Shadow Government

A front-row seat to the Republicans' debate over foreign policy, including their critique of the Biden administration.

Trump’s Policies Have Convinced Iran to Build a More Advanced Nuclear Program Before Negotiating

Washington’s reliance on sanctions and maximum pressure will make it harder to strike a new deal constraining Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.

An Iranian flag near Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant, during an official ceremony to kick-start work on a second reactor at the facility on Nov. 10, 2019.
An Iranian flag near Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant, during an official ceremony to kick-start work on a second reactor at the facility on Nov. 10, 2019. ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images

After last month’s stinging rebuke at the United Nations Security Council, when only the Dominican Republic supported a U.S. resolution to indefinitely extend the arms embargo on Iran, it is now clear that President Donald Trump’s Iran strategy has failed in achieving its goal.

The president’s decision to withdraw from the 2015 nuclear deal in favor of a “maximum pressure” strategy has battered Iran’s economy but left the deal standing. The harder the administration has pushed to kill off the deal, the more it has found itself isolated and Iran obdurate. There is little chance of a breakthrough before the U.S. presidential elections. Iran, however, could see the benefit in engaging the next president to relax pressure on its economy. Tehran wants the new U.S. administration to return to the 2015 deal. However, even a Biden administration, which has said it would do so, would look to go beyond the current deal to a more comprehensive nuclear agreement. Trump’s failed gambit, however, has made that outcome unlikely.

Over the past four years, Trump has used economic sanctions against Iran with unprecedented ferocity. In a single day in 2018, his administration imposed about 700 new sanctions on the country. The depth and breadth of them reduced Iran’s oil exports to a trickle, cut Iran off from international finance institutions, plunged the Iranian economy into greater depths of unemployment and inflation, and denied it access to medical supplies to fight the explosion of the COVID-19 pandemic in the country. Trump has made clear to the world Washington’s unrivaled ability to inflict economic pain. But this extraordinary display of power has not borne fruit, and significantly, could make halting Iran’s nuclear pursuits less likely.

Trump’s maximal use of sanctions has become a policy overreach that has alarmed both U.S. allies and adversaries, prompting not just concerted diplomatic resistance, but investments in economic countermeasures aimed at circumventing the U.S. dollar’s supremacy in the global financial order. For instance, last month Beijing encouraged Chinese banks to reduce their reliance on the SWIFT network commonly used to conduct transactions, and which is susceptible to U.S. pressure. China is clearly looking to diminish the United States’ ability to pressure adversaries by denying them access to international financial networks. Mounting resistance to U.S. sanctions will make it more difficult for Washington to rally international support to pressure Iran. That would require fewer U.S. sanctions, not more.

The Obama administration used economic sanctions to compel Iran to negotiate a nuclear deal. Trump expected to quickly recreate that formula. This time, however, pressure has given Iran an incentive to resist. Despite greater economic pressure, Trump has only encouraged Iran to redouble its investment in its nuclear program. It has already backed away from a number of its commitments under the nuclear deal and resumed its enrichment activities.

It has become consensus view in Iran that it miscalculated last time; it went into negotiations with the U.S. government too early and with too little leverage. That is why Trump administration officials could so hastily withdraw from the nuclear deal and see no cost to imposing maximum pressure on Iran.

To secure the 2015 deal, the United States gave up little at the negotiating table, and what it gave up it quickly took back by reimposing economic sanctions. If Iran’s nuclear program had been more advanced, then Iran could have asked for more concessions giving up less, and Washington would have shown greater commitment to agreement.

The lesson Tehran has learned is that a nuclear deal will only be successful if Iran has enough leverage to force the United States to lift more sanctions and then remain committed to a deal. Twenty thousand centrifuges and a few hundred kilograms of 20 percent-enriched uranium were clearly not enough. If there is a next time, Iran will aim to come to the table with much more.

Iranians believe that they fulfilled their commitments to the 2015 nuclear deal. They point to a dozen favorable reports by the United Nations nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Tehran believes that even before leaving the deal, the United States was dragging its feet on fulfilling its side of the bargain. Iranian negotiators clearly failed to appreciate the many legal intricacies of the U.S. sanctions regime and did not secure guarantees of sanctions relief in the deal.

But the larger lesson is that in the deal Iran gave up tangible physical assets that it had built over time and at great cost, whereas the U.S. merely agreed to rescind laws that could one day come back into force. There was no meaningful cost to lifting sanctions nor to reimposing them. It is to change that calculus that Iran has resisted sanctions pressure, and recently demanded that the U.S. government pay compensation for abandoning the deal and inflicting economic pain on Iran.

For Iran’s Supreme Leader, Libya is the object lesson. When Muammar al-Qaddafi agreed to give up his nuclear program, the Supreme Leader told his advisors that this was a monumental mistake that would undo the Libyan leader. That the West played a hand in toppling his regime proved to the Ayatollah that giving up nuclear ambitions will only buy you regime change.

Iran’s leaders have come to see regime change as the ultimate goal of maximum pressure. They have blamed popular protests that have rocked the country over the past three years on outside interference—assuming Washington’s strategy is to squeeze the population into unrest and then use its agents to light the fuse for a mass uprising. Would the United States have followed such a strategy had Iran not given up its nuclear program? The guardians of the Islamic Republic think not. The imperative of regime survival will remain a barrier to easy concessions in nuclear talks, unless the fear of regime change subsides in Tehran.

The Trump administration has taught Iran—and all aspirants seeking to join the nuclear club—the wrong lessons: that they should have a bigger nuclear program before talking, negotiate incrementally, and give up nuclear assets slowly lest sanctions come back.

For the United States, there is no easy path to a larger nuclear deal with Iran. It will have to start by fully restoring the 2015 nuclear deal, and then work with Europe, China, and Russia to plan for the difficult task of rebuilding trust and momentum for a new deal—and for managing the long road beyond.

Vali Nasr is the Majid Khadduri professor of Middle East studies and international affairs at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. He served in the U.S. State Department from 2009 to 2011 and is author of The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat. Twitter: @vali_nasr