War Stories

Trump’s “Maximum Pressure” on Iran Has Failed

His latest talk about bombing the country’s nuclear facilities proves it.

An Iranian kicks a placard of the U.S. President Donald Trump, during the commemoration of the 41st anniversary of the Islamic revolution in Tehran, Iran February 11, 2020.
An Iranian kicks a placard of the President Donald Trump during the commemoration of the 41st anniversary of the Islamic revolution in Tehran, Iran, Feb. 11. Nazanin Tabatabaee/WANA via Reuters

President Donald Trump’s interest in launching an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities—an interest batted down by all of his security advisers, according to a story in Tuesday’s New York Times—is nail-in-the-coffin proof that his “maximum pressure” policy against the Islamic republic has been an unmitigated disaster.

Iran had been in full compliance with the nuclear deal from July 2015, when President Barack Obama and five other national leaders signed it, until May 2018, when Trump withdrew from it for no good reason. Iran remained in compliance for another year-and-a-half, even as Trump reimposed economic sanctions, and as he forced the other signatories to reimpose sanctions as well.

Trump’s rationale was that Iran would fold under the pressure and return to the negotiating tables for a “better” nuclear deal. In several speeches, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has suggested that the real goal was simply to crush Tehran’s regime.

Neither goal was accomplished. Instead, since Trump withdrew from the deal, Iran has increased its stockpile of enriched uranium by eight times, and has found ways to export a sizable amount of its petroleum as well. Meanwhile, Iran’s hard-line factions have strengthened their grip on Tehran’s politics, with two consequences. First, in the highly unlikely event that the regime buckles, the hard-liners—backed by the elite Revolutionary Guard, which never liked the accord—would likely take power. Second, more immediately, because of this shift in the domestic balance of power, President Hassan Rouhani, who touted the deal and is facing reelection next summer, is unlikely to come back into compliance—even if President-elect Joe Biden seems eager for a return, as he is—without major concessions that Senate Republicans might block Biden from making.

Realizing that Iran didn’t succumb to the pressure, Trump asked his advisers last week whether he should and could launch an attack before he leaves office. All of them—including Pompeo, Vice President Mike Pence, and scting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller, whom Trump just appointed, figuring he would obey his whims more snappily than the ousted Mark Esper would have—cautioned against it, saying an attack could lead to a wider war. Even Trump doesn’t seem to want that.

Trump took the opposite approach with North Korea, courting its leader, Kim Jong-un (whose brutal dictatorship makes Iran’s mullahs seem like scholars of the Enlightenment by comparison), exchanging “beautiful letters,” and raising no objections when Kim not only enriched uranium but built and test-fired ballistic missiles, some having the range to hit the United States. (In fairness, Trump has maintained certain sanctions against North Korea and rejected Kim’s one-sided offer of a treaty at the Hanoi summit in February 2019. However, neither leader has done anything to promote peace or disarmament since.)

One might infer from all this that diplomacy just doesn’t work: Trump goes hard on Iran, easy on North Korea, and gets nowhere with either. But that’s the wrong lesson. The real lesson is that Trump’s approach to both countries has nothing to do with diplomacy.

With Iran, Trump signaled nothing about what benefits he would supply if the mullahs renegotiated the nuclear deal. With North Korea, Trump signaled nothing about what penalties he would inflict if Kim just strung him along. There’s a reason for these failings: Trump didn’t really want to renegotiate a nuclear deal; he wanted the Iranian regime to collapse; when it didn’t (and anyone who knew anything about Iran could have told him it wouldn’t), he had no backup plan. Similarly, Trump didn’t want to punish Kim; he wanted to be friends, to talk Kim into adopting the ways of the West and developing a casino-hotel on the coast; when Kim expressed no interest in this notion (and anyone who knew anything about North Korea could have told Trump he wouldn’t), he had no backup plan.

Contrary to the impression of his bestselling book, Trump knows nothing about the art of the deal, which is very different from haggling with contractors, bankers, and the New York City Department of Buildings. He came into, or withdrew from, negotiations with North Korea and Iran with no sense of what U.S. interests were (aside from serving the wealth and ego of Donald J. Trump), no knack for devising a strategy to pursue those interests, and no knowledge about the tactics needed to accomplish the strategy—not even the slightest curiosity about what he might need to learn about Iranian or North Korean history, politics, and culture, or about what policies have worked and not worked in the past.

Extreme pressure didn’t work with Iran and glad-handing didn’t work with North Korea because Trump came into office, and will soon leave office, with no understanding of the way the world—at least the world outside the narrow confines of his own experiences—works.