No theme in the Trump administration’s foreign policy is more prominent, to the point of having become an obsession, than its effort to isolate and stoke hostility toward Iran, which just observed the 40th anniversary of its revolution. But the “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran has achieved nothing positive regarding Iranian conduct and has inflicted significant collateral damage on U.S. foreign relations. A fundamentally different approach, one that makes full use of diplomacy, is needed.
The administration reneged last year on U.S. obligations under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, otherwise known as the Iran nuclear deal, which is the most significant measure ever negotiated to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon. The deal closed all possible paths to an Iranian nuke. An intrusive and comprehensive international inspection regimen ensures they will stay closed, and the International Atomic Energy Agency has repeatedly certified that Iran is living up to its obligations. The agreement clearly is superior to the alternative, which is the situation that prevailed before the nuclear deal: Iran spinning ever more centrifuges and enriching ever more uranium, with minimal monitoring.
The Trump administration promised a “better deal” than the existing one, but after several months of maximum pressure there is no sign of movement toward any such deal. That is not surprising. The Iran nuclear deal was laboriously negotiated with full international support for the sanctions that were then leveraging Iran, but now it is the United States, not Iran, that is isolated. Moreover, no Iranian leader could acquiesce in the extreme list of demands that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has levied and live politically to tell the tale.
The U.S. reneging has severely damaged U.S. credibility as a negotiating partner, especially in Iranian eyes. The administration’s actions have given credibility to Iranian hardliners who are saying “we told you so” in having warned Iranians against dealing with the perfidious Americans.
The administration claims that sanctions reduce the resources available for objectionable Iranian behavior in the Middle East, but as recent studies by the International Crisis Group and the Congressional Research Service have concluded, sanctions against Iran have not correlated with any retrenchment in Iranian regional activity. Iran does what it does in the region to pursue what it considers important security objectives, not because it has more rather than less money in its bank account.
The administration’s insistence on ostracizing Iran has yielded diplomatic initiative in the Middle East to Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who more wisely deals with friends and foes alike. The administration’s posture has sidelined it from being a significant player in negotiations on, for example, the future of Syria, regardless of whether U.S. troops there stay or go. The obsession with Iran also has inflicted much damage on U.S. relations with important European allies, who strongly support the Iran nuclear deal and, because of secondary sanctions, have themselves become targets of U.S. economic warfare against Iran.
The immediate danger of the administration’s single-minded promotion of hostility toward Iran is a U.S.-Iranian war. President Trump may come to see such a war — which his national security advisor evidently would welcome — as a useful distraction from his domestic political troubles. Congress should make clear, as does a bill that Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., has introduced, that any such war would require explicit, advance congressional approval.
Effective policy toward Iran requires recognition that the Islamic Republic, like it or not, is a significant player in the region that must be engaged diplomatically. This requires the United States to get back into compliance with the nuclear deal — before the Iranians give up on it — and to use the accord as a basis for negotiating on other matters of importance to the United States.
Paul R. Pillar is nonresident senior fellow at the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University and former national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia.