US should return to maximum pressure campaign on Iran

US should return to maximum pressure campaign on Iran

The UN nuclear watchdog's governing body meeting. (AFP file photo)
The UN nuclear watchdog's governing body meeting. (AFP file photo)
Short Url

The current US administration has tried numerous strategies and incentives to compel the Iranian leadership to return to full compliance with the nuclear deal it signed with the P5+1 world powers in 2015. President Joe Biden, whose predecessor withdrew the US from the deal in 2018, had hoped that Iran would accept a mutual return to the nuclear agreement in order to attain sanctions relief.
It seems that, during the Trump administration’s tenure, Iran received assurances or even promises from the former Obama-era team that brokered the 2015 deal, urging the Iranian leadership to be patient in bearing the sanctions imposed by President Donald Trump until the Democrats regained power, as they did in 2020.
For Washington, the element of time, the pressures imposed by congressional elections at the end of the year, the failure to control fuel prices and the crisis that has erupted between Russia and Ukraine are all insufficient justifications to force it to rejoin the nuclear deal before Iran returns to full compliance and reverses the steps it has taken over the last three years, which include increasing its production of highly enriched uranium and installing advanced centrifuges.
Maybe the current US administration’s policy of turning a blind eye to the implementation and monitoring of the sanctions on Iran, and even lifting some of them and giving Iran leeway in conducting trade deals with the outside world, led Tehran to nurture high expectations that Washington would make more concessions, leading to greater successes for Iran than those made in 2015.

Regardless of who caused the nuclear deal to fall apart, the best option now is to launch a smarter and more flexible version of this campaign.

Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami

Iran’s demands resulting from these high expectations include wanting compensation for the losses it incurred as a result of America’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal in 2018. These expectations were quickly dashed, however, with Iran receiving an abrupt wake-up call when the US refused to meet its demands. As a result, Tehran appears to have begun backing down from some of its demands in recent weeks, including the removal of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from America’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations.
The International Atomic Energy Agency board of governors’ report on Iran’s failure to provide sufficient and convincing answers to the UN watchdog’s questions about activities at undisclosed sites may have added insult to injury for Tehran.
In light of the Western world’s total focus on the Russia-Ukraine crisis, the political and technical deadlock between Iran, Europe and the US has prompted the Biden administration to consider adopting an updated version of Trump's “maximum pressure” campaign. This is despite the huge political differences and the accusations being hurled at each other by the Democrats and Republicans, with each saying the other is at fault for the Iranian nuclear crisis. For example, Trump called the 2015 nuclear deal “the worst deal ever,” while the Biden administration said he made a mistake he made by withdrawing from it in 2018.
Regardless of who caused the nuclear deal to fall apart, the best option now is to launch a smarter and more flexible version of the maximum pressure campaign. One may argue that the Trump administration’s policy failed to pressure Iran to return to the negotiating table, but this would only be a half-truth because of the other unspoken and more important part that lies in understanding why this policy actually failed.
To begin with, it is important to note that the decision to impose the maximum pressure campaign, including reimposing all of the sanctions lifted against Iran in 2015, only occurred at the end of 2018 — and it took several months for the US administration to implement them. This is a critical point to remember when discussing the impact, as it cannot be seen immediately.
Second, less than two years after implementing this policy against Iran, Trump left the White House after losing the 2020 presidential election. This means that the policy’s time frame for implementation was limited and the promises made to Iran by the architects of the original nuclear deal, which prompted it to pursue a strategy of' “strategic patience,” made it difficult for this policy to be successful.
The third and perhaps most important point lies in the huge differences and unprecedented tensions between the US and Europe under the Trump administration, particularly the troika that participated in the nuclear deal (the UK, France and Germany). This resulted in their noncompliance with the US decision — along with the noncompliance of some of Iran’s neighbors, which conducted trade deals with Tehran — leading to the policy failing to achieve its desired results.
However, statements and statistics confirm that this period was the most difficult on record in terms of economic and political conditions in Iran. According to former Oil Minister Bijan Namdar Zangeneh, the sanctions had a greater impact on the country than the Iran-Iraq War. One example of this was the demonstrations that swept across Iran in 2019 — the largest wave of protests in its history, covering more than 80 cities and towns. Slogans critical of the regime and its leadership figures spread across the country, images of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei were burned in several cities and Iran’s oil exports fell below 200,000 barrels per day.
For the time being, therefore, reimposing the maximum pressure campaign on Iran may be the best option, aided by a broader European and regional partnership. The most important aspect is the establishment of a mechanism to monitor the implementation of sanctions and to address the loopholes used by the Iranian regime to mislead and deceive the international community. This is in addition to the need to develop a regularly updated list of firms affiliated with the IRGC worldwide, all of which should be added to the sanctions list, as well as ending the exemptions granted by the Trump administration to countries such as India and Iraq, among others.
Finally, some argue that the world requires Iranian oil in light of the sanctions imposed on Russia and the economic boycott of Moscow by Europe and the US. In fact, Iranian oil exports do not account for a significant share of global oil and export rates are notably low. Some regional countries, particularly the Gulf states, could compensate for Iran’s share and produce more if required, particularly if their concerns regarding Iran’s malign behavior are taken into consideration.
In light of the regional and international desire to avoid a new war breaking out, imposing harsh sanctions on Iran to force it to comply with the nuclear deal and accept negotiations over its ballistic missile program and malign regional behavior is the least costly and least dangerous option.
In conclusion, I would suggest that the time is right for the US administration to implement the maximum pressure policy on Iran, coinciding with President Biden’s upcoming Middle Eastern tour, which will take him to Israel, the West Bank and Saudi Arabia, including the GCC+3 summit in Jeddah, which involves the GCC states plus Iraq, Jordan and Egypt.

Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami is president of the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah). Twitter: @mohalsulami

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point of view