Trump’s Only Iran Strategy Is to Punish Iran

The administration doesn’t want a grand bargain with the Islamic Republic. They want a different government.

President Trump, Secretary Pompeo, Secretary James Mattis, and National-Security Adviser Bolton sitting at a table
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, center, and National-Security Adviser John Bolton, right, listen during a meeting with President Trump in the White House on May 17. (Andrew Harrer-Pool / Getty)

After Donald Trump’s announcement last week that the United States was walking away from the Iran nuclear deal, two State Department officials held a background briefing to explain the strategy. The transcript is a painful read. From start to finish, the unnamed officials struggled to answer the most basic questions about the purpose of reimposing sanctions on Iran, what they expected to achieve, which allies they had consulted, and so on. Every time a reporter tried to pin them down on the core question—now that you’ve junked the deal, what comes next?— they mumbled and evaded.

This past Friday, reporters tried again, on another conference call with a senior State Department official. They pressed him for specifics on what exactly the plan will be going forward. The most he would offer was that the United States would bring “all necessary pressure to bear on Iran to change its behavior and to pursue a new framework that can resolve our concerns.” It is hard to get less specific than that.

This is not because these officials are uninformed or unintelligent. And it is not because key figures in the administration, like National-Security Adviser John Bolton, haven’t given it some thought. My guess is it is because, for some reason, they did not feel comfortable sharing the real answer, which is this: The punishment is the strategy. The United States will now apply the means of more economic pressure to achieve the end of Iran feeling more economic pressure.

In theory, sanctions should have a specific purpose. We impose them in response to certain behavior by another country, and offer to lift them in exchange for specified changes in that behavior. In other words, sanctions create leverage, which is then converted into concessions at the negotiating table. That was the story of the Iran nuclear deal, which I helped negotiate, including by opening the secret back channel with Iran that jump-started the diplomacy.

Advocates of a more aggressive Iran policy, both inside and outside the administration, view sanctions differently. They seem to feel they don’t need to give more-specific answers as to what exactly sanctions are intended to achieve, because from their perspective, whatever is achieved is better than the status quo. Maybe with sufficient pressure, the regime will collapse. That would be their ideal outcome, and it’s what John Bolton was referring to recently when he said, “Iran’s economic condition is really quite shaky, so that the effect [of reimposing sanctions] could be dramatic.” But maybe not—maybe sanctions will just leave the regime weakened and demoralized and inwardly focused. That would be good, too. But maybe not—maybe the regime will just have less disposable income to spend on regional adventurism and therefore reduce its activities in places like Syria and Yemen. That’s not bad. But maybe not—maybe sanctions will simply make it harder for Iran to become stronger, an economic version of containment. Even that will do.

Or maybe, alternatively, sanctions will lead Iran to come back to the table, to accept the administration’s maximalist demands regarding their nuclear program, their missile program, and their regional activities. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is giving a speech next week where he will ostensibly argue that this is the plan. But if you try to pin down Trump’s defenders on what the “better deal” would actually look like—what specific terms it would have to include—you quickly discover that this is not a particularly serious proposition. For example, in one breath, they say that an agreement on nuclear issues isn’t enough; a broader regional settlement is required. In the next breath, they say that the current regime is by definition incapable of becoming a more benign regional actor.  Iran hawks like John Bolton don’t want a grand bargain with Iran. They want a different government in Iran.

What about Donald Trump? Where is he in all of this? Well, nowhere, really. He cared a lot about tearing down the agreement, and sticking it to Barack Obama in the process. He cares little to not at all about what comes next. Indeed, he would probably take a very similar deal to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the Iran deal is formally known, if it had his name on it. But his team takes over from here, and whatever their rhetoric about diplomacy, they see a new nuclear agreement as a constraint, not an objective.

The most illuminating moment of last week’s background briefing was when one of the officials said that “the problem with the deal was that it reduced our ability to pressure Iran,” repeating twice that the deal cordoned off sectors of the Iranian economy from sanctions. So abandoning the deal, they said, has given them wide-open running room on economic pressure.

Now, it’s fair to ask—what’s wrong with all of this? After all, the current Iranian regime is a repressive and abusive actor at home and a malign actor in the region, responsible for a great deal of chaos and death. Why not pressure them relentlessly, to impose costs at a minimum and spark change inside Iran at a maximum?

I agree that curbing and countering Iran’s regional behavior is a crucial priority for American policy. The Iran debate is not a quarrel over whether to challenge Islamic Republic’s negative influence in the region, but how. And I see a number of basic problems with the approach the administration is taking.

Above all, there is the abject folly of breaking the Iran deal when it was working as intended to achieve its objective: blocking Iran from getting a nuclear bomb. The end of the Iran deal means the end of our ability to enforce constraints on Iran’s nuclear program through means other than military coercion. We can’t expect that they will indefinitely uphold their side of the bargain when we’ve stopped upholding ours. They are likely to eventually move their program forward in order to gain leverage against us. So this strategy could easily generate a nuclear crisis over time, and a self-inflicted one at that.

