MAXIMUM PRESSURE ON IRAN IS GOOD POLICY BUT A BOTTOM-LINE NEEDS TO BE DEFINED
Tensions have escalated recently between the United States and Iran. In response to apparent “sabotage attacks” on Saudi oil tankers and pumping stations by pro-Iranian Yemeni Houthis, the U.S. has sent an aircraft carrier task force and 1,500 troops to the Persian Gulf.
A group of more than 70 retired admirals, generals, ambassadors, and senior government executives published an open letter last week expressing concern that the movement of an aircraft carrier to the Gulf may increase the possibility of a miscalculation, resulting in unexpected and devastating consequences. Similar concerns were expressed by Dr. Robert Rabil, a Middle East scholar for the Palm Beach Center for Democracy and Policy Research.
In my view, however, the bigger problem lies with the administration’s lack of public clarity with regard to its strategic approach. President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran deal and subsequent policy of “maximum pressure” through the application of sanctions is aimed at cracking down on the Iranian economy and bringing the country’s oil exports to zero.
The logic of this policy is to make up for the fact that the Obama administration’s nuclear deal neglected to address Iran’s destabilizing regional and terrorist activities. Furthermore, President Obama later publicly stated that Saudi Arabia needs to learn how to share the region with Iran.
The Iranians understood this to be a green light for their destabilizing activities, which have since intensified. Iranian proxies are pulling the strings in Lebanon, providing resources to prop up Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, waging a brutal civil war in Yemen through the Houthis, and shoring up its influence in Iraq. Iran is also continuing to provide military and financial support for terrorist groups around the world, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza, the Taliban in Afghanistan, and its key proxy, Hezbollah. Through Hezbollah, Iran maintains close ties to the Venezuelan government and is involved in extensive drug trafficking and money laundering activities throughout Latin America.
Continued pressure on Iran is absolutely necessary. As a result of U.S. imposed sanctions, Iran’s support for its terrorist proxies has been reduced considerably, the value of its currency, the rial, has plummeted, and foreign investors and business leaders have no interest in doing business with or in Iran.
However, the question is, what is the administration’s endgame?
There are two possibilities here: One is to apply sanctions and strangle the Iranian economy, with the expectation that a popular uprising would topple the Iranian regime. I have serious doubts about the possibility of this scenario. Totalitarian regimes don’t surrender. They tend to repress furiously and impoverish their populations rather than give up power.
We are seeing this happen in Venezuela as well as in North Korea and Cuba. Iran, like North Korea, will likely accelerate its uranium enrichment and move quickly to restart its nuclear weapons program, as it has threatened to do by July 7. In this case, Iran would turn into another North Korea; nuclear, defiant and directly or indirectly supported by Russia— as Rabil correctly suggested— and even China.
The second possibility is the resumption of negotiations. As scholar Meghan O’Sullivan has pointed out, the administration has not given way to negotiations.
So, the underlying question is, can the Trump administration force Iran into a new deal? As O’Sullivan has argued, pressure on Iran needs to be coupled with convincing arguments that bring Iran to the table.
If the Trump administration succeeds in reaching an agreement with Iran under the terms of a better nuclear deal and a substantial reduction of Iran’s subversive and destabilizing activities, it would be a major success. However, this path would not be easy. The administration needs to work in conjunction with the international community, including Europe, Russia, and China, though it is not clear to what extent the latter two would cooperate.
If the Iranians are concerned with preserving their dignity, they are going to demand a compromise. The question is what kind of compromise they would demand.
Iran must not be allowed to become what it wants to be; namely, a regional subversive power that promotes radical Islamic regimes. Iran must be required to give up what it has been since the 1979 Islamic revolution. Its dignity should be restored only through economic incentives, provided it behaves. In return, it might need to secure the U.S.’s promise to give up its pursuit of regime change.
The Middle East is a deeply volatile region, plagued by civil war, high levels of unemployment, economic underdevelopment and social discontent. Iran must not be allowed to take advantage of those social problems.
The administration needs to take these complex factors into account in order to develop a policy that puts a dignified and peaceful end to the Iranian threat.