War Stories

So Much for “Maximum Pressure”

The Trump administration wanted to bring Iran to its knees. But the president is the one who’s caving.

Trump casts a shadow on the Iranian flag.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Stefan Rousseau—WPA Pool/Getty Images and Wikipedia.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pulled a head-spinning switcheroo over the weekend, telling reporters that the Trump administration is ready to hold talks with Iran with “no preconditions.”

On the one hand, this is a welcome development. Until now, Pompeo has insisted on 12 steps Iranian leaders must take—all of them requiring sharp shifts in policy, some a surrender of sovereignty—before the United States would sit down with them at the same table. The clear message was that Pompeo wasn’t interested in talks.

On the other hand, this new pivot marks another sign that President Donald Trump and Pompeo are terrible negotiators and that, when it comes to foreign policy, the United States under their helm is a ship adrift in a stormy sea.

A little over a year ago, Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal—which President Barack Obama and the leaders of five other nations had negotiated with Iran three years earlier—and reimposed economic sanctions that had been lifted as part of the deal. He then threatened to sanction other countries—including those that had signed the nuclear deal—if they continued doing business with Iran. He called the policy “maximum pressure.”

The policy’s aim was unclear: Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton said they wanted to make the Iranians scream until their regime collapsed; Trump claimed he merely wanted them to come back to the table and negotiate a “better” deal.

Either way, Pompeo’s new statement scuttles whatever chances the pressure campaign had of working.

Not that the chances were great to begin with. Iran’s economy is feeling a squeeze. But foreign interference only strengthens domestic support for the regime—and if the regime did collapse, it would likely be replaced not by western-leaning liberals (who don’t form an organized party) but by the most hard-line factions or the military.

“Maximum pressure” didn’t work so well in Trump’s approach to North Korea, either. It may have helped bring Kim Jong-un to the negotiating table, but once there, Kim gave up nothing. Trump was the one who wound up star-struck, and Kim’s scientists have continued enriching uranium and building missiles unabated.

But let’s say maximum pressure could yield results in some country, under some scenario; it might yet have had an effect—though not necessarily a desirable one—in Iran. This is now no longer the case. Pompeo’s shift unmasks maximum pressure as a tentative bluff. Targets of Trump’s belligerent rhetoric, from now on, can sit back and wait until his impatience for results intensifies and he slackens his demands.

In the case of Iran, the slackening began in mid-May, when Trump seemed suddenly to realize that the path he’d undertaken might lead to war, especially with Bolton—a longtime advocate of forcible regime change—in the driver’s seat. Trump told reporters he wanted the Iranian leaders to call him; he even gave Swiss officials—who had served as an intermediary between Washington and Tehran back when the two capitals had no direct contact—a phone number where he could be reached.

Pompeo, who has spent the past two years—first as CIA director, now as the top diplomat—amassing power by parroting the master in the White House, had issued his 12 preconditions a year ago, when he thought (quite reasonably) that Trump wanted regime change, not talks. Now Trump has said he wants talks, and Pompeo has changed his patter.

The new position is the correct one; there is no reason why the United States shouldn’t resume talks, without preconditions, especially since Iran has continued abiding by the terms of the nuclear deal. But by shifting positions so drastically, Pompeo has diminished the credibility of whatever position he and Trump adopt next—and wiped out whatever leverage they might have had in advancing it.

All this might be the stuff of tactical missteps, as distinct from strategic blunders, if the Trump administration had a position—a set of long-term policies and goals—toward Iran to begin with. But it doesn’t. In this sense, there is no such thing as “the Trump administration.” In every presidency before this one, the top officials or their deputies assembled in National Security Council meetings to hammer out differences and devise a common policy. Under Trump, there are no (or very few) NSC meetings. There are only the scattered Cabinet secretaries and advisers, trying to make their disparate agendas align with the broad direction that the president seems to be taking—and there are Trump’s eruptive tweets, which can spin the compass and upset those agendas on a moment’s notice.

Even this rampant randomness might be a bit more manageable if the president didn’t so often act like—let’s not mince words here—a raving lunatic. Take his tweet early Monday morning, tapped out as Air Force One was about to land in London for a state visit with the royal family:

Trump then added:

Whatever London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s sins (and they consist mainly of not caring much for Trump), what kind of state leader says such things, publicly, minutes before touching down on the mayor’s city and meeting with the mayor’s queen? This reveals, more clearly than any official statement he might recite, how little Trump values—or understands—diplomacy.