Just days after President Trump’s inauguration, the battle lines were drawn. At the White House, then-national security adviser Michael T. Flynn said the new administration was “officially putting Iran on notice” for its alleged catalogue of destabilizing activities throughout the Middle East. Flynn’s political scandals would see him soon lose his job and later plead guilty to lying to FBI investigators. But Trump and his allies pressed ahead, launching a campaign of “maximum pressure” that strangled the Iranian economy and upended the nuclear deal forged in 2015 between the regime in Tehran and world powers.
With just two months left in his presidency, Trump has little to show for four years of anti-Iran hawkishness. Contrary to his administration’s pitch, the reimposition of sanctions did not bring Iran back to the negotiating table to hash out a tougher deal. “Maximum pressure” also didn’t curtail Iran’s influence and meddling in its neighborhood. The regime maintains its significant footholds in Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria through proxies and allies whose positions are in some instances stronger now than a few years ago.
The Trump administration declared that it “restored deterrence” with Iran after a U.S. targeted strike killed Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, an influential Iranian commander, at the beginning of the year. But that belied the series of escalatory actions carried out by Iran-affiliated forces that followed. It became clear that some ideologically-driven Trump administration officials viewed “maximum pressure” as a strategy to eventually collapse the theocratic regime in Tehran. Yet they could do little as rounds of mass protests within Iran were brutally snuffed out by government forces. The U.S.’s “maximum pressure” tactics, meanwhile, only strengthened Iran’s camp of hard-liners ahead of presidential elections next year.
“Trump came into office with a strong, effective nuclear agreement that the U.S. painstakingly negotiated alongside our allies,” tweeted Matt Duss, foreign policy adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). “Trump could’ve chosen to enforce it while pressing forward on other issues. But DC’s anti-Iran fanatics had other ideas, and here we are.”
And while economic sanctions have inflicted deep pain on the Iranian economy and ordinary Iranians, they compelled Iran’s rulers to resume building up their stockpile of enriched uranium, which may now exceed 12 times the limit set by the 2015 nuclear deal. Iran is theoretically closer to creating a nuclear weapon than it was when Trump took office. “According to a range of intelligence assessments, that deal was achieving its intended goal of restricting Iran’s enriched uranium supply,” wrote Post columnist Jason Rezaian. “But then Trump ordered the United States to withdraw from it unilaterally in 2018. Rarely has a foreign policy failure been so obvious.”
Parts of the world have tired of Trump’s act. European investors are slated to convene at a business conference next month funded by the European Union that will explore new opportunities to tap the Iranian market after President-elect Joe Biden takes office. If Biden makes good on his commitment to reenter the nuclear deal, that may necessitate lifting the threat of sanctions on European business entities considering investing in Iran.
Meanwhile, Iran is already finding ways to flout U.S.-imposed restrictions, with clandestine (and not-so-secret) oil shipments reaching places such as Venezuela and China. “The volume represents a more than tenfold increase since the spring, analysts say, and signals what experts see as a significant weakening of the ‘maximum pressure’ sanctions imposed by the Trump administration since it withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018,” wrote my colleagues Joby Warrick and Souad Mekhennet. “Other countries, many of them scornful of Trump’s unilateralism on Iran, are showing increasing reluctance to enforce the restrictions.”
“The Tehran regime has met ‘maximum pressure’ with its own pressure,” said Robert Litwak, senior vice president of the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, to The Post. Litwak added that Trump’s bruising approach to confronting Iran — including a failed gambit at the United Nations to snapback sanctions under the terms of a deal the United States had already reneged — had “diplomatically isolated the United States, not Iran.”
Biden may inherit an even messier situation. In a final throw of the dice, the Trump administration plans to slap new sanctions on Iran possibly every week till Inauguration Day. The New York Times reported Monday the president had to be dissuaded last week from a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, a move that could damage the country’s enrichment operations but probably also crater Biden’s ability to cool tensions and cajole the regime to the table.
“The scenario most national security people are worried about is a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities,” said Kori Schake, who served on George W. Bush’s National Security Council, to NPR. “Because the ‘maximum pressure’ campaign that has been the signature of Trump administration foreign policy has very little positive result.”
Trump officials believe that their efforts give Biden a pathway to extract further concessions from Iran. “I hope that next year the leverage that we’ve built up through our sanctions program is used [with] any form of pressure including, for example, Iranian fears about a developing relationship between Israel and Arab states in the region,” Elliott Abrams, U.S. special representative for Iran, told the Associated Press last week. “All of this pressure should be brought to bear to get Iran to change its conduct.”
Others are not so sure. “Trump’s violation of the nuclear deal has severely discredited the notion of negotiating with the United States, let alone the prospect of a broader thaw,” wrote Trita Parsi, executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. “Putting the puzzle of U.S.-Iranian diplomacy back together will be tremendously difficult. But the last few years have shown that not trying will not make the difficulties go away."