Iran outlasted Trump and his 'maximum pressure.' Biden needs a new approach.

  • Trump's three-year pressure campaign against Iran has undeniably failed to accomplish the goals its advocates claimed and made a foolish war more likely.
  • The next US administration needs to take a different course, and Washington and Tehran should begin an adult conversation on ways both can work together on shared interests, writes Daniel R. DePetris, a fellow at Defense Priorities.
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The next president of the United States will enter the White House with US-Iran relations at its most precarious. Tensions have eased only slightly since the two countries almost slipped into a conventional war in January.

The question for the next US administration is less about whether its relationship with Iran will dramatically improve and more about what can be done to ensure conflict is avoided.

The Trump administration has used the expiration of the UN arms embargo to expand the US maximum pressure campaign against Iran. On October 29, the US Justice Department sold 1.1 million barrels of Iranian crude that was seized on the high seas for approximately $40 million. Three days earlier, the US Treasury Department sanctioned Iran's Petroleum Ministry and the National Iranian Oil Company under existing counterterrorism authorities.

But a further sanctions crackdown is highly unlikely to push Iran into capitulating. The three-year campaign has undeniably failed to accomplish the goals its advocates claimed and made a foolish war more likely. Iran has shown no interest in returning to negotiations with the US. And as if this wasn't bad enough, the maximum pressure against Iran is preventing the US from removing troops from the Middle East after nearly twenty years of indecisive war — a withdrawal both Trump and Biden presumably support.

Maximum pressure, formally instituted in May 2018, was predicated by a number of faulty assumptions that foreign policy realists highlighted at the time.

The strategy was based on the belief that sanctioning the Iranian economy would be a relatively quick and painless affair for the United States. There was an assertion that targeting Tehran's major export sectors, scaring consumers from the Iranian oil market, and freezing Iran's foreign reserves would jolt Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei into issuing guidance for new negotiations. Forced to choose between going bankrupt and capitulating to Washington's demands, it was assumed the Iranian leadership would swallow its pride and enter into new talks in order to maintain its power.

Unfortunately, those same advocates refused to take into account Iran's ability to resist US sanctions measures and retaliate with pressure of its own.

At the same time foreign banks were being driven from the Iranian market, the Iranian rial was depreciating in value and Iranian oil exports were being cut by more than 90%, the Iranian government was enriching more uranium and engaging in more aggressive behavior against its neighbors. Taking advantage of a proxy network it cultivated for more than a decade, Iran used Shia militia assets in Iraq to pummel US troops with mortars and missiles.

Khamenei, already highly suspicious of US intentions, is now even more confident in his belief that diplomacy with Washington is at best a waste of time and at worst a sinister plot to overthrow the Islamic Republic. Whatever influence moderates possessed in the Iranian political system is now wiped out.

The Trump administration's strategy on Iran has also placed the tens of thousands of US troops deployed in the region at risk. If the goal of killing of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani earlier this year was to "restore deterrence," it has done the exact opposite. Iran-friendly Shia militia groups in Iraq have fired so many rockets at US personnel that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo threatened to close the embassy if the Iraqi security forces failed to take action.

All of this is occurring as China, Washington's chief competitor, is leveraging the US sanctions regime to its advantage and opportunistically increasing its own strategic and economic partnership with Iran. Iranian officials, blocked from the smallest of business transactions with the West, have little choice but to accept Beijing's entreaties.

In sum, maximum pressure has flooded diplomatic off-ramps, brought the US and Iran close to military disaster, and made China´s job of deepening its reach easier than it needed to be. The entire policy has been high-risk and no-reward.

Can the US turn the situation around? Former Vice President Biden wrote last September that this is exactly what he hoped to do by reemphasizing the diplomatic playbook. Despite his hardline rhetoric, President Trump hasn't fully given up on diplomacy either. Both seem to realize the American people want no part of another war in the Middle East and that a foreign policy of restraint is not only strategically effective but also supported by the public.

The next US administration needs to set itself on a different course with Iran. The first step is to deescalate the tensions that have accumulated over the past three years. As the far stronger party, the US should demonstrate its willingness to loosen the sanctions provisions against the Iranian economy if Tehran stops targeting Americans in the region, returns to full compliance with the nuclear restrictions previously agreed to, and opens up a larger dialogue with its neighbors on ways to increase confidence-building in the region.

Washington and Tehran should also begin an adult conversation about ways both can pragmatically work together on shared interests, whether it involves mitigation against the COVID-19 virus ravaging both countries or adopting sustainable, common-sense deconfliction protocols between their respective militaries.

Prudent foreign policy involves recognizing when a strategy is doing far more harm than good. Axing maximum pressure should be at the top of the priority list for the next US president.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a columnist at the Washington Examiner.

This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author(s).

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