The following was delivered in a speech to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations’ annual Leadership Mission in Jerusalem on Feb. 17, 2020:
Our focus today is on hot spots in the Middle East, and there is no focus of greater concern—both for Israel and the United States—than Iran. But I don’t intend to merely reiterate the evidence that Iran represents a clear and present danger to the security of the United States, Israel, the Arab states in the region, and indeed, to the stability of both the Middle East and the entire world. Instead, I specifically want to focus on whether the strategy being pursued by the United States and supported by Israel in order to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, restrain Iranian adventurism, halt its support for international terrorism and, in general, roll back the gains Tehran has made since it concluded the nuclear deal with the United States in 2015 can succeed. And if it does have a chance of success, is the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” policy politically sustainable in the face of opposition from European allies, Russia, China and a Democratic Party that appears united behind the idea of returning to the nuclear deal if they win the White House in November.
President [Donald] Trump’s May 2018 announcement of his decision to withdraw the United States from the  Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action [JCPOA] was widely derided by his critics as having blown up the best method yet devised for stopping Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. But his move was based on an accurate analysis that the pact was fatally flawed. Due to the sunset clauses that would eventually allow Iran a legal path to a bomb, the deal did not fulfill its purpose. And it failed to address Iran’s quest for regional hegemony, its support for terrorism and its construction of missiles. By enriching and empowering the Islamist regime, rather than allowing, in President [Barack] Obama’s words, a path for Iran to “get right with the world,” the JCPOA had helped further destabilize the region, while also helping to scare many Arab states so much that they began to look to Israel as a tacit ally against Tehran.
Sooner or later, the West was going to have to revisit the JCPOA and, at the very least, strengthen its terms with regard to nuclear restrictions, as well as expand its reach to roll back Iran’s post-2015 gains. But after a year of debate within his administration that was finally resolved following Mike Pompeo’s appointment as Secretary of State, Trump pulled the U.S. out of the deal.
During the initial debate about the JCPOA and then after Trump’s election in November 2016, Obama administration figures and other defenders of the pact derided the notion that the United States could effectively scuttle it or otherwise reimpose sanctions unilaterally. So long as America’s European allies, let alone Russia and China, remained committed to the JCPOA, the assumption was that an American withdrawal would fail to impact the Iranians.
The expected Tehran gold rush of Europeans eager to enter the Iranian market never materialized.
Tough international sanctions, which the Obama administration had been reluctantly dragged into in the years prior to the start of negotiations, had forced Iran to come to the table. But desperate for a deal at any price, President Obama agreed to begin dropping the sanctions, rather than press his advantage and force Iran to give up its nuclear program as he had promised to do during his 2012 re-election campaign.
But the assumptions that opposition from the Europeans would prevent the United States from unilaterally reimposing sanctions that would duplicate the effect of the economic restrictions that had broad international support under Obama was mistaken. The expected Tehran gold rush of Europeans eager to enter the Iranian market never materialized, due to worries both about the perils of doing business under the thumb of the theocratic regime and becoming entangled in American sanctions that were still on the books, if not enforced.
The U.S. Treasury Department’s willingness to enforce or at least threaten to enforce to sanction any economic entity that did business with Iran and also wished to engage in commerce in the United States has had a devastating impact on the Iranian economy. It’s true that Iran has not completely collapsed, as a puff piece about Iranian stock traders published in The New York Times last Friday made clear. But faced with a choice of maintaining ties with the U.S. financial system and the dubious prospect of profiting from opportunities in a country where their investments could not—even under the best of circumstances—be considered safe, European businesses had little choice but to bend to America’s demands and stay out of Iran. And while Western European nations have combined to create INSTEX, a financial entity designed to help companies evade U.S. sanctions by the use of a barter system, serious economists don’t believe this is a viable alternative to the U.S financial system.
In that context, Trump’s talk of “maximum pressure” against Iran has proven to be more than mere rhetoric. The impact of American sanctions has proven to be devastating not only for the Iranian economy, but has had a clear impact on the regime’s ability to continue funding its terrorist auxiliaries throughout the Middle East. As even The New York Times reported last year, terrorist militias in Syria and Lebanon have felt the pinch as their subsidies from their Iranian masters have been impacted by belt-tightening in Tehran. And the unrest in Iran, as a protest movement took to the streets last fall—resulting in massive violence by the regime including the killings of hundreds of demonstrators—can arguably be considered a direct result of the Trump administration’s decision. That America’s European allies have been scheming to find ways to continue to fund the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps [IRGC], which controls much of the Iranian economy at the same time this force has been murdering Iranian citizens in the streets of their cities, is both ironic and outrageous.
