Can maximum pressure work with Iran?

Can maximum pressure work with Iran?

By Luke Vargas   

If the US wants Iran to engage in talks to replace a 2015 nuclear deal, is the current approach the best way to go about that?

The current U.S. effort to economically weaken and diplomatically subdue Iran seems like the very definition of a “maximum pressure” campaign. But maximum pressure doesn’t mean optimal pressure.

If the U.S. wants Iran to engage in new talks to replace a 2015 nuclear deal, is the current approach the best way to go about that? What makes a successful pressure campaign and is this one of them?

Helping us answer those and other questions about U.S. Iran policy is this week’s guest:

  • Ariane Tabatabai, associate political scientist, RAND Corporation


What are some useful ways to measure the effectiveness of ‘pressure campaigns’?

Ariane Tabatabai: Sanctions and pressure in general in foreign relations are often tricky in that when you try to pressure a country, you always have to try and balance between the right people, the right entities you’re trying to pressure – that is, decision-makers, members of the armed forces of the country, officials – and then the average people. And it’s sort of similar to if you’re undertaking an operation somewhere like a bombing campaign, you want to make sure that you’re minimizing collateral damage, because if you have a lot of collateral damage you can actually be counterproductive for your own objectives.

It’s the same thing we’re seeing here. For years now the U.S. has tried to come up with a sanctions regime that would minimize harm on civilians, on average people, and would instead really be focused and targeted on decision-makers and the people who matter in the decision-making process.

I’m not sure that that’s being done as much currently in the administration. In fact, several administration officials have said pretty openly that they do think that their sanctions and the pressure campaign are having an impact on the Iranian people more broadly. What we’re also seeing is reporting coming out of Iran indicating that people are having a hard time buying humanitarian goods, buying things that are just necessary, including medication and food, and it’s not just because the price of items and goods has gone up, it’s also because you have a shortage of them. Cancer patients, for example, are having a hard time finding the medication they need, and if they can, they can’t really afford it.

So when you are unable in your foreign policy toward a country, your pressure campaign, to distinguish or at least make sure those people are protected or at least take as many steps as you possibly can to shield the most vulnerable people in the population more generally, then the risk is that you end up having the population more broadly align with the decision-makers rather than the opposite, which is presumably the goal, which is to actually drive a wedge between the population and the decision-makers.

Iranian President Hassani Rouhani visits Switzerland on July 2, 2018. Courtesy: Président de la Confédération Suisse
Iranian President Hassani Rouhani visits Switzerland on July 2, 2018. (Courtesy: Président de la Confédération Suisse)

So driving a wedge between the people and their leaders – President Trump said recently that the Iranian leadership should give him a call, but is it clear that’s really what the U.S. wants?

Ariane Tabatabai: I think that’s another challenging aspect of U.S.-Iran relations in general, and it’s not specific to this administration – we’ve had this challenge for the past 40 years.

The ultimate objective as the administration has laid it out is to get Iran to change its behavior, and that can be through a couple of different means. It can be through negotiations – getting the Iranians to come back to the negotiating table and negotiate a big-for-big deal – or, alternatively, to increase pressure to the point of getting the Iran to collapse essentially, and it’s not always clear which of these means the administration is privileging.

The scope of the administration’s goals for Iran is really broad, and that is by itself a little challenging. The administration wants Iran to scale back its nuclear program, it wants it to scale back its ballistic missile program, it also wants Iran to stop funding terrorist groups and militias throughout the Middle East and South Asia, to stop its interventions in the region and to address its human rights track record.

Secretary Pompeo laid all of these out in his famous “12 points,” where he essentially listed all of the U.S. grievances with Iran and said these are the things we’re trying to address in this “big-for-big deal.”

The challenging thing, again, is that the scope of the objectives is way too broad. This basically means that Iran needs to change all of its foreign policy, which it has no incentive to do because, partly, it’s made these decisions for a reason. Iran is working with non-state actors, for example, because it believes that it doesn’t have any state allies that it can rely. And this is part of its grand strategy. So getting Iran to change all of these fundamental parts of its foreign policy are going to be incredible difficult, if not impossible.

The second challenge is that the administration has not always done a very good job of signaling to Iran that negotiations are one of the means by which it would like to get to that point. It’s not always clear that the administration is actually interested in negotiations. What the Iranians have largely heard over the past two years has been that we’re looking to get the regime to collapse, but the negotiations part has not always been emphasized as much.

