Trump’s Iran strategy ignores that pressure campaigns rarely work

By Daniel DePetris

If there is a lesson from the last several weeks of tension between the United States and Iran, it is this: Pressure campaigns on their own very rarely result in positive outcomes. In fact, in most cases, jabbing other countries with a pointy stick only makes them angrier and more hostile.

Economic sanctions have become one of the most widely-deployed pressure tools in American politics. The Trump administration sanctioned 1,500 entities, individuals, firms, and financial institutions in multiple countries in 2018 alone, hoping to significantly alter adversaries’ behavior.

It is indisputable that sanctions punish and harm the targets’ finances. Being cut off from the U.S. financial system, unable to access American banks, and prohibited from using the dollar in transactions tends to devastate a nation’s economy. For instance, by the Trump administration’s estimates, Iran has lost $10 billion this year due to sanctions.

But sanctions have largely failed to achieve intended outcomes or changed Iran’s behavior. Sanctions are supposed to produce an evolution in a country’s thinking. Yet most often, the target countries are steadfast and fight rather than capitulate, and sanctions actually starve the regime’s opposition, emboldening hardliners. Whether it’s Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, Syria, or Russia, sanctions have usually hit foreign economies hard but have nonetheless failed in their objectives.

Pressure alone simply exacerbates the situation.

The world is seeing this dynamic play out right now with Iran. The Trump administration’s maximum pressure policy on Tehran is supposed to force it to renegotiate a better deal than the Obama-era Iran Deal, and end all of its malign activity. But it rests on a weak foundation, the naive hope that pinching the Iranian government economically will create enough desperation force the Iranian government to give away the store to the U.S.

President Trump recently signed an executive order which slaps Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and possibly Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif with asset freezes. This indicates that the White House believes Iran will eventually have no option but to come back to the table and beg for forgiveness. However, the Iranian response has been not an offer of surrender, but defiance and aggression.

The true results of U.S. pressure? Iran’s shooting down of a U.S. surveillance drone, attacks against tankers near the Strait of Hormuz, threats to restart its nuclear weapons program, and a consolidation of power in the hands of the hardliners.

Negotiating in such a situation is simply out of the question for the Iranian leadership. Indeed, to do so would only provide the Trump administration with confirmation their pressure-only approach is working, inviting even more pressure in the future. Between fighting and fleeing, the regime in Tehran is choosing to fight.

To be fair, Trump is not the first president to believe deeply in the power of sanctions. Foreign policy elites in Washington are often quick to reach for the stick and discard the carrot. If an adversary is doing something we find objectionable, it’s far easier to cut them off from the U.S. banking system and restrict their entry into the U.S. than it is to get at the root of the problem. For members of Congress, sanctions signal toughness and allow them to play at being the tough sheriff.

But not all problems are nails that can be solved with a hammer. There is no one-size-fits-all formula in the foreign policy business. Sometimes, unconditional diplomacy is appropriate. In other instances, it’s better to address an issue multilaterally. And in still others, the U.S. doesn’t have much at stake and is best served leaving other countries to address the problem.

Iran poses no direct threat to the U.S., yet the Trump administration is stubbornly pursuing a path that could lead to a conflict no one — not the U.S., Iran, or the region — wants. Washington continues to believe the U.S. and Iran can’t coexist despite 40 years of evidence it can. Dismally, regime change in Tehran is never far from the minds and lips of the elites, regardless of the destructive track record such policies have had since 9/11.

Trump should get smart and stop listening to his establishment advisers who have gotten it wrong for so long. Instead, he ought to follow his anti-interventionist instincts, which align with the wisdom of the American people — who don’t want another wasteful war in the Middle East. De-escalation, not more bellicosity, is clearly what is called for.

This piece was originally published by The Washington Examiner on July 10, 2019. Read more HERE.

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