May 8, 2019

Trump's Iran policy could prop up regime in spite of economic harms

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at a Cabinet meeting in Tehran. Photo: Iranian presidency handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

The announcement by President Hassan Rouhani on Wednesday that Iran will partially cease to comply with the 2015 nuclear deal was a foreseeable outgrowth of draconian sanctions imposed by the U.S. after its withdrawal from the agreement last year.

Why it matters: The Trump administration's "maximum pressure" campaign has increased the threat of a nuclear escalation across the Middle East. Even short of that nightmare scenario, it could be self-defeating in the long term, hurting Iran’s pro-Western middle class at the expense of hardliners who control both the black market and a repressive state apparatus to stifle dissent.

Where it stands: U.S. policy has undoubtedly inflicted economic harm on Iran.

  • Economic growth that followed the lifting of sanctions in 2016 has given way to an inflationary recession.
  • The Iranian currency has lost two-thirds of its value, as oil exports have dropped by more than half and will likely fall further.
  • Although food and medicine are exempt from sanctions, lack of access to the global financial system is giving rise to a humanitarian crisis. Some families have been unable to afford meat or obtain specialized medicine.

Yes, but: There is no sign Iran is shifting its regional policies or willing to bow to the Trump administration’s demands. Nor is there any hint that economic hardship has triggered popular unrest of a magnitude that would threaten the regime’s survival.

  • In the absence of visible changes in Tehran’s political calculus, Washington is defending the sanctions based only on their quantity and severity.

Between the lines: The current U.S. approach is unlikely to succeed.

  • The one thing Tehran would find more intolerable than suffering from sanctions is surrendering to them. Its counterstrategy: resist and survive, as it has in other collapses of oil revenue over the last 4 decades.
  • Iran will not negotiate without a strong hand. During the nuclear deal talks, President Obama took regime change off the table and let Iran enrich uranium on its own soil. Coercive diplomacy needs inducements of a kind the Trump administration has not offered.

The bottom line: The net effect of maximum pressure is an Iran with its economy in ruins but its regime intact. To prevent a costly war of choice, the U.S. may need to step aside from maximalist demands and preconditions and use staggered sanctions relief to advance win-win negotiations.

Ali Vaez directs the Iran Project at the International Crisis Group.

Go deeper

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

  1. Global: Total confirmed cases as of 5 p.m. ET: 716,101 — Total deaths: 33,854 — Total recoveries: 148,900.
  2. U.S.: Leads the world in cases. Total confirmed cases as of 5 p.m. ET: 136,880 — Total deaths: 2,409 — Total recoveries: 2,612.
  3. Federal government latest: The first federal prisoner to die from coronavirus was reported from a correctional facility in Louisiana on Sunday.
  4. Public health updates: Fauci says 100,000 to 200,000 Americans could die from virus.
  5. State updates: Louisiana governor says state is on track to exceed ventilator capacity by end of this week — Cuomo says Trump's mandatory quarantine comments "panicked" some people into fleeing New York
  6. World updates: Italy on Sunday reports 756 new deaths, bringing its total 10,779. Spain reports almost 840 dead, another new daily record that bring its total to over 6,500.
  7. What should I do? Answers about the virus from Axios expertsWhat to know about social distancingQ&A: Minimizing your coronavirus risk
  8. Other resources: CDC on how to avoid the virus, what to do if you get it.

Subscribe to Mike Allen's Axios AM to follow our coronavirus coverage each morning from your inbox.

Trump touts press briefing "ratings" as U.S. coronavirus case surge

Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

President Trump sent about a half-dozen tweets on Sunday touting the high television ratings that his coronavirus press briefings have received, selectively citing a New York Times article that compared them to "The Bachelor" and "Monday Night Football."

Why it matters: The president has been holding daily press briefings in the weeks since the coronavirus pandemic was declared, but news outlets have struggled with how to cover them live — as Trump has repeatedly been found to spread misinformation and contradict public health officials.

World coronavirus updates: Total cases surge to over 700,000

Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins, the CDC, and China's Health Ministry. Note: China numbers are for the mainland only and U.S. numbers include repatriated citizens and confirmed plus presumptive cases from the CDC

There are now than more than 700,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus around the world, according to data from Johns Hopkins. The virus has now killed more than 32,000 people — with Italy alone reporting over 10,000 deaths.

The big picture: Governments around the world have stepped up public health and economic measures to stop the spread of the virus and soften the financial impact. In the U.S., now the site of the largest outbreak in the world, President Trump said Saturday he would issue a "strong" travel advisory for New York, New Jersey and parts of Connecticut.

Go deeperArrowUpdated 3 hours ago - Health