Home/Daniel Larison/Trump’s ‘Maximum Pressure’ Blows Up in His Face

Trump’s ‘Maximum Pressure’ Blows Up in His Face

Trump speaks at Washington rally against the Iran deal back in September 2015. Credit: Olivier Douliery/Sipa USA/Newscom

Ali Vaez and Gerard Araud put Iran’s recent moves in their proper context:

Iran’s violation of one of its less consequential commitments under the deal should be seen for what it is: a calibrated response to compel the remaining deal signatories (Europe, Russia, and China) to counter the U.S. “maximum pressure through sanctions” campaign, just as was its downing of an unmanned drone. But it also should be seen as a warning shot, a signal that should economic pressure remain, Tehran is likely to up the ante and accelerate its nuclear program.

Iran’s logic seems straightforward: If its leaders ever agree to negotiate with an administration that is holding a gun to their heads, they will do so only after first having restored their leverage by partially resuscitating its nuclear program. In short, the risky gambit implies any path to negotiations risks passing through another perilous nuclear standoff.

Vaez and Araud make an important point that tends to get lost in discussions of the failed “maximum pressure” policy: even if Iran wanted to negotiate right now, they traded away the leverage they had four years ago. Iran’s government has many reasons not to talk to Trump, but one of them is that they currently have nothing that they would be willing to give up to obtain the sanctions relief they were already promised the first time. There is no chance that they are going to make deeper concessions on the nuclear issue, and if they aren’t going to obtain sanctions relief in exchange for compliance then it was always just a matter of time before they stopped complying with a deal that gives them nothing. All of this has happened because of a destructive Trump administration Iran policy aimed at killing a successful nonproliferation agreement in order to provide a pretext for conflict. The blame for all of this rests with Trump and his hawkish advisers.

The Trump administration’s demand that Iran give up all enrichment is an obvious non-starter, just as it was for a decade until the U.S. and its allies realized that they would have to compromise on this point to make any progress. When the U.S. insisted on this in this past, Iran greatly expanded its nuclear program:

It was only when the U.S. learned to live with minimal domestic Iranian enrichment that Iran was willing to agree to the other restrictions on its program. Iran was prepared to give up the vast majority of its program as long as it was able to retain some of it and exercise the rights it believes it is entitled to under the Non-Proliferation Treaty. By refusing to accept that, the Trump administration makes the exact same mistake that its predecessors made for years. Repeating that mistake is likely to produce similar results, and that makes war more likely if only because Iran hawks will use any excuse to agitate for one.

Meanwhile, the president remains mired in mindless hawkish talking points:

Practically everything in this statement is a lie. Iran was not violating the deal at any point between its implementation in 2015 and last week. It didn’t get access to anything like $150 billion of its own money. Trump recites these numbers that he has been fed by propagandists without understanding anything that he’s talking about. Sanctions relief in exchange for compliance was the heart of the deal. He is the one that has ripped that heart out when he illegitimately reimposed sanctions despite their ongoing compliance, and he is so oblivious that he can’t grasp that he is the one responsible for everything that is happening.

The only true part of the president’s statement is that Iran did exceed the limit on their low-enriched uranium stockpile. As Vaez and Araud explain, this is not a prelude to seeking nuclear weapons, but an attempt to get the relief that they were promised all along. The Iranian decision to breach this limit is a direct consequence of a “maximum pressure” campaign that has given Iran every incentive to violate an agreement that the U.S. already shredded more than a year ago. This is what brain-dead, reflexive opposition to a successful diplomatic agreement gets you, and Trump and the Iran hawks own the consequences.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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