In response, Iran has attempted to orchestrate responses to the sanctions aimed primarily at scaring both Europeans and Americans into thinking that Trump’s policy was setting the region on an inevitable path to a war. Indeed, this strategy echoed the same excuses and talking points put forth by the Obama administration—and spread by what former Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes aptly and candidly described as Obama’s “media echo chamber”—that the only alternative to their policy of appeasement of Iran was war.
To that end, Iran has staged a number of incidents over the past year in which it has threatened the flow of oil out of the Persian Gulf, as well as attacks against American and European targets in Iraq by its auxiliaries. But though it has been criticized for what has, at times, been described as a weak response to Iran’s provocations, the Trump administration has rightly discerned that Iran’s actions were largely a bluff rather than a credible threat of armed conflict unless, as Tehran continued to demand, the United States lifted sanctions.
That analysis of Iranian weakness was confirmed, rather than contradicted, by the targeted killing of IRGC and Quds Force leader Qassem Soleimani after Iranian-inspired attacks on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. Iran’s limited response illustrated that its talk of war was a feint, and that they were well aware that any armed conflict with the United States would be a catastrophe for the Islamist regime.
Seen from that perspective, “maximum pressure” has been a qualified success. The U.S. pressure, along with the administration’s refusal to be suckered into an escalated conflict, has set the stage for the possibility of a rerun of negotiations with Iran, albeit with the goal of producing a deal that would effectively neuter its ability to threaten other countries and to forestall its quest for regional hegemony.
Iran’s threat to cease compliance with the nuclear deal has also proven to be empty, even as it has been trumpeted as a disaster for Trump by much of the mainstream press.
While that would fall short of the desire of some in Israel, as well as foreign-policy hawks in the United States for regime change in Tehran, “maximum pressure” has, at least up until now, been a measured attempt to rectify Obama’s mistakes—not, as Trump’s critics have inaccurately charged, a politically motivated and incoherent lashing out without any real goals or strategy or merely a path to war. If it is faced with economic collapse and further damaging domestic unrest, it is not unreasonable to predict that ultimately, the Iranian regime will have to go back to the table without any U.S. concessions on sanctions to lure them there.
Iran’s threat to cease compliance with the nuclear deal has also proven to be empty, even as it has been trumpeted as a disaster for Trump by much of the mainstream press. Iran’s leaders know that any rush to a breakout to a nuclear weapon would force the Europeans to back American demands and expose them to the risk of a conflict they could not win or even afford to risk.
Given that the U.S. still has cards yet to play in this standoff with the possibility of further tightening sanctions and denying exemptions to the restrictions that would further seal off the Iranian economy from the world, the prospect of “maximum pressure” succeeding in forcing either negotiations or an internal shakeup in Tehran should not be discounted.
However, while the strategy pursued by the Trump administration has a reasonable chance of success if it continues to be carried out in a sustained manner and without the U.S. being lured into an actual military conflict that neither side wants, there is a greater obstacle to its ultimate success than the opposition of the Europeans or the obduracy of Iran’s theocratic rulers. And that is whether it is politically sustainable.
Think what you will of the president and his foreign-policy team, but Trump’s threading of the needle has succeeded to date and might yet bring about a desired end to the Iranian threat by one means or another.
Iran’s refusal to talk to the Americans despite their current difficulties is based on its hope that a Democrat who will return the U.S. to the nuclear deal will replace President Trump in the White House next January and to lift some if not all of the sanctions he has reimposed. Indeed, that was the advice former Secretary of State John Kerry gave Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. While Iran might have considered that Trump has a reasonable, if far from certain, chance of re-election, and that it could probably get better terms from the president now rather than during a potential second term, that is not the choice they seem to have made. And if there were any doubt that they are counting on domestic opposition to “maximum pressure” coming to their rescue, then the congressional pushback against Trump’s killing of Soleimani will only reinforce that conclusion.
Think what you will of the president and his foreign-policy team, but Trump’s threading of the needle—in which his accurate characterization of the Iran deal as a disaster is balanced against his unwillingness to be drawn into a war that neither he nor the American people want—has succeeded to date and might yet bring about a desired end to the Iranian threat by one means or another. But sustaining this strategy will require a political resolution, rather than a strategic or diplomatic determination. That means a second term for Trump, as well as the ability to pursue this approach with patience. And given Trump’s own disdain for the whole concept of military involvement in the Middle East, this is not the issue on which he will stake his political future.
While it remains to be seen whether or not a potential or theoretical Democratic successor will take advantage of what Trump has achieved and continue pressure against Iran rather than abandoning it next year, the fate of “maximum pressure” will be decided by American voters—and not European leaders or businessmen or the boasts of Iran’s tyrants.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.