Trump Hopes to Change Iran’s Behavior
President Donald Trump’s determination to distinguish his presidency by erasing the legacy of his predecessors is being demonstrated with his approach to Iran. President Barack Obama saw the limited ability of sanctions and pressure on Tehran to produce positive outcomes from the standpoint of U.S. national interests. Contrary to the previous administration, Trump is determined to conduct an extremely hawkish and markedly less diplomatic foreign policy vis-à-vis Iran. The Trump administration is seeking to push the Islamic Republic toward capitulation on a whole host of issues from Tehran’s nuclear and missile programs to Iran’s regional conduct by applying “maximum pressure” on the regime.
As of this month, Iran is again being subjected to a series of tough unilateral and internationally unpopular sanctions imposed by the Trump administration. These sanctions come in the framework of a strategy adopted by Trump following Washington’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JPCOA), which Iran and six global powers signed in 2015. Trump also added 700 individuals and institutions, including banks, vessels, and aircraft, to the sanctions list.
In the Arab world, where Iran has wreaked much havoc, high-ranking government officials and average citizens on the street are asking questions about Trump’s strategy for dealing with Iran’s malignant conduct. Can these sanctions make the Middle East safer, or will they only fuel greater instability? Can these measures against Tehran increase or decrease the risks of the Islamic Republic from one day developing a nuclear weapon? How might these sanctions affect the price of oil? Will punishing Iran economically make a war involving Tehran more or less likely?
For all the White House’s rhetoric about curbing the Iranian regime’s worst behavior, there is hardly any sign that Washington’s policies throughout the Trump presidency have changed Tehran’s regional conduct. Arguments in favor of harsher sanctions on Iran have often relied on the premise that denying Tehran access to sources of revenue will result in the Islamic Republic ending—or at least decreasing—its support for various non-state actors in the region which the U.S. State Department and numerous Arab states recognize as terrorist groups. Yet when Iran was sanctioned heavily during the Bush and Obama years, there was no decrease in Tehran’s financial backing for groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza, or various Shi’a militias in Iraq.
There is no evidence that this time around sanctions will bring about such a positive result from the Trump administration’s standpoint. In fact, in Yemen, Iran pays a price to maintain its support for Ansurallah (the dominant Houthi militia) that is very low. Tehran could easily continue supporting Ansurallah even with U.S.-imposed sanctions inflicting immense harm on Iran’s economy. What is certain is that millions of Iranians, especially those below the poverty line, will suffer from these sanctions, but it is doubtful that such measures will result in Tehran’s strategic partners in the region losing their funding from the Islamic Republic.
An official from the U.S. State Department has confirmed that the administration’s view of Iranian conduct worsening since the JCPOA’s implementation in early 2016 was a major factor driving the White House toward the decision to pull America out of the accord. The White House’s hope is that the economic toll paid by Iran because of these sanctions will result in the Tehran regime coming to the table and offering to renegotiate the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on terms that include the Islamic Republic making major concessions with respect to its ties to Hezbollah, Ansurallah, and other non-state actors in the region, on top of Tehran’s nuclear and ballistic program.
Ultimately, it is unclear how much Iran will be isolated from the international economy as a result of the sanctions that Washington re-imposed this month. Although the Trump administration would like to see all purchasers of Iranian oil halted, Tehran is providing countries with incentives to continue purchasing their oil. Such incentives include discounted prices for crude, nearly free shipping, and insurance for cargos.
India, for example, will be keen to avoid succumbing to U.S. pressure to stop purchasing Iranian oil due to India and Iran’s geographic proximity and the fact that Indian refineries have a configuration for processing Iranian oil. In the case of the EU, China, and Russia, there is consideration of an “oil-for-goods” scheme which officials in Tehran have discussed. If the Iranians can send their oil to foreign ports, they can blend it with other countries’ oil and sell it on the global market even if sanctions remain in place. Reportedly, the Russians have given thought to the idea of purchasing Iranian oil, then renaming it as Russian oil, prior to selling it elsewhere. Given that Iranian officials are crafty and capable of working with many parties worldwide to circumvent U.S.-imposed sanctions, the use of oil swaps can benefit Tehran immensely and call into question the effectiveness of Trump’s strategies for choking Iran.
Unquestionably, the administration’s ultimate objectives vis-à-vis Iran appears unclear. Some rhetoric indicates that the White House is pushing for regime change but officials have stated that the goals are geared towards changing Tehran’s regional conduct, not ousting the Iranian regime nor harming the country’s 82 million citizens. As the Trump administration stands by its decision to walk away from the JCPOA and take a hard stance against Tehran that is designed to pressure Iran into capitulating on major issues, the White House’s strategy risks leaving the U.S. far more isolated than Iran. Given that Tehran complied with the JCPOA since its implementation in early 2016, the Iranian leadership is telling the world that Tehran has been responsible while Washington has failed to maintain its commitments as a signatory to the watershed nuclear deal.
With Trump at the helm the U.S. has become isolated on scores of other global issues from the Paris Climate Accord to the embargo on Cuba and Jerusalem. Within this framework, the Islamic Republic’s leadership is taking advantage of an unprecedented opportunity to capitalize on a new global environment in which it is “Trump vs. Everyone Else on Iran at the UN,” unlike the Obama era when the U.S. had more credibility in its dealings with Iran.
But Iran’s message to the international community is that the Trump administration—not the Islamic Republic—is the rogue actor. To be sure, Tehran has wanted to successfully convince the world of this narrative since 1979. Yet now Iran is having the easiest time doing so as the Trump administration isolates the United States on issues where virtually the rest of the world has reached a consensus.