This was especially unnecessary given that the deal did not preclude the U.S. and its allies from pursuing a more aggressive strategy to check Iran’s regional behavior—indeed, the Europeans had signaled their willingness to do just that. If you care about Iran’s behavior in the Middle East, killing the deal is a distraction at best. Now the world will have to return to worrying about a nuclear program that was previously under lock and key. The talk in Europe today is about Washington’s approach toward the nuclear deal, not Tehran’s approach toward the region.

But even setting aside the deal, the administration’s approach to Iran is not sound.

First, any policy that lacks a defined objective or clear endgame—that basically says, let’s keep raising the pressure and see what happens—runs the risk of leading to mistakes, bad choices, and escalation at times and places we can’t control. This is especially true where regime change is part of the equation. The notion that you can simply switch out an unsavory government in another country introduces a magical quality to strategic decision-making, leaving it less rigorous and reality-based and more prone to error. Proponents of regime change are constantly tempted to assess that the regime in question is “on the brink of collapse, if only we push just a little harder and do a little more.” This tendency can drive policy choices in dangerous and misguided directions, and already has in the case of Iran; along with removing Iran’s nuclear handcuffs, it makes military confrontation between the United States and Iran more likely. Indeed, some (though certainly not all) proponents of this approach are spoiling for just that.

Second, despite lots of rhetoric to the contrary, the increased economic pressure Trump ordered has not been, and probably will not be, accompanied by any coherent approach in the key Middle Eastern theaters. Is there a plan for dealing with Iran’s growing influence in Syria, which is ground zero for its regional adventurism? When this question was posed to the State Department officials, one said simply, “the president’s focus in Syria is on ISIS.” What about new ideas to address Iranian influence in Iraq, Yemen, or Lebanon? No answers were forthcoming. This is not surprising, given that for the past 16 months, Trump has placed little priority on challenging Iran in the region; to the contrary, he has consistently indicated he wants to get out and leave the raging conflicts to others.

The administration’s defenders will argue that it was the nuclear deal itself that led Iran to engage in more-aggressive regional behavior, because it gave them access to funds they would not otherwise have had. But the main driver of Iran’s activity in the region has not been the availability of cash—it’s been the availability of opportunities. As new opportunities arose, the Iranians took advantage of them, sanctions or no sanctions. That was true before the nuclear deal, when they were deeply engaged in malign activity across the Middle East (including material support to Assad in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza, and the militant opposition in Bahrain, as well as killing American troops in Iraq). It was true while the nuclear deal was being negotiated (when the Houthis, an Iran-linked militia, launched their assault on Yemen’s capital). It was true while the U.S. was in the nuclear deal. And it will be true going forward. Indeed, many of the commentators who now say Iran was unleashed on the region because of the nuclear agreement are the same individuals who used to raise the alarm about Iran’s regional behavior years before the agreement went into place. The lesson of all this is that sanctions are not a magic bullet, and the incoherence of the administration's approach will likely lead to more, not less, instability.

Third, even to the extent sanctions can help shape Iran’s decisions, they will only be truly effective if they are more or less global in scope—if all of Iran’s major trading partners get on board. For many years, the sanctions imposed by the United States had little impact on Iran, and even isolated America, because the rest of the world saw them as punitive, not purposeful. From 2010 to 2015, we were able to rally the international community to join us in far stronger sanctions because we made it clear they were designed for a specific objective, curbing Iran’s nuclear program. Now we are asking key countries to join us again in a serious economic pressure campaign when (a) we’ve abandoned the deal we negotiated with those very countries, (b) they view Iran with more sympathy now than they did in 2010, and us with less, and (c) we’re asking them to enforce sanctions pretty much for sanctions sake, pretty much indefinitely. This is not a recipe for success.

Trump’s team responds to this concern by saying, essentially, “Just make other countries choose between trading with the United States and trading with Iran, and they’ll have to do what we say.” It’s true that threats and bullying will deter a number of European banks and businesses from doing business with Iran. But sanctions are a lot more effective when the world is actively cooperating with the United States to pressure Iran, and a lot less effective when the world is actively cooperating with Iran to frustrate the United States by looking for workarounds and dragging their feet. And in the long run, this “our way or the highway” approach will make sanctions themselves a wasting asset—not just with Iran but across the board—as other countries, including our friends, develop techniques to keep their economies from being held hostage.

None of these arguments is going to move the administration. In the end, they don’t really have a policy toward Iran so much as they have an attitude toward Iran. As Trump has repeatedly said, including with respect to Iran, “we’ll see what happens.” When a president does something as risky as pull out of a duly negotiated international agreement, he and his team should have more of a plan than that.