Nov 4, 2019

Expanding U.S. pressure campaign on Iran could reach a tipping point

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (C) on stage with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Photo: Iranian Religious Leader Press Office/Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Tuesday marks the first anniversary of the Trump administration's "maximum pressure" campaign against Iran, which escalated further last week with new State Department findings that link the country's construction sector to its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Why it matters: The maximum pressure policy has undoubtedly hurt Iran's economy, but it risks becoming a victim of its own success if dried-up revenues spark Iran to lash out further. While Washington has mostly avoided open conflict thus far, following that path may be harder as Iran grows more defiant.

The big picture: The pressure campaign has paired economic sanctions with expansive executive branch authorities to make it harder for Iran to "fund its foreign policy" and to pave the way to a more comprehensive pact than the 2015 nuclear deal.

  • Washington has largely pursued these goals alone, as levels of political and even symbolic support from international partners have fluctuated.

Flashback: On Nov. 5, 2018, the Trump administration began its campaign by targeting more than "700 individuals, entities, aircraft, and vessels," in what the Treasury Department called its "largest ever single-day action" against Iran.

  • The administration was making good on Trump's promise to restore sanctions previously waived by the nuclear deal, which the U.S. had left in May 2018.
  • Since then, Washington has deployed unilateral coercive and punitive economic measures against Tehran to squeeze revenues, limit oil sales and drive down GDP — at a much faster rate than the multilateral sanctions in place between 2006 and 2013.

What's happening: Since May 8, Iran has pursued its own graduated escalation policy, both on the nuclear file and across the region, to erode American deterrence, credibility and resolve.

  • Iran’s nuclear chief on Monday hailed the country’s fourth public violation of the 2015 deal: the operation of 60 centrifuges for uranium enrichment that are more powerful than those permitted under the accord.
  • In the face of Iranian escalation, Washington has continued to prioritize economic pressure, occasionally supplemented with diplomatic initiatives, cyber operations and troop deployments.

What to watch: Iran's leaders are staying away from the negotiating table. While felicitating the 40th anniversary of the hostage crisis on Sunday, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei again shunned U.S. talks, as President Hassan Rouhani did at the UN General Assembly meeting in September.

  • But with the International Monetary Fund now forecasting Iran's economy to contract by 9.5% in 2019, the Trump administration is betting that Iran could still change its mind.

Behnam Ben Taleblu is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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