Trump’s Magical Thinking on Iran Sanctions Won’t Advance U.S. Interests
Far from convincing Tehran to cooperate, new U.S. measures are on track to achieve the exact opposite.
When U.S. President Donald Trump announced in May his plans to withdraw from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and re-impose economic sanctions, one of the many reasons he gave was to compel better Iranian behavior across the Middle East. Iran, senior administration officials often said, was “behind every problem” in the region, and cutting off its oil exports would choke off the resources it was using to foment instability in neighboring countries. Earlier this month, the sanctions went into force.
In Trump’s vision, sanctions are a quasi-magical, multi-purpose tool: They would force Iran back to the table to accept an improved nuclear deal, include restrictions on Tehran’s ballistic missiles program, and give inspectors unlimited access. They would compel Iran to end its support for regional groups hostile to the United States. And they might even lead the Iranian people, facing a collapsing economy, to rise up and sweep aside the Islamic regime.
That’s an impressive wish-list. It’s also utterly implausible. If the tough new U.S. sanctions did in fact lead Iran to embrace less aggressive behavior in the region, that would be a most welcome development. But the problem is that, far from incentivizing better Iranian behavior, let alone producing a new Iranian regime, the administration’s approach is likely to make that behavior worse. The availability of resources for foreign proxies has never been the main constraint on Iran’s regional interference—which comes fairly cheap—and nothing in the Islamic Republic’s long history suggests that it will simply cave to U.S. demands, even under heavy economic pressure. By imposing comprehensive sanctions that will only be lifted if Iran does everything the United States wants, the administration is likely ensuring that Iran will do nothing it wants.
This dynamic is likely to be most clear, and most tragic, in Yemen. A small but real chance exists today to wind down a conflict that has gone on for far too long. The murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October, along with sharply deteriorating humanitarian conditions and heightened media attention, has increased pressure on the Saudi leadership to change its approach. Last month, Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo took unusually tough stands, calling on all sides to implement a ceasefire and come to the negotiating table—a stance now backed by a credible Congressional threat to cut off arms sales to Saudi Arabia if Riyadh does not cooperate. The administration has also announced that it will cease providing in-air refueling to Saudi planes for Yemen bombing operations. These new measures mark a change in the Trump administration’s posture toward the Saudis, for whom U.S. support had previously been virtually unconditional.
There is good reason to doubt whether the Saudis and their Emirati partners are ready to halt the war, given all they have invested and their genuine concerns about Iranian and Houthi threats and intentions. Still, pressure to repair the kingdom’s reputation along with a growing realization that military victory is not on the horizon offers some hope for change. The Saudis and Emiratis don’t exactly welcome the pressure for new talks, but it could prove to be an opportunity for them to get out of a costly and disastrous conflict.
Unfortunately, even if Saudi Arabia and the UAE somehow could be compelled to accept a ceasefire and agree to necessary compromises in peace negotiations, the United States now has less influence than ever on the Saudi-led coalition’s Houthi adversaries and their Iranian backers. Having re-imposed the full range of sanctions on Iran, and made clear it will only lift them if Iran complies with a dozen desirable but wildly unrealistic demands, the Trump administration has deprived itself of any usable leverage. The message to the Iranians is that if they help secure a ceasefire and press the Houthis to compromise they will remain under comprehensive U.S. sanctions anyway, and that if they don’t help, there is little more we can do. All in all, Tehran now has no reason to cooperate and every reason to obstruct.
The administration’s approach to Iran could harm U.S. interests in Iraq as well. With the recent elections of a new, pragmatic president and prime minister in Baghdad, prospects for more inclusive and effective governance have risen—which could advance both U.S. and Iranian interests. But if Iran is convinced that the United States aims to destroy its economy unless the regime either meets maximalist U.S. demands or gives up power, it could easily decide to retaliate where they have most influence. That would likely be right next-door in Iraq, where powerful pro-Iranian Shiite militias could readily target U.S. troops, as they did regularly in the aftermath of the 2003 Iraq war. The administration could retaliate militarily against Iran and bank on its fear of dangerous escalation. But Tehran could just as well bank on Washington’s fatigue with war.
Even short of that, the crippling economic sanctions on Iran will have a devastating impact on Iraq’s already feeble economy, and perhaps its political stability too. Iraq depends on Iran for natural gas (which it produces but cannot refine domestically), electricity (the majority of which is imported), water, and cheap food imports. Last summer, it saw violent protests in Basra, when the lack of available energy for air conditioning and a water crisis during 120-degree weather led residents to rise up in anger at both their own government and the Iranians who supply the electricity. If the administration forces Iraq to wind down its gas imports from Iran, more such protests are likely, seriously threatening otherwise promising political developments. That would be a further unintended consequence of a policy designed to promote regional stability.
Finally, and ironically, Trump’s renewed sanctions might have a more counterproductive impact on the region the more they actually succeed in bringing the Iranian economy to its knees. Since the sanctions were announced last spring, Iran has made clear it will continue to abide by the nuclear restrictions of the nuclear deal so long as the countries still committed to it continue to purchase a certain amount of Iranian oil. Thanks to continued imports by China, India, Turkey, and others, Iranians are still selling more than one million barrels per day, slightly more than they were when U.S. sanctions were lifted in 2015.
If Trump manages to drive those exports closer to zero, however, Iran’s incentive to abide by the nuclear restrictions will also diminish. At that point, it is unlikely to aggressively expand its nuclear program in a way that would alienate its economic partners or appear to justify a U.S. or Israeli military strike, but it could announce a resumption of some of the banned nuclear activities. If it did so, Trump would have created for himself the same dilemma Obama faced in 2015—either allow Iran to develop a potential nuclear weapons capacity, or destroy it with military strikes. The latter almost certainly would prompt Iranian retaliation throughout the region, including potential Hezbollah missile strikes on Israel, Houthi attacks on Riyadh, and militia attacks on U.S. targets in Iraq —not exactly the more congenial regional policy Trump claims the new sanctions are designed to produce.
Administration officials have been congratulating themselves in recent weeks, already declaring re-imposition of sanctions a success, since investment in Iran has dropped precipitously, Iranian oil exports are down significantly, and the Iranian economy is shaky. But the issue was never whether it was possible for the United States to lead an effort that increased the pain inflicted on Iran. The issue is whether that pain— which unfortunately will hurt the Iranian public long before it hurts the regime—helps achieve U.S. interests. On that score, far from producing a more cooperative Iran, Trump’s sanctions are on track to achieve the exact opposite.
Philip H. Gordon is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a former White House coordinator for the Middle East in the Obama administration, and the author of Losing the Long Game: the False Promise of Regime Change in the Middle East, forthcoming in October 2020.