Embargoes and sanctions are key aspects of the U.S. “maximum pressure” strategy against the Iranian regime. That policy has brought a deluge of criticism on the Trump administration, but it may be the best option for countering Iran’s aggression.
The U.S. has recently announced its goal of extending the arms embargo that is currently set to expire on October 18. Established by the U.N. in 2007, the embargo prohibited the export of arms to Iran, adding to a 2006 embargo on nuclear-weapons technology. The expiration is a term in the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—the “Iran deal.” When the U.S. withdrew from the JCPOA in May 2018, it reimposed pre-JCPOA sanctions on entities under its jurisdiction. It now hopes to convince the other signatories to extend the embargo in response to the Islamic Republic’s aggression in the region, enablement of terrorist groups, and continued escalation of uranium enrichment. Should the signatories reject this proposal, the U.S. could invoke the agreement’s “snapback” provision, which allows any of the original signatories to reinstate pre-JCPOA sanctions and pressures. In this case, the U.S. would presumably reinstate the embargo as its official policy, and perhaps hold other countries accountable should they trade arms with Iran.
In a representative article, Barbara Slavin of the Atlantic Council offers five criticisms of the administration’s approach. First, she notes that Trump’s promise to shrink Iran’s ballistic-missile program and block its regional aggression has not been fulfilled. Second, maximum pressure and threats of a snapback could push Iran to withdraw from the JCPOA and Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)—which it has threatened to do—and thereby allow it to pursue a nuclear-weapon capacity more freely. Third, the American attitude toward the JCPOA will alienate European allies. Fourth, the Trump administration may weaken the impact of sanctions by overusing them; Slavin cites China as an example, noting that it built “parallel international financial mechanisms” when faced with American sanctions. Fifth, Slavin believes that maximum pressure emboldens Iran’s hard-liners and could lead to a more conservative parliament in next year’s elections.
These criticisms have a measure of truth. Their bottom line is that maximum pressure alienates the U.S. from its allies and burns diplomatic bridges with Iran. Nevertheless, it is the best option to hold the regime accountable, given its bad diplomatic record.
Historically, diplomacy has not been successful in dealing with the Islamic Republic. Take the nuclear program. Though Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, says nuclear weapons are haram (forbidden by Islam), Iran has violated the NPT on a number of occasions, and has been condemned for building undeclared nuclear facilities such as the one in Natanz. Iran pursued a nuclear-weapons program until 2003 as well. This lack of transparency led the IAEA to conclude in a 2006 resolution that Iran was guilty of “many failures and breaches of its obligations to comply with its NPT Safeguards Agreement.” The resolution went on to note an “absence of confidence that Iran’s nuclear programme” was “exclusively for peaceful purposes,” owing to a “history of concealment of Iran’s nuclear activities.” Treaties such as the NPT are clearly not taken seriously by the Islamic Republic, and its past pursuit of nuclear weaponry calls its anti-nuclear statements into question.
What’s worse, according to American Enterprise Institute (AEI) scholar Michael Rubin, the JCPOA offered Iran many “goodies” despite its restrictions. The agreement’s lifting of sanctions meant that Iran could more thoroughly fund its proxies and bolster its ballistic-missile program. By focusing too heavily on Iran’s nuclear program, the deal freed up resources for the regional expansion of power, a key regime goal. Moreover, the JCPOA was weak on nuclear control: Sunset clauses in the agreement left Iran with the ability to restart a nuclear program as early as 2030.
Rubin says that, since diplomacy usually fails with Iran, he is in general a fan of maximum pressure. A merit of the policy is its ability to raise the cost of Iranian aggression. “Sanctions offer additional steps between war and peace and enable policymakers to have options that avoid worst-possible outcomes,” Rubin tells National Review. This allows the U.S. to “respond to bad Iranian behavior short of having to engage in military action to do so.” An arms embargo can also prevent war by making it harder for Iran to be militarily prepared for a major confrontation.
Rubin also notes that maximum pressure forces Tehran to “make basic guns-and-butter decisions.” If it chooses guns, the Iranian government will have to “pay the consequences for those decisions in terms of potential popular unrest.” This already seems to be the case: In the last year, Iran has faced massive anti-government protests over the country’s dire economic condition. In 2018, after the implementation of sanctions, Iran’s GDP shrank 4.8 percent. Rubin thinks that maximum pressure can raise the cost of pursuing a nuclear program to a level that forces the regime to back down: “If pursuit of Iran’s nuclear program becomes so expensive it can imperil the regime, history suggests the regime will reverse course. . . . That’s what happened with the Carter-era American hostages, and that’s what also happened with the decision to end the Iran–Iraq War.”
Rubin and other experts who support maximum pressure do offer some caution, however. While the policy holds Iran accountable and has succeeded in the past, it needs a clearer purpose. “You can’t have pressure just for the sake of pressure,” says Rubin. “What does the Trump administration want?” Is it regime change? Is it just an end to the nuclear program? Is it a new deal? The answer is unclear.
Giselle Donnelly, another AEI scholar, notes an additional weakness in the maximum-pressure strategy, namely its “disconnect” from Trump’s other policies in the Middle East. “Maximum pressure would suggest you’re pushing ahead on multiple fronts,” she says. But the Trump administration has decreased its presence in the Middle East over time — for example, by pulling out of Syria and Afghanistan — while targeting Iran with maximum pressure. This combination of policies has ignored the ways in which Iran’s fate is intertwined with that of the region, especially in places such as Syria, where Iran has always tried to exercise its influence. Maximum pressure must be both local and regional: “It’s great to hold Iran accountable,” says Donnelly, “but they’re much more interested in exercising regional influence [than in developing nuclear weaponry].”
Donnelly also thinks the U.S. has an image problem in the Middle East following the Trump administration’s general retreat from the region: “The thing that worries me the most is that we have transmitted the message that we don’t care.” This perceived indifference enhances the way in which, should Iran withstand U.S. pressures, “it looks like progress for them.”
Donnelly and Rubin’s criticisms amount to a statement of the need for a more coherent total strategy. Overall, however, the Trump administration has at least been willing to confront repeated Iranian transgressions head on, and in so doing has taken a very different approach from that of its predecessor. Going forward, the U.S. should consider strengthening its regional posture and Middle Eastern alliances while closely monitoring regional conflicts involving Iran.
Fast-forward to November. The American presidential election may determine the future of the maximum-pressure strategy. Biden has been highly critical of the Trump administration’s approach to Iran and is on the record saying he would like the United States to rejoin the JCPOA. Perhaps this would mend diplomatic relationships with U.S. allies and lead to more fruitful conversations with the Iranian government. Experience should make us suspect, however, that this is wishful thinking. Unless held accountable, the Iranian regime is likely to continue its terroristic and destabilizing conduct