The goal of tightened sanctions on oil is to deprive the Iranian leadership of revenue.
By Eli Lake
It’s a common refrain of critics of President Donald Trump’s foreign policy: What his administration is seeking in Iran is regime change. Even if Trump never utters the phrase, they say, it’s what he really wants.
So it’s not surprising that after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced a tightening of U.S. sanctions on Iranian oil imports on Monday, ending the waivers the U.S. had granted some countries to purchase Iranian oil, the critics pounced. Supporters of the 2015 nuclear bargain with Iran warned that it was 2003 all over again.
They’re wrong — both in their opposition to regime change and in their understanding of Trump’s policy. There is a compelling argument that regime change is, in fact, the way to go. But regime change is not the strategy. As Jonathan Swan wrote in Axios on Sunday, Pompeo told a group of Iranian-Americans last week in private that the U.S. has no plans for a military intervention in Iran — nor does it support outside groups like the People’s Mujahadin, which favor overthrowing the mullahs.
“We’ve not supported any outside group,” Pompeo said Monday. “We’re supporting the Iranian people.” Pompeo also reiterated many of the demands he made almost a year ago, saying pressure on Iran “will continue to accelerate until Iran is willing to address them at the negotiating table.”
In this narrow sense, Trump’s strategy for Iran is identical to that of his predecessor — at least before negotiations over the nuclear deal began in public in 2013. Like Trump, Barack Obama imposed secondary sanctions on Iran’s oil exports, punishing not only countries that purchased Iran’s oil but also companies that insured or shipped it. And like Trump, Obama set the condition for easing those sanctions as entering negotiations.
But the Obama and Trump approaches diverge when it comes to their specific demands. Obama initially called for the dismantling of Iran’s nuclear program, but during negotiations reduced it to temporary limits on Iran’s enrichment of nuclear fuel and greater transparency into its program.
Pompeo and Trump are now asking for much more. In Pompeo’s speech of May 2018, he laid out the litany of demands. It’s more than what Obama got — not just a more complete accounting of its nuclear program, but the release of U.S. citizens it has detained, a withdrawal of forces from Syria, a stop to its support of terrorist groups such as the Taliban and Hezbollah, and an end to “its threatening behavior against its neighbors.” In all, there are 12 demands.
Critics of Trump’s policy will say that this is a wish list, that there is no chance Iran will ever comply. This argument has some merit. Since the 1979 revolution, Iran has used terrorism effectively as a tool of statecraft. Asking the regime to end its support for its proxies is like asking a fish not to swim.
But critics are wrong to argue that this approach amounts to a policy of regime change. If Trump and Pompeo were pursuing that goal, they would not be aiming to cripple the entire Iranian economy. It’s much harder for average Iranians to organize civil resistance when they have to worry about economic survival. Sanctions aimed at regime change would focus exclusively on regime leaders and their corrupt businesses.
Instead, the U.S. is starving the Iranian economy of the resources the regime needs to make war in the rest of the region. This is not necessarily the best strategy, but it can still be a winning one. Even if the ayatollah and his henchmen do not take up Pompeo’s offer to negotiate, America and its allies can still win — by making it harder for Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard to pay off its proxy forces.
For now, however, Iran’s leaders appear to be waiting out the Trump administration with the hope that the next president will be a Democrat. After all, three leading candidates have pledged to re-enter the nuclear bargain if elected. Iran might therefore decide just to endure the economic pain inflicted by escalating sanctions on oil and other industries for another 21 months.
This is why it’s unlikely there will be negotiations before 2021. Ironically, the best chance for advocates of a new bargain with Iran to get what they want is if Trump wins re-election.