One year ago, the U.S. withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal — officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — reached by the P5+1, the EU, and Iran. The Trump administration subsequently adopted a new and more aggressive Iran policy that it dubbed the “maximum pressure” campaign, reimposing sanctions, labeling the Revolutionary Guard a foreign terrorist organization, and trying to drive Iran’s oil exports to zero. Amid rising tensions between the U.S. and Iran, we asked nine regional experts to assess the situation and answer one key question: Is the U.S. maximum pressure campaign working?
So far, US policy seems to be working, albeit unevenly.
The Trump administration has pursued an Iran policy based on the use of all instruments of national power — economic, diplomatic, and military deterrence — to stop Tehran from engaging in a wide array of aggressive and malign behaviors that defy global norms. So far, it seems to be working, albeit unevenly.
The most successful part of the strategy has been the reinstatement of sanctions. Scores of foreign investors, including major multinationals, are abandoning the Iranian market. The IMF and World Bank now forecast a deepening recession. The value of the rial is plummeting while inflation skyrockets. Oil exports have fallen from 2.5 million bpd to under 1 million bpd, costing the regime billions at a time when it is desperate for hard currency. Tehran is slashing transfer payments to its surrogates like Hezbollah, Hamas, Shiite militias, and the Assad regime.
Economic pressure is rising in spite of European efforts to salvage the nuclear deal by preserving economic incentives for Tehran, including setting up special purpose vehicles for international payments, resisting the expulsion of Iran from the SWIFT financial messaging system, and deterring compliance with U.S. sanctions by activating a blocking statue. So far, these efforts have had limited impact.
The administration’s strategy to counter Iranian influence in the Middle East looked like it was on life support thanks to President Donald Trump’s withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria. After a sustained backlash, he has partially walked back his promise of a full troop withdrawal. Trump’s principal advisers recognized that the presence of U.S. forces in Syria denied key terrain and natural resources to Iran, Hezbollah, Russia, and the Assad regime, while costing the U.S. relatively little in terms of blood and treasure.
The administration is strengthening its regional posture. It has provided strong support for Israel to destroy Iranian military infrastructure in Syria. It also has moved an aircraft carrier strike group and bomber task force to the region in response to intelligence that Tehran is planning attacks against U.S. assets or allies. The credible threat of overwhelming force is essential to effective deterrence to prevent further Iranian escalation.
The Trump administration’s Iran policy suffers from a lack of bipartisan support. If Democrats retake the White House in 2020, the new president is likely to re-enter the JCPOA and suspend sanctions once again, though he or she will face the prospect of key restrictions on Iran’s nuclear, missile, and military programs lapsing during their first and second terms.
With the designation of the IRGC as a foreign terrorist organization, the push to drive Iranian oil exports to zero, and other planned steps, the Trump administration, with support from Republicans in Congress, is moving to build a wall of deterrence to keep companies out of Iran even if a new president tries to lift sanctions as part of a reentry into the JCPOA.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei may decide to play for time, hoping for Trump’s defeat in 2020. But with sanctions biting and the economy in turmoil, Tehran may now welcome a diplomatic process whose purpose is to blunt the “maximum pressure” campaign.
Mark Dubowitz is the chief executive of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington, D.C.-based nonpartisan policy institute, where he leads projects on Iran, sanctions, and nonproliferation.