A Bold Gamble: Can Trump’s Maximum Pressure Iran Policy Succeed?

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US President Donald Trump signs a document reinstating sanctions against Iran on May 8, 2018. SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images 

Since withdrawing from the Iranian nuclear deal on May 8, 2018 (despite international reports confirming Iran’s compliance with its nuclear commitments), Donald Trump has been implementing a maximum pressure policy with the goal of changing the regional behavior of Tehran, from both a political and security perspective. In response, Iran is gradually ceasing to respect certain international commitments under the 2015 Agreement. The escalating tension between Tehran and Washington has unfortunately undermined regional stability, raising the prospect of armed conflict. Can the US’ aggressive foreign policy succeed in changing Iran’s behaviour? What practical measures should be taken to de-escalate the conflict?

Maximalist and unclear objectives

The current maximum pressure policy against Iran is one that is typically coercive and frequently encountered in international affairs. The policy is likely to fail mainly because of the shortcomings of its underlying strategy. A strategy is defined as the use of means to achieve certain ends or objectives. With regards to the US strategy, one should note the lack of clearly stated objectives.

The US administration lacks strategic coherence in terms of its political expectations and demands from Iran. While President Trump does not want a war with Iran, close aides such as the now-departed John Bolton, favour a military campaign with an uncertain outcome. Significantly, there is no proportionality between American demands and the projected gains to Iran; in fact, there are no gains at all on the table. Not only does the articulation of 12 US demands does not present Iran with any tangible benefits but more importantly this list sends mixed signals: the message appears to be that the US is more interested in regime change than a policy change. That is the mirror image of the Obama framing of US national interests, which made clear that Washington sought Iranian nuclear policy reform rather than Iranian regime change. Accordingly, sanctions at the time were underpinned by clear and limited objectives.

Lack of legitimacy and ineffective diplomatic approach

The current US strategy vis-vis Iran clearly lacks international legitimacy. It should be recalled that Iran was scrupulously complying with its international commitments under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCOAP), as demonstrated in the International Atomic Energy Agency’s successive reports. The blatant violation of UN Resolution 2251 by the US’ withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear agreement has led to a deep international divide both with respect to transatlantic relations and the remaining powers bound under the JCPOA. As a result, in the current state of affairs, it would be almost impossible for the US to secure the international support needed to pass new sanctions against Iran unless Tehran clearly violates the JCPOA, creating serious proliferation concerns, which has not been the case so far. Yet it is conventionally understood that the success of previous international sanctions was due to the exceptional unity of the UN Security Council permanent members.

In addition, the punitive use of economics by the United States against European companies following the US’ withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear deal has widened the gap between transatlantic partners, as has the ongoing trade war with China. The extreme personalisation and dramatisation of diplomacy by the Trump administration’s Iran policy, combined with the lack of incentives offered to Iran, are the key flaws of the US strategy. In addition, bilateral negotiations can no longer benefit from the good offices of Oman. Following the introduction by the Trump administration of new sanctions against Iran against the Iranian Supreme Guide and the Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohamed Zarif, all doors for any diplomatic rapprochement between the two parties are closed. At least on the face of it, the prospects of relaunching negotiations appear to be practically null.

Steps towards ending the crisis

Despite the various shortcomings, some practical steps can be taken to resolve the crisis.

Fortunately, the current escalation of the Iranian-American tensions has not yet reached the point of no return. Hence, a de-escalation of tension is still possible through confidence-building measures. Most significantly, the US authorities could restore the waiver granted to eight countries which allowed Iran to sell its oil.

Given the strategic importance of oil sales for Iran, this measure would relieve the Iranian economy and ease internal tensions. In addition, the US could exempt European companies providing humanitarian goods and services exchange under the Instex initiative from extraterritorial sanctions. This measure would restore not only confidence on the part of European partners but also with the Iranian authorities. The prospect of regime change in Iran through social tensions would be lessened significantly. Finally, the US should make realistic demands that do not affect the stability of the Ayatollah regime. Requesting Iran to sign the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty is an interesting initiative in this regard, as it would demonstrate that Iran does not wish to obtain nuclear weapons. Of course, this initiative should be taken with regional considerations in mind, as the security concerns of Iran need to be addressed as well if one should ever expect the region to be stable.


Author: Jean Yves N. Ndzana is a PhD student in Global Affairs at Leiden University. His research interests are mainly oriented toward nuclear proliferation issues, with an emphasis on US coercive diplomacy against Iran and North Korea.