Senior Policy Advisor to the Secretary of State and Director of Policy Planning Brian Hook speaks at the announcement of the creation of the Iran Action Group in the Press Briefing Room, at the Department of State, August 16, 2018. [State Department Photo by Michael Gross / Public Domain]
‘Maximum pressure’ on Iran has failed to achieve both its stated and real goals, experts say

“The fundamental problem with U.S. policy toward Iran has been a ridiculous inflation of Iran’s importance to the United States,” said Jarrett Blanc, former State Department coordinator for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or Iran nuclear deal, under the Obama administration. “You don’t have to excuse a variety of genuinely problematic Iranian policies to say ‘this is not actually a particular threat to the United States.’ The way in which it becomes a threat to the United States is largely through our own mistakes.”

Blanc’s comments, delivered in a June 4 virtual discussion hosted by the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, were supported by his fellow panelists, including Negar Mortazavi, journalist for The Independent, and Barry Posen, professor of political science at MIT. While the panelists were critical of Iranian actions, none believed that the Trump administration policy of “maximum pressure” on Iran, implemented after U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA in 2018, had achieved either its stated goals or real objectives.

The same can mostly be said of a panel hosted later that day by the Council on Foreign Relations, featuring Philip Gordon and Richard Nephew, both former Obama administration officials, along with Norman Roule, former National Intelligence Manager for Iran, and Karen Young of the American Enterprise Institute. Roule, an adviser to the hawkish group United Against a Nuclear Iran, recently made news for breaking ranks and supporting sanctions relief for Iran during the COVID-19 crisis.

“We’ve seen the Trump administration’s course of action, and they have gambled on the notion that if you just squeeze Iran hard enough, you will get it to change,” Gordon said. “It will come back to the table and agree to a new and better nuclear deal, you would deter it from conducting nefarious activities in the region, or maybe you would even provoke enough unrest in Iran to bring about a different regime,” he added, noting that none of the above has yet occurred.

While the speakers on both panels broadly regarded “maximum pressure” as a failure, they noted that it had produced several major results: devastating the Iranian economy, allowing Iran to advance its nuclear capabilities, and making further U.S.-Iran diplomacy extremely difficult. 

Mortazavi in particular emphasized the effects that the Trump administration’s policies have had on Iranian domestic politics, discrediting pro-diplomacy voices and vindicating hardliners who had argued that the U.S. could not be trusted. Still, she said, Iranians distinguish between the Trump administration and his possible successor.

“The Iranians are watching U.S. politics very closely and they do make a distinction between the Trump administration and a potential Biden presidency,” said Mortazavi,  “I still think that there is this understanding in Tehran that this is one administration, and another administration could be different, with more focus on the U.S. Congress.”

If elected, though, Biden will have to move fast, Mortazavi said, as Iran has its own presidential elections in May 2021 that could bring a hardliner into office, especially if relations with the U.S. remain in their current state.

In the CFR discussion, Gordon and Nephew addressed the technical consequences of the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the JCPOA. The purpose of the agreement, Gordon reminded, was to stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, and in its absence, Iran has moved closer to that capability.

“If we were at about a year away from their ability to produce enough fissile material for one weapon at the start of the Trump administration, we’re probably closer to six months away at this point,” Nephew observed.

In broadening its demands of Iran far beyond the nuclear issue, the Trump administration has created a policy that, whatever its stated aims, in effect presses for regime change, according to Gordon.

“If you say ‘unless and until Iran meets all of these conditions and does what we want we are going to keep maximum pressure on and squeeze them,’ that’s not realistic,” Gordon explained, “They dig in and preserve their regime that way. And so you’re essentially saying that you’re going to keep that pressure on until there’s a different regime, and you’re boxing yourself in.”

The panels also addressed the U.N. arms embargo on Iran, set to expire in October, and the Trump administration’s plans to force its extension. In the likely event that efforts to pass a new arms embargo through the U.N. Security Council fail, the Trump administration has said it will invoke the “sanctions snapback” provision of the JCPOA, despite the fact that it has left the agreement.

This move is also unlikely to establish a continued arms embargo against Iran, as China and Russia will certainly view it as illegitimate. Instead, however, invoking the snapback will create yet another obstacle if the next U.S. administration seeks to revive the JCPOA.

“The game with the arms embargo and snapback is about trying to shatter the remaining shell of the JCPOA, in order to box in a potential future Biden administration, and make it more difficult for them to reenter the JCPOA, as the vice president has promised would be his policy if elected,” said Blanc.

Even if the Trump administration succeeds in destroying the legal framework of the JCPOA, a potential Biden administration might have the opportunity to put forward a new agreement along similar lines, Blanc said — though this will be more difficult than if the current deal is left intact.

Panelists also pointed out that putative U.S. allies in the region may stand in the way of U.S. efforts to revive the JCPOA. 

“We have two American partners, Israel and Saudi Arabia, who both have friends in the United States, and are very much against a normalization of relations between the United States and Iran,” said Posen, “They don’t want a war, I don’t think, between the U.S. and Iran, they just want bad relations. Because bad relations mean the Americans are there defending them while they go about whatever their own business is.”

Blanc noted, however, that parties such as Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE will be in a worse position to exert pressure on a Biden administration in its first year than they were in the final years of the Obama administration, when all three were vocal opponents of the JCPOA.

“After the ways in which they’ve overinvested in U.S. domestic partisan politics, I think the Israelis, the Saudis, and others would be very foolish to welcome an incoming Democratic administration in 2021 by going to war against what the candidate has said he intends to do,” Blanc said.

In any case, it is likely that a Biden administration would have bigger international problems to deal with — such as contending with a rising China and addressing climate change — than anything emanating from Iran, and it would be ill-advised to devote undo focus and resources towards combatting or containing the Iranians.

“You have two big problems, America and China, in addition to the extra ones we’re experiencing now — the COVID problem, and lurking in the background, climate change,” said Posen. “I think the best you can do is portray a hierarchy of issues to the American people and keep saying, ‘do we really want to put all those things aside to focus on whether the Iranians sent a certain amount of money to Hezbollah last week?”

Watch full video of the Quincy Institute panel below:

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