President Donald Trump is about to squeeze Iran like never before. It’s hard to see where this can lead except to chaos or war. And it’s fairly clear that Trump wants it this way.
When Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal and reimposed economic sanctions that had been lifted as part of that accord, he issued six-month waivers to eight countries—China, India, Iraq, Turkey, South Korea, Italy, Greece, and Taiwan—allowing them to keep buying Iranian oil. On Monday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the waivers would end May 2. After then, any country doing business with the Islamic Republic would be barred from the U.S. banking system, which dominates financial transactions worldwide.
In recent months, some countries, notably China and members of the European Union, have discussed setting up some mechanism to trade with Iran without going through U.S. banks, but this has proved easier said than done. The European countries that were granted waivers have already stopped importing Iranian oil; the others have cut back, albeit reluctantly. After May 2, if Washington really enforces a no-tolerance ban, Iran—which is already hurting economically—will be boxed in.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, have said that, in response to this hostile act, they might block the Strait of Hormuz, a body of water with a two-mile-wide shipping lane that transits 20 percent of the world’s oil supply. The idea is that if Iran can’t send its oil through the strait, which borders its territory, nobody else can either. Zarif also has said that Iran might resume enriching uranium—and thus reviving its nuclear program—in response. Either of these moves would likely spark a U.S. military reaction, which may be what Trump wants to happen.
One clear sign that Trump wants Iran boxed in is that he hasn’t offered another choice—he hasn’t said what he wants the Iranian government to do in exchange for dropping his campaign of “maximum pressure.”
Pompeo has said he wants a “better” nuclear accord, but his definition of the word is so over the top that he’s clearly signaling that he doesn’t mean it. In a speech at the Heritage Foundation in May, he laid out 12 conditions that Iran must fulfill for a new deal. They include ending its enrichment of uranium—a ban imposed on no other country in the world. (Article IV of the Non-Proliferation Treaty gives signatories the “inalienable right” to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, which includes enriching uranium at low levels. The Iran deal allows enrichment up to 3 percent—way below what’s needed to make a weapon.) Pompeo also demanded that Iran give international inspectors “unqualified access” to “all sites throughout” Iran—a formula for espionage that no country would accept. He said Iran must halt tests and development of ballistic and cruise missiles (a ban on development is impossible to verify); end support for Syria, Hezbollah, and the Houthis in Yemen; disarm its militias in Iraq; drop all threats against Israel; and release all foreign prisoners. All these steps would be welcome, but no nation would surrender so much of its sovereignty to a foreign power, except, possibly, after a total defeat in a war.
More drastic still, Pompeo listed these conditions not as the terms of a new deal but merely as the steps that Iran must take before the United States sits down at the bargaining table. What further concessions, they might ask, would Trump and Pompeo demand after that? In any case, the Iranians have no cause to trust them, given that Trump withdrew from the existing deal, which was negotiated with six other countries, even though the International Atomic Energy Agency has attested many times that Iran is in full compliance.
There are ways to get a better deal with Iran, if that’s what Trump really wanted. He could do what Presidents Ford, Carter, Reagan, the two Bushes, Clinton, and Obama did to get better nuclear arms deals with the Kremlin. They negotiated a series of treaties, each one reducing nuclear weapons to lower levels without tearing up some previous accord just because it didn’t go as far as one side or the other might have preferred.
At a Q&A with journalists at Iran’s U.N. mission in New York on Thursday, Javad Zarif likened the Trump administration’s behavior to that of a “gangster.” The Iran nuclear deal, which is enshrined in a U.N. Security Council resolution, bars impediments to trade with Iran. Trump’s officials aren’t acting like “the world’s policeman,” he said. Rather, they’re demanding that other nations “break the law.”
Sad to say, he’s right, and this is one reason so many countries—especially those that signed the nuclear accord—are bitter about the way Trump is flexing American power.
Yet Javad Zarif took care to draw a distinction between Trump and his administration, noting national security adviser John Bolton is a longtime advocate of regime change in Iran, while Trump has pledged to avoid another stupid, costly war in the Middle East. He also noted that Iran “never left the negotiating table”; only the United States did that, and Tehran stands ready to continue talks.
But this stab at an appeal to Trump’s more restrained impulses is probably based on a false hope. Clearly, Trump has no interest in talking with the Iranians about a new accord. And Pompeo, who sees a big part of his job as saying what Trump wants him to say, reflects that disdain. In his Heritage speech and in others, especially one delivered in July before an audience of Iranian Americans at the Reagan Presidential Library, Pompeo emphasized U.S. solidarity with “the Iranian people” against their oppressive government. He went about as far as a senior U.S. diplomat could go toward advancing a policy of “regime change” without uttering those words.
Trump may well think that this “maximum pressure” will simply bring the Iranian regime to its knees. This is doubtful. But if it does, it is even more unlikely that Western-leaning freedom fighters will replace the toppled mullahs. Tehran is the most literate, pro-Western city in the entire Middle East, outside of Israel, but even its denizens know the history of foreign coups in Iran, and despite their hatred for the medievalists occupying supreme power in their country, they would resist another episode of American meddling. If the mullahs were somehow to be ousted, they would more likely be succeeded by a more anti-Western faction, probably consisting of the most intolerant elements of the military.
Trump’s stepped-up pressure campaign might be justified if Iran posed an urgent, existential threat to the United States, its allies, or its interests—or if Iran’s leaders were poised to break out of the nuclear deal’s restrictions. But it doesn’t, and they aren’t. The other parties to the nuclear deal—Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China—are sticking to it, seeing no reason to pull out and many reasons to stay in. It prevents Iran from building a nuclear bomb, has already led to the dismantlement of materials with which they might have built a bomb, and contains the tightest verification regimen in the history of arms control accords. Even most Israeli military and intelligence officers favor sticking with the deal. Trump is serving the interests only of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his far-right coalition partners, who want to keep Iran holed up, and of the region’s Sunni Arab powers, especially Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which want to wage war on Iran. In effect, Trump’s new policy—which forces the world to reimpose the sanctions that he wants—is a declaration of economic war.
Even if Iran doesn’t shut down the Hormuz Strait or resume enriching uranium, the move is likely to contract the global economy, at least somewhat. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have said they will redirect some of their oil exports to Iraq and Turkey in order to make up for the cutoff of Iranian supplies. But it’s unclear where this extra oil will come from—they’ve recently cut their output and have not said they’ll pump more—or who will compensate the countries that once got lots of oil from the Arabs but are now getting shortchanged. Oil analysts say that Trump’s policy will squeeze global supplies in a market already facing disruptions and will almost certainly raise gasoline prices, just in time to make summer vacations more costly.
Trump is taking a huge risk, alienating allies, aggravating American consumers, upsetting global markets, and possibly triggering war—all because he doesn’t like Iran and doesn’t like the Iran nuclear deal (or any other deal) that was struck by President Barack Obama. He’s governing by pique, and we may all pay the price in one way or another.