Ending oil waivers hurts Iranians, and won't budge their government

Ending oil waivers hurts Iranians, and won't budge their government
© ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images

This week, Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoState Department removes NPR reporter from Pompeo trip Overnight Defense: US military jet crashes in Afghanistan | Rocket attack hits US embassy in Baghdad | Bolton bombshell rocks impeachment trial Please stop calling the impeachment proceeding a trial — it's a charade MORE announced the end of the waivers granted to buyers of Iranian oil. While the administration claims the United States has no intention of overthrowing the Islamic republic or hurting Iranians, their actions say otherwise. The “maximum pressure” campaign seems intended to provoke Iran to withdraw from the 2015 nuclear deal and squeeze the country economically without regard for ordinary Iranians. This will achieve the opposite of U.S. and European objectives.

When President TrumpDonald John TrumpWarren: Dershowitz presentation 'nonsensical,' 'could not follow it' Bolton told Barr he was concerned Trump did favors for autocrats: report Dershowitz: Bolton allegations would not constitute impeachable offense MORE renewed all sanctions on Iran, he gave eight international buyers of Iranian oil six months to draw down purchases to zero. The waiver system ensured Iran’s revenue from oil would go into escrow accounts and be used for the purchase of food and medicine. As a result, ending these waivers will scarcely affect the government’s budget in Tehran, but it will ensure that Iran’s access to foreign currency — fundamental to its ability to purchase food and medicine — is severely hampered. This targets the Iranian public directly.  


Up next is the renewal of waivers that allow for the continuation of “non-proliferation projects” at Iran’s main nuclear sites: the Bushehr nuclear power plant, the Fordow plant and the Arak heavy water reactor. Under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Iran agreed to convert its nuclear infrastructure to one that could only be used for civilian purposes. The conversion of the Arak reactor, for example, means it no longer can produce plutonium — the second pathway to a nuclear bomb — as a by-product. But Iran needs foreign assistance to make these changes. In November, the Trump administration announced it would not issue new waivers, but would allow current work to continue for six months.

Not renewing the nuclear waivers in May makes little sense, and goes against all non-proliferation objectives. Converting Iranian nuclear facilities will close Iranian avenues towards a nuclear weapon and make the program a purely civilian one. What’s more, it increases foreign involvement and, consequently, foreign oversight and interest in the Iranian nuclear program. This is, by any measure, a relief for Iran’s neighbors, Europe and the United States alike.

This begs the question: What is President Trump trying to achieve with the “maximum pressure” campaign? One stated objective is to change Iran’s behavior. It seems the United States aims to cripple the government in Tehran economically so that it submits or implodes. But the idea that pressure will make Iran bend or break is a fantasy. In fact, Tehran tends to double down when encircled, as demonstrated by the expressions of support for the Revolutionary Guard Corps (RGC) after its U.S. designation as a terrorist organization. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s replacement of Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari with Gen. Hossein Salami — known for his belligerent rhetoric against Iran’s enemies — as commander of the RGC further demonstrates this.

The second objective appears to be to force Iran to return to the negotiating table. The administration repeatedly has claimed they want a better deal, but the conditions established for negotiating with Iran are not credible; they amount to a demand for unconditional surrender. While Iran refuses to capitulate, Washington increases the pressure — and Iranians are caught in the middle. Why would Iran return to negotiations with the United States when it had a deal that the United States didn’t honor?  

It seems the ultimate aim of the pressure campaign is to provoke Iran to withdraw from the nuclear deal before the October 2020 lifting of the United Nations arms embargo. This would trigger a snap-back of U.N. sanctions, unify U.S. allies with the Trump administration in calling out Iran, and allow national security adviser John BoltonJohn BoltonWarren: Dershowitz presentation 'nonsensical,' 'could not follow it' Bolton told Barr he was concerned Trump did favors for autocrats: report Dershowitz: Bolton allegations would not constitute impeachable offense MORE, who openly advocates regime change, to claim that Iran is a black box and that diplomacy and sanctions have been exhausted. This would put the United States on a path to war with Iran — it may be what certain factions in Washington, Israel and Gulf Arab states want, but is it what the U.S. public wants?

In addition, the net result of these policies is the opposite of what the United States and its allies want. When faced with an external threat, Iranians will unify around their government. The debate on engaging the West in Iran has collapsed. The government that negotiated the nuclear agreement is weakened, and groups that claimed that the United States cannot be trusted appear to have been vindicated.

Despite assurances by the Trump administration that they stand with the Iranian public, ending oil waivers will directly affect their well-being. Such moves to increase U.S. pressure on Iran seem designed to force Iran to capitulate or collapse. It’s a playbook that has been used before, in Iraq, with tragic results.

Dina Esfandiary is an International Security Program research fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, a fellow in the Middle East department of The Century Foundation, and an adjunct fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Middle East Program. Follow her on Twitter @DEsfandiary.

Dr. Rouzbeh Parsi is head of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs and visiting research scholar at the Sharmin and Bijan Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Iran and Persian Gulf Studies, Princeton University. Follow him on Twitter @rparsi.