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May 8, 2018: A day that will live in acrimony

Two years ago, on May 8, 2018, the Trump administration withdrew unilaterally from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, commonly called the Iran nuclear deal, and then imposed “maximum pressure” sanctions on Iran.

Two years ago, on May 8, 2018, the Trump administration withdrew unilaterally from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, commonly called the Iran nuclear deal, and then imposed “maximum pressure” sanctions on Iran. As is well documented, the sanctions have succeeded in devastating the Iranian economy; the U.S. and Iran marched to the brink of war in early 2020, and just last month, the U.S. rejected a request from Tehran to suspend sanctions due to the coronavirus raging through the country.

Less clear in this fog of enemy-making are the tangible foreign policy costs the U.S. has incurred due to these reckless and excessively cruel actions. Three significant setbacks to our policy tools and worldwide prestige are now apparent.

The U.S. has surrendered the victories of intrusive nuclear controls

A foundation of U.S. nuclear arms control holds that we are more secure when we can verify reduced weapons production of a rival. Even a year after the U.S. left the JCPOA, the International Atomic Energy Agency documented the unprecedented compliance of the Iranians in major actions to denuclearize.

But few national security analysts acknowledge that as the deal has eroded, so too have the benefits of the unprecedented IAEA intrusive inspection power for monitoring Iran’s nuclear facilities. These ranged from supervising the blending down and removal of about 98 percent of Iran’s low-enriched uranium, to verifying that the Fordow enrichment site produced only isotopes for domestic industries.

Another success was the banning and on-site monitoring of specific high-level technologies central to nuclear weapons development, such as computer simulators and detonation systems. In addition, the IAEA ensured through a procurement channel its direct supervision for sensitive dual-use goods. The death of the deal stifled increased IAEA expertise that would have had far-reaching implications for how future proliferators, like North Korea, might be monitored and constrained.

The U.S. has misused economic sanctions as a policy tool  

Trump’s maximum pressure sanctions have failed because these have become the policy itself. Although not perfect, sanctions had been a major and reasonably effective tool for U.S. policymakers and played a significant role in forging the Iran deal. Regrettably, in imposing maximum pressure trade and financial sanctions against Iran, the Trump administration rejected a quarter century of practice that posits that for sanctions to succeed they must be multilateral rather than unilateral, and must not just enrage and economically damage a target, but also engage the target on realistic and attainable behaviors that can be bargained for diplomatically in order to lift the sanctions.

Excessively punitive and comprehensive trade and financial sanctions that effectively isolate a nation frequently fail, while deploying incremental and more targeted sanctions creates more diplomatic leverage, not less. Sanctions work best as one of a number of diverse tools used to achieve a larger set of attainable strategic policy goals. In its undisciplined imposition of sanctions against Iran, the U.S. is waging an unending and devastating economic war against an entire civilian population in the name of trying to save it from its government.

The U.S. has mortgaged the moral high ground regarding Iran

Very costly to the U.S. image on the world stage has been the Trump administration’s obfuscated response to Tehran’s request in March that the U.S. suspend sanctions to permit relief supplies to be imported as the coronavirus took a serious toll on the country. Secretary Pompeo declared emphatically there would be no sanctions suspension because there were no sanctions on medicines going into Iran. He stated that the U.S. had amended licensing procedures for humanitarian organizations and even granted the ability of the heavily sanctioned Iranian Central Bank to process funds for paying for imports.

However, recent U.S. Treasury Department reporting shows, and the experience of various international relief agencies confirms, that neither claim has proven truthful. There are still serious sanctions constraints on various partner banks that must link to the Central Bank to provide funds for Iranian imports and the number of licenses available to medical export businesses has actually decreased. Tehran also petitioned the International Monetary Fund for a substantial loan and was blocked by the U.S. vote.

In employing these actions, President Trump rejected the humane precedent set by prior U.S. presidents who responded to Iran’s dire situation after earthquakes. President George W. Bush suspended sanctions in December 2003 and had significant medical goods and personnel sent to Iran. In August 2012, President Barack Obama authorized the Treasury Department to fast track licensing for NGOs to transfer $300,000 of relief supplies to Iran.

No one doubts that in their missile production and military adventurism in their region, Iran poses a security dilemma for the U.S. But two years after Trump renounced the Iran deal, we are further from successfully negotiating these issues than ever before. The U.S. Congress, U.S. media, and U.S. citizenry condone this malfeasance with their silence and thereby perpetuate the narrative that Iran is a permanent enemy. The Trump administration’s continued policy failures harm Iranian citizens and damage the U.S. reputation as a global leader.

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