Negotiators announce the Iranian nuclear deal in Vienna, Austria in July 2015. Courtesy: Dragan Tatic / Bundesministerium für Europa, Integration und Äusseres
Negotiators announce the Iranian nuclear deal in Vienna, Austria in July 2015. (Courtesy: Dragan Tatic / Bundesministerium für Europa, Integration und Äusseres)

How is Iran responding to the U.S. pressure campaign? Does anything stand out?

Ariane Tabatabai: I think many of us expected them to react more quickly and in a more drastic way than they have. When they announced [earlier this month] that they were going to make some sort of announcement, I thought it was going to be a bit more drastic than what it turned out to be.

Even though the announcement says they’re no longer seeing themselves as bound by a couple of provisions within the deal, the announcement by itself is not a violation. The activity that they would potentially undertake would be a violation, but they’re not doing that quite yet, they’re not exceeding the limits of the deal quite yet, which means that we have some room there – we have a couple of months to see what happens.

The second thing that I think was actually positive was that in his statement President Rouhani mentioned that they were going to give 60 days and then they were going to make a decision about what to do next, and he laid out a couple of things he thinks his country would do. But the 60 days doesn’t seem to me as hard a deadline as some reports have indicated. Rather, the 60 days will be a window for negotiations between Europe and Iran, and after that the Iranians will make a decision about what to do next.

I do think that the Iranians want to preserve the deal, at least for another couple of years. I think their key objective is to get the deal through the November 2020 deadline, which of course is our election. And, like much of the world, they’re trying to see what happens next – if President Trump gets a second term or  if he ends up being voted out of office and you have another candidate, potentially a Democrat, take his place.

And if that’s the case, many Democrats have said that they would like to preserve the deal, they would like to go back into it. And so the Iranians believe that then they would have more leverage if the United States try to come back into the process. We can debate whether or not that’s true, but at least for our purposes, the next year-and-a-half, two years are really what the Iranians are focused on – trying to get to the November 2020 deadline.

Flickr photo:
Blondinrikard Fröberg

Big picture now. You wrote a piece in March in Foreign Policy asking if the U.S. can attain its foreign policy goals – be it with Iran, North Korea, with China on trade, etc. – with maximum pressure campaigns. What do you make of the fact that the pressure campaign has become a tool of first resort?

Ariane Tabatabai: I think on the one hand this is clearly in line with President Trump’s view of negotiations and deals. This is something that he had already done in his previous career before coming into office. But I do think that they’re all slightly different from one another, and that means that they all have their own set of challenges.

In the piece that you’re mentioning I compared the North Korean and Iranian cases, and in my view the main difference here is that the North Korean campaign was very short-lived. The United States essentially escalated very quickly, there were discussions of fire and fury if they ever threatened the United State, there were a number of sanctions, there was a lot of muscle-flexing there. But then immediately after the first summit [in Singapore] you saw that die down and we immediately released the pressure and kind of decided that things had been solved and that North Korea was no longer a nuclear threat. And I think that that’s challenging, because in order for a pressure campaign to succeed you need to give it the time that it needs.

That was instrumental to the success of the sanctions regime under President Obama bringing the Iranians to the negotiating table in 2012 to negotiate the [nuclear] deal that the U.S. pulled out of last year.

With Iran, what we’re seeing is a little bit of the opposite. There’s mounting pressure, but in the past year-and-a-half, two years you haven’t seen a whole lot of effort to signal to the Iranians that there would be a positive outcome for them if they decided to come back to the negotiating table. U.S. intentions weren’t made very clear, and similarly, the depth and the breadth of the pressure campaign – the sanctions, the lack of precise targeting, all of that – is really challenging and stymieing the progress of the pressure campaign.

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    1. What a shock that Bob Ney – the famous Unregistered Foreign Agent of Iran working for TMN – somehow forgot to mention what Iran is up to, instead bleating nonsense about NSA John Bolton desiring a First Strike War with Iran including using nuclear bombs.

      Forgot to mention its nuclear program, its ballistic missile program, its funding terrorist groups and militias throughout the Middle East and South Asia, its interventions in the region and its human rights track record.

      But I expected this, all the money is in reaming the despised USA on The Thom Hartmann Program.

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