- The Trump administration announced new sanctions against Iran on Friday after a week in which Washington and Tehran were on the brink of war.
- Both sides have deescalated in the past day or so, but the sanctions are a continuation of a “maximum pressure” campaign that has been failing to quell Iranian aggression.
- In many ways, Iran has only become emboldened by this strategy, which is designed to squeeze it into negotiating a tougher version of the 2015 nuclear deal.
- Trump’s May 2018 decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal has seen US-Iran relations deteriorate rapidly.
- Iran withdrew from the deal on Saturday after Trump ordered a drone strike that killed its top military commander, Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani.
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For roughly a year and a half, the Trump administration has pummeled Iran with increasing economic sanctions with the goal of forcing it into negotiating a more stringent version of the 2015 nuclear deal.
This strategy, referred to as the maximum pressure campaign, has crippled Iran’s economy. But it’s also brought Washington and Tehran to the brink of war on more than one occasion in the past year — including in the early days of 2020.
President Donald Trump’s stated goal is ensuring Iran never gets a nuclear weapon, but everything he’s done so far has pushed it in the opposite direction while alienating US allies who have sought a different approach.
The maximum pressure campaign has failed to make the Middle East more peaceful, as Iran has effectively stepped away from the nuclear deal entirely in the past week.
But the Trump administration is not backing down or shifting its approach, and announced new sanctions against Iran on Friday. The new sanctions are directed at eight senior Iranian officials while targeting Iran’s steel industry, as well as its textiles and mining, construction, and manufacturing sectors.
The sanctions add to those already pummeling Iran’s economy, and there’s also little evidence they will help bring about an improvement in relations between the US and Iran. And they come as polling shows a majority of Americans feel less safe following President Donald Trump’s January 3 order to kill Iran’s top general, Qassem Soleimani.
‘The United States’ ‘maximum pressure’ campaign has not led to a change in Iran’s behavior’
The maximum pressure campaign is already sanctioning top Iranian officials, including Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, and its oil industry. But they’ve not succeeded in bringing Iran back to the negotiation table. Instead, they’ve been met with escalating antagonism between the countries.
Last summer, fears that a new conflict was on the horizon were raised amid oil tanker attacks in the Persian Gulf region. Similar anxieties came about following an attack on Saudi oil fields in September.
Though Iran denied responsibility for the attacks, the US said the Iranian’s fingerprints were all over them.
In June, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo specifically cited the maximum pressure campaign as the catalyst for the oil tanker attacks.
“Iran is lashing out because the regime wants our successful ‘maximum pressure’ campaign lifted,” Pompeo said at the time, essentially acknowledging that the Trump administration’s approach was making Iran more, not less, aggressive.
Top regional experts, analysts, and former US diplomats have repeatedly said that the maximum pressure campaign of relentless sanctions is not working.
“The maximum pressure campaign has not stopped Hezbollah as a proxy for Iran, it has not stopped the risks to Israel’s security and to Middle East security, it has not stopped Iran from taking steps away from JCPOA, and it has certainly pushed away our allies who worked so hard with us to try and ensure Iran would never obtain a nuclear weapon,” Wendy Sherman, who served as lead negotiator on the deal for the Obama administration, told Insider in September; JCPOA is the acronym for the 2015 nuclear deal that Trump withdrew the US from in 2018.
Soleimani was the leader of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ secretive and elite Quds force (IRGC-QF). A recent report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies CSIS, found that “the number of IRGC-QF-trained fighters in countries like Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen increased by nearly 50% from 2016 to 2019.”
“The United States’ ‘maximum pressure’ campaign has not led to a change in Iran’s behavior—at least not yet—though US sanctions have severely damaged Iran’s economy,” Seth G. Jones, director of the Transnational Threats Project at CSIS, said in the report.
Jones added that the US “needs to credibly demonstrate that its policy toward Iran is not a blueprint for an endless struggle, but instead an effort to encourage Iran to be more democratic and open, as political and economic change must be driven by Iranians themselves.”
—CSIS (@CSIS) January 10, 2020
Iran and the US avoided a wider war this week, but they’re not at peace
In the midst of the chaos that followed Soleimani’s killing, including an Iranian missile attack on US and coalition forces in Iraq early on Wednesday, Iran actually offered Trump a potential path toward diplomacy.
As it announced its withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the formal name for the 2015 nuclear deal, on Saturday, Iran signaled it would come back to the pact if sanctions against it were lifted.
The 2015 deal offered Iran relief from sanctions in exchange for it taking steps that would ensure it did not obtain a nuclear weapon. Trump withdrew the US from the JCPOA in May 2018 and began reimposing sanctions adding more, even as Iran remained in compliance with the pact for roughly a year after the US pulled out.
After Iran’s missile attack on the US earlier this week, the country paved the way for deescalation. Subsequently, Trump signaled that he would not retaliate, as he simultaneously called for the rest of the signatories to the JCPOA, which includes key US allies, to abandon the deal.
In the year and a half since the US withdrew from it, Iran and the US have engaged in indirect and direct skirmishes, and Iran has taken steps that could lead it down a path toward becoming a nuclear power.
The two countries have avoided a wider war, but they are hardly at peace — and the Trump administration is ramping up the strategy that got them into the recent entanglement in the first place.