'Maximum Pressure' on Iran has failed — here's what should come next

It is time to come to terms with reality: “maximum pressure” on Iran has failed. Following President TrumpDonald TrumpDemocrats, activists blast reported Trump DOJ effort to get journalists' phone records Arizona secretary of state gets security detail over death threats surrounding election audit Trump admin got phone records of WaPo reporters covering Russia probe: report MORE’s unilateral withdrawal from the landmark Iranian nuclear agreement, Tehran’s “malign” activity has increased significantly, the Iranian Supreme Leader has sworn off new negotiations with the Trump administration and America’s closest allies have demonstrated no interest in applying the coordinated, multilateral pressure that brought Iran to the negotiating table in 2012. Perhaps most importantly, Iran is incrementally breaching the nuclear agreement, easing its path to a nuclear weapon with every step. In short, the Trump administration’s aggressive approach has backfired in spectacular fashion.

By assessing the results of the “maximum pressure” campaign alongside its lofty objectives, a new path forward emerges.

The Iranian Nuclear Program


The Trump Administration’s Goal: Iran must be prohibited from enriching uranium or reprocessing plutonium; two “pathways” to producing the core of a nuclear weapon.

The Reality: Following the Trump administration’s imposition of sweeping economic sanctions targeting Iran’s oil exports, Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei – the ultimate authority in Iran’s government – swore off new negotiations with the Trump administration over Iran’s nuclear program. Full stop.

The 2015 nuclear agreement – negotiated by six world powers and supported by dozens of experts, including in the U.S. and Israeli security establishments – makes it all but impossible for a compliant Iran to build a nuclear weapon. Not only have America’s closest allies expressed their strong disapproval with President Trump’s unilateral abandonment of the agreement, they are actively working to circumvent the Trump administration’s aggressive sanctions on Iran.

Moreover, Iran argues that, under Article IV of the landmark 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty, it has a right to pursue the sensitive nuclear activities – uranium enrichment in particular – which the Trump administration (understandably) seeks to prohibit. Given immense Iranian national pride in its civil nuclear program, however, the Trump administration’s attempts to unilaterally dictate terms of a far more restrictive nuclear agreement are doomed to fail.

The Path Forward: The United States should signal a willingness to rejoin to the 2015 nuclear agreement. While several of the most critical components of the deal are in force indefinitely, the Trump administration should make a U.S. return to the agreement contingent on longer (ideally, indefinite) sunsets of the deal’s temporary provisions. Iran also recently floated a proposal to rapidly formalize a vital international nuclear inspections mechanism in return for immediate relief from U.S. sanctions. The Trump administration would be wise to take this offer and call it a win; it is unlikely to secure a substantially better deal.


While Iran no longer has an active nuclear weapons program, bombing a country’s established nuclear facilities – as advocated for in the past by U.S. National Security Advisor John BoltonJohn BoltonRepublicans request documents on Kerry's security clearance process Trump pushes back on Bolton poll Hillicon Valley: Facebook Oversight board to rule on Trump ban in 'coming weeks' | Russia blocks Biden Cabinet officials in retaliation for sanctions MORE – only shifts a potential weapons program underground. An attack on a country’s overt nuclear program is also likely to accelerate the development of a nuclear weapon. Bombing, in essence, reiterates to a country’s leadership the (perceived) necessity of pursuing a nuclear deterrent in the first place.


Iran’s “Malign” Activities

The Trump Administration’s Goal: Iran must cease its “malign” support for armed “proxy” groups in the Middle East and halt its missile program.

The Reality: The Iranian regime and, critically, broad swaths of the (largely pro-American) Iranian public view Tehran’s support for armed “proxy” groups and Iran’s missile program as vital, non-negotiable elements of Iranian national security. With a particularly weak conventional military, only one true state ally in the Middle East, and Iran’s proximity to extremely well-armed, ideologically hostile rival states, Iranian “malign” activities serve as a critical deterrent against attack. Moreover, actual Iranian influence or control over its “proxy” groups – including Yemen’s Houthi rebels and Shi’a-led militias in Iraq – is dubious at best.


The Path Forward: The only way to temper Iran’s “malign” activities is through a reduction in deep-seated Saudi-Iranian and U.S.-Iranian tensions. A recognition of the strategic and historical position that Iran finds itself in, followed by Ronald Reagan-style diplomatic engagement with the moderates currently in power in Tehran, is the only way to truly reduce Iran’s perceived need to support armed “proxy” groups and build a missile program. The Trump administration’s provocative military deployments and confrontations are particularly counterproductive. They only reinforce to the Iranian public and leadership the necessity of beefing up – rather than rolling back – Iran’s “malign” deterrents against attack.


Regime Change

The Trump Administration’s Goal: While President Trump has stated that “regime change” in Iran is not his objective, some of his closest advisers have openly advocated for precisely such an approach. Elements of the Trump administration undoubtedly believe that they can foment a popular uprising to topple the Iranian regime.

The Reality: The biggest winners of the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” strategy are the most conservative, anti-American voices in Iran. In the wake of Trump’s unilateral abandonment of the nuclear agreement, Iranian hardliners can point, with some credibility, to their decades-long mantra that the United States cannot be trusted. Moreover, bellicose threats and confrontation lead to a “rally-‘round-the-flageffect, where the Iranian population supports the government in power, regardless of how unpopular or authoritarian it may be.

The aggressive sanctions levied by the Trump administration are also having a particularly harmful effect on the Iranian public, alienating the very people who some hawks in the Trump administration may be counting on to challenge the regime.

The Path Forward: Instead of bolstering the conservative, anti-American elements in Iran at the expense of moderates, the Trump administration should seek to strengthen the reformist voices currently in power. Diplomatic engagement also undercuts Iranian hard-liners’ pervasive hostility to the United States, lowering the odds that a fiercely anti-American government assumes power following Iran’s 2021 elections. Moreover, Reagan-style diplomatic engagement with Iran’s moderate government increases the likelihood that political and economic reforms – like those that catalyzed the collapse of the Soviet Union – continue to be enacted in Iran.

Marik von Rennenkampff served as an analyst with the Department of State’s Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation as well as an Obama administration appointee at the Department of Defense.