncated timeline of what followed:
- On May 5, national security adviser John Bolton announced “troubling and escalatory indications and warnings” from Iran.
- On May 12, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates reported that a total of four tankers had been damaged in mysterious “sabotage operations.”
- On June 13, two more tankers were sabotaged with limpet mines attached to their hulls. The United States released surveillance video and claimed Iran was behind the attack.
- On June 20, Iran shot down an American drone. (The next day, Trump called off a retaliatory strike at the last minute.)
- On July 18, the United States claimed to have shot down an Iranian drone, which Iran denied.
- In the same time frame, Iran seized two tankers, one British-operated and another British-flagged. Iran claimed the latter was in response to an Iranian tanker being seized by Gibraltar, a British territory, on July 4.
- Near the end of July, Iran claimed to have broken up a U.S. spy ring and made 17 arrests — which the Trump administration denied.
Although some of these events lack sufficient evidence to pinpoint responsibility on either the United States or Iran, there has clearly been a ratcheting up of tension in the Persian Gulf and surrounding region.
The White House did not respond to repeated requests to explain the president’s claims.
The Pinocchio Test
The Trump administration has claimed that its “maximum pressure” policy has left Iran unable to continue its regional activities. And although the administration’s sanctions have had a significant impact on Iran’s economy, there are also clear signs of Iran’s continued support for proxies and an aggressive stance against sanctions.
Iran is far from fundamentally changing its regional policy, and the president has mischaracterized its stance in the Middle East. For this, he earns Three Pinocchios. (The video above is part of a YouTube series from the Fact Checker. To catch up on past episodes, and not miss future ones, subscribe here.)
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