Trump is digging a deeper hole by adding more Iran sanctions

The Trump administration’s latest round of economic sanctions against Iran, announced by the president on September 20 in the Oval Office, is a direct response to Tehran’s apparent missile and drone strike on Saudi oil facilities. From the standpoint of U.S. policy on Iran, these new sanctions designations are another step in the wrong direction.

On the one hand, sanctioning the Iranian central bank and sovereign wealth fund is a far better option than launching a U.S. military operation against Tehran that would drag the United States into what could easily become a regional war. President Trump recognizes that the American people have no appetite for another decade of U.S. military involvement in the Mideast, least of all with a middling power like Iran whose ambitions are already more than balanced by its antagonistic neighbors. 

In choosing to enact more sanctions, however, Trump is doubling down on his ineffective maximum pressure strategy and continuing to travel the very path that helped create this mess in the first place. Instead of de-escalating and searching for a diplomatic exit-ramp, Trump is compounding his original mistake. 

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There is no question whatsoever that U.S. sanctions are having a negative economic impact on the Iranian government’s finances. According to the International Monetary Fund, Iran’s economy is set for a 6 percent contraction this year. Tehran’s currency has declined by 60 percent in value since the Trump administration withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal last year. Exports of crude oil, the lifeblood of Iran’s financial solvency, are down 80 percent since May 2018. Washington is forcing companies to choose between trading with Iran and maintaining access to the U.S. market, so most companies have opted to keep doing business in the biggest economy on the planet. 

Yet the objective of the maximum pressure strategy was never simply bankrupting the Iranian economy. The goal was much more ambitious: to cause so much financial distress within the system that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei would dispatch his diplomats to make a new nuclear deal on U.S. terms. Washington is attempting to starve Iran into submission.

To the administration’s chagrin, the hypothesis behind maximum pressure was faulty and intellectually weak from the beginning. Those fervently promoting the strategy either refused to acknowledge that Iran gets a vote; were arrogantly confident in their own assumptions; or actually opposed to any diplomacy with Tehran at all. They sold the president on an approach that was fundamentally flawed, premised on the notion that a proud, nationalist country like Iran would surrender rather than fight. 

Everyone can see the results of that approach, and none of them are positive. 

Tehran’s knees are not buckling to the stress, nor are Iranian officials crawling back to the negotiating table begging to make a comprehensive deal with the United States. Iran, rather, is meeting maximum pressure with maximum resistance. 

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Civilian tankers sailing in the Persian Gulf have been sabotaged and captured. With Washington no longer a party to the nuclear deal and indeed seeking to kill it through secondary sanctions, the formerly compliant Iran has increasingly freed itself from the deal’s restrictions. Iranian scientists are enriching uranium at a higher grade and reinstalling more technologically advanced centrifuge machines, activity they had ceased when the deal was intact. Domestically, hardliners in the Iranian political system are consolidating power and marginalizing moderates who were previously open to negotiating with Washington. Khamenei is now more reluctant to engage in diplomacy than he has ever been

Maximum pressure has produced exactly the opposite of what its promoters promised. By adding another layer of sanctions, Trump is digging himself deeper into this hole and daring the Iranians to respond even more aggressively. 

The president needs a dramatic change in approach, and he needs to make it now before the momentum of maximum pressure leads to a maximum calamity that would further drain U.S. resources and cause a long-term tremor in crude oil prices. 

There is an agreement to be had. Instead of piling on more sanctions, Trump can work within the framework of French President Emmanuel MacronEmmanuel Jean-Michel Macron5 reasons why US-Europe tensions will grow in the 2020s — and how to stop it Judd Gregg: The Iranian lessons The Hill's Morning Report - Worries about war in world capitals, Congress MORE’s diplomatic initiative. Paris’s extensive communication with Iranian officials over the last several months is the only diplomatic channel available at the moment. France’s proposal would trade a loosening of economic restrictions against Iran for Tehran reentering the nuclear deal and beginning a more far-reaching conversation about regional security issues. But this arrangement is simply not possible if the White House refuses to provide even the slightest concession to the Iranians. 

While such a trade is less ideal than most in Washington would prefer, it would at least stabilize the situation and create an opportunity for cool-headed diplomacy to take the place of mutual belligerence. Negotiations must be put back in the picture. 

Trump still has time to step away from the precipice of another destructive war, one the American people neither want nor believe serves U.S. national security or economic interests. But to do so, he has to stop listening to a Washington elite whose poor judgment has been on display for too long. 

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities, a D.C.-based foreign policy organization focused on a strong military to ensure security, stability and peace.