President Trump has put Iran on notice that the punishing sanctions he plans to impose on Monday are just the opening salvo of an ambitious strategy to compel Tehran to pull back from its assertive posture in the Middle East or risk collapse.
“Our objective is to force the regime into a clear choice: either abandon its destructive behavior or continue down the path toward economic disaster,” Mr. Trump said in a statement Friday night.
The guiding assumption behind the administration’s policy is that Iran is economically weak, has little interest in a military confrontation with the U.S.—and that Washington can force changes in decadeslong Iranian behavior that will reconfigure the Middle East, officials and experts say.
But senior Iranian officials insist Tehran will neither retrench nor negotiate. Former U.S. officials with long experience say Tehran has cards to play, including trying to ride out the sanctions in the hope that Mr. Trump is a one-term president and taking advantage of the continued turmoil in the region to stir up fresh challenges for the U.S. and its allies.
“Iran is gaining ground in the region, and I don’t see these sanctions as reversing that,” said Jeffrey Feltman, who was the top State Department official on Middle East issues from 2009 to 2012 and later served as a United Nations undersecretary general for political affairs.
An early test of the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign will come in Syria. The White House has sought Russian President Vladimir Putin’s help in prodding Iranian forces and the Shiite militias Tehran backs to leave the country—so far, without success.
Administration officials are now calculating that draconian economic measures can prompt Iran to declare its military mission accomplished in Syria and bring its forces home. To drive home the point, U.S. officials have released figures asserting that Iran’s annual tab for sustaining its Lebanese ally Hezbollah is about $700 million, while Tehran has spent at least $16 billion in recent years supporting its allies in Syria, Yemen and Iraq.
Some former U.S. officials say, however, that Iran’s support for the Assad regime and Hezbollah are top priorities Tehran will attempt to sustain at all cost.
“They are heavily invested in Syria, and the IRGC is not going anywhere soon,” said Ryan Crocker, the veteran U.S. diplomat, referring to Iran’s paramilitary Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps
In a meeting last month with Wall Street Journal reporters and editors, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif portrayed Iran’s military presence in Syria as defensive and disputed the notion that its forces should withdraw.
“We believe that if we do not fight ISIS in Syria and Iraq, we will have to fight it in Iran,” Mr. Zarif said. “Our people recognize that.”
Oppressive regimes cannot endure forever and the day will come when the people will face a choice. Will they continue down the path of poverty, bloodshed and terror, or will the Iranian people return to the nation’s proud roots as a center of civilization, culture and wealth, where their people can be happy and prosperous?
Iran’s nuclear activities are another area where the Trump administration’s strategy will be tested.
Iran has rebuffed U.S. demands that it accept constraints on its nuclear program that are far more stringent than those imposed by the 2015 accord negotiated by the Obama administration and disowned by Mr. Trump. At the same time, Iran has acceded to European appeals that it stick with the 2015 agreement, which Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China are trying to preserve.
But Mr. Zarif signaled that Tehran might relax its adherence to that accord if economic benefits it still expects to achieve from the agreement aren’t forthcoming.
“We have the possibility of a partial reduction of our commitment,” Mr. Zarif said. “We will have to make that decision when the time comes.”
Such a move could add to the strains between Europe and Washington over how to deal with Iran’s nuclear capability.
“Their strategy as of now is the expectation that Trump will be weakened by the midterm elections and won’t be re-elected in 2020, essentially a wait-and-see approach,” said Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a nonpartisan think tank.
“But their economy is in bad shape, and the trend lines are only going to worsen,” he added. “They may soon conclude they have more leverage by reconstituting their nuclear activities—not by going from 0 to 100 but from 0 to 20.”
In an effort to persuade Iran to stick with the 2015 accord, the European Union is moving toward establishing a special payment channel to maintain economic ties with Iran. But Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Friday he didn’t expect the channel to be effective in the face of U.S. pressure.
Iran also is expected to reactivate its long-developed capacity for evading sanctions, seeking to dodge the economic bullets coming from Washington. But the Trump administration has vowed to crack down.
In an August tweet, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei asserted that Iran wouldn’t challenge the U.S. militarily. “THERE WILL BE NO WAR, NOR WILL WE NEGOTIATE WITH THE U.S.” he wrote.
Despite the ayatollah’s declaration, some experts believe there is a risk the regime might lash out—perhaps though regional proxies or covert operations that Tehran would publicly deny—in response to the intensifying economic pressure and calls by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for Iranians to “restore democracy.”
“Anybody remember Beirut 1983?” said Mr. Crocker, referring to the bombing of a U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut. “They can find a way to make life rough for us.”
Iran trained and equipped Shiite militias that attacked U.S. forces during the Iraq war. So far, those militias have refrained from attacking the U.S. military advisers who returned to Iraq for the campaign against Islamic State. But the State Department said in September it was closing the U.S. consulate in Basra, citing security risks from Iranian-backed forces.
Even staunch supporters of the administration’s Iran policy acknowledge the risks.
“The administration has invested enormous energy into tightening the sanctions noose as tight as possible,” said John Hannah, who served as an adviser to former Vice President Dick Cheney and is now a senior counselor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which has urged the administration to impose tough sanctions on Iran.
“I hope they’ve spent as much time planning for all the ways Iran could use terrorism, proxies and cyberweapons to disrupt oil markets, destabilize our allies, and attack U.S. interests,