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Maximum pressure on Iran is driving us toward war
"Iran is under extreme pressure," CENTCOM chief Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie told "The New York Times" in a recent pair of interviews, speaking of the Trump administration's "maximum pressure" policy of punitive sanctions. "My judgment is that it is very possible they will attack again," he added, referring to the September strike on Saudi oil equipment widely attributed to Tehran. "It's the trajectory and the direction that they're on."
Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Times reports the Iranian regime's deadly crackdown on domestic protests has become more brutal more quickly than its reactions to demonstrations past.
This is a shift expert observers attribute to the marginalization of moderates like President Hassan Rouhani - and a concurrent rise of anti-American hardliners - in Tehran following President Trump's decision to leave the nuclear deal Rouhani's faction had championed.
"Rouhani has lost so much political capital after Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal," Rand Corporation Ariane Tabatabai explained, so the "government has been quicker and a lot more effective in unleashing security forces and making a bunch of arrests."
Taken together, these two stories are a conclusive condemnation of the efficacy of maximum pressure. This strategy is dangerous and counterproductive, making Tehran more provocative abroad and oppressive at home while limiting the United States' options for engagement.
It is time to chart a dramatically different course, to take U.S.-Iran relations on a more prudent path of patient and realistic diplomacy. That means expecting setbacks, a slow timeline, and real concessions from both sides.
The objective of maximum pressure is twofold Secretary of State Mike Pompeo explained in an August op-ed, "First, to deprive the Iranian regime of the money it needs to support its destabilizing activities. Second, to force the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to the negotiating table to conclude a comprehensive and enduring deal."
This would address not just Iran's nuclear program, as in the agreement Trump rejected, but also "its ballistic missile development and proliferation, its support for terrorist groups and proxies, and its treatment and illegal detention of U.S. citizens."
This is an impressive agenda, but there is no reason to think it is achievable via maximum pressure. Moreover, Pompeo's claim that "U.S. pressure is reversing" trends of increased malign activity from Iran is demonstrably false. Tension in Iran's relations with the United States and other Mideast powers has increased since Trump left the Iran deal and ratcheted up the sanctions.
(Pompeo himself admitted this, perhaps inadvertently, about a month after his op-ed appeared, telling reporters misbehavior from Iran was "a direct result" of the administration's coercive policy). Maximum pressure is hardly worth boasting about. It has put us further from a reciprocally beneficial deal, and failed at producing a more malleable Iranian regime.
"Past leaders transformed faraway nations into blood-soaked war zones," Trump said at a campaign rally in Florida at the end of November. He touted his election as a remedy to this destructive and costly foreign policy, which has destabilized an entire region while doing nothing for American security. But with Iran, his own maximum pressure campaign threatens to launch yet another bloody conflict along the lines of those he has condemned in the past.
A hardline approach from Washington has been met with an equally hardline approach from a Tehran desperate to show it will not be bullied into submission. Escalation is met with escalation. Maximum pressure on Iran is driving us toward war, not toward a mutually agreeable diplomatic deal and certainly not toward peace.
Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities and contributing editor at The Week. Her writing has also appeared at Time Magazine, CNN, Politico, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, The Hill, and The American Conservative, among other outlets.