“If you know the oil markets right now, you know that price is not a factor,” said Amos Hochstein, President Barack Obama’s international-energy special envoy, who managed Iran sanctions. By contrast, in the first two years of Iranian oil sanctions under Obama, he said oil prices were more than $100 a barrel.
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Still, technical problems will complicate the push to zero Iranian exports. China, for example, is still importing roughly half a million barrels of Iranian oil per day. “It is difficult to sanction China on this issue,” Hochstein said. “They have financial institutions that can facilitate the oil trade that are not engaged in the U.S. financial market, and therefore [are] immune to sanctions.”
Separately, however, the administration has used sanctions waivers in other ways. At a conference in December, Christopher Ford, the assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, noted that even as the administration sought to sanction Iran to drive it to negotiate a better deal, they were seeking to preserve some international cooperation with Iran on things such as civil nuclear research and energy projects. The waivers basically prevent the Europeans from facing sanctions for participating in projects allowed under the deal. There, too, the effect, if not the intent, of the waivers could be to keep in place parts of the basic framework of the deal Trump vowed to eliminate.
“We don’t agree that we should have maximum pressure right now, considering that we want the Iranians to stay in the nuclear deal,” said a Democratic congressional aide. “But if you’re going to have maximum pressure, then waivers don’t work.”
Even if a Democrat won the White House in 2020, though, he or she might not think it wise to reenter the JCPOA as it currently stands. Robert Einhorn, who helped negotiate the nuclear deal in the Obama administration, noted that some key provisions would expire not long after a hypothetical Democrat took office in 2021. Besides, Iran is, according to the public assessment of the U.S. intelligence community, still abiding by the terms of the deal under current U.S. sanctions—what’s the political benefit of giving up sanctions leverage right off the bat?
Richard Nephew, who was the sanctions expert for Obama’s negotiating team with Iran, told me that even if a Democrat made a tactical decision to reenter the deal, “we’ve got to figure out a way to deal with the lost time.” The current terms of the JCPOA, he said, are “rapidly becoming not worth it.”
Administration officials have repeatedly said that they seek not regime change but behavior change, and that their goal is to drive the Iranians to the table to strike a better deal. But critics of the “maximum pressure” policy I spoke to, whether or not they supported the Iran deal initially, all agree on one thing: Iran is prepared to wait out the next two years of the Trump administration. “Absent an unforeseen U.S. sweetener, I believe Iran is willing to wait,” Hochstein said. “They’re willing to take the pain. They’ve demonstrated that. They’ve had bad times before.”