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‘Maximum Pressure’ Is a Dead End

Our government demands things that are politically impossible for any self-respecting government to agree to, and then sets out to punish the other side when it refuses to meet Washington's absurd expectations.

Vali Nasr predicts that the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaigns against North Korea and Iran won’t succeed:

What North Korea is looking for is a step-by-step diplomatic process in which the United States offers concessions ranging from a declaration of peace on the Korean Peninsula to the lifting of economic sanctions. Instead, Trump’s national-security team is demanding full denuclearization before offering anything up in return. That looks to be what Washington has in mind for Iran as well.

Faced with this reality, Pyongyang or Tehran could see a benefit in resisting Washington’s pressure strategy.

The main flaw in the Trump administration’s approach to both states is that it pairs maximalist demands that the other side will never accept with “maximum pressure” tactics that depend on broad international support that doesn’t exist. Our government demands things that are politically impossible for any self-respecting government to agree to, and then sets out to punish the other side when it refuses to meet Washington’s absurd expectations.

Trump and Bolton’s enthusiasm for unilateralism and their contempt for diplomacy make it even more difficult to sustain international cooperation. As soon as North Korea started engaging in talks with the U.S. and South Korea, Russian and Chinese support for sanctions started to melt away. As long as Iran complies with the JCPOA, there is no international support for reimposing sanctions on them. On the contrary, other parties to the agreement are going out of their way to find mechanisms to keep Iran in the deal over U.S. objections. Both North Korea and Iran have positioned themselves to appear as the more reasonable party in their dealings with the administration, and the U.S. has emphasized its inflexibility and excessive demands. That has had the effect of provoking resistance against the U.S. from the targeted governments and the other major powers at the same time, and especially on Iran it has left the U.S. isolated and embarrassed. The administration’s tantrum of terminating the old Treaty of Amity with Iran yesterday was a sign of their frustration that their policy is failing on its own terms.

It is natural and predictable that external pressure leads to resistance and defiance. We would do the same if we were in their position and they were the ones making excessive demands of us. Iran’s government shows no sign of being interested in giving in to the administration’s demands:

Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei vowed Thursday “never” to allow the Islamic republic to bow to the demands of its enemies, at a time of increased tensions between Tehran and Washington.

“To entertain the idea, as desired by the enemy, that the only solution is to hand ourselves over to the enemy, is the worst act of treason towards the Iranian nation, and that will not happen,” Khamenei said in an address to tens of thousands of members of the Basij, an Islamic volunteer militia, broadcast live on state television.

Hard-liners in the U.S. consistently fail to take national pride into account when they try to bully other governments into capitulating to their demands, and they fail to appreciate how much a targeted regime is willing to suffer if they think that their national security and/or regime survival are on the line. Our government thinks that it can compel other states to sell out their perceived security interests by creating tougher economic conditions, but that is a bargain that we would never make.

That is how the U.S. ends up making ridiculous demands for the other side’s surrender when there is no chance that they will comply, and it sets the U.S. up for failure and increased hostility between our government and theirs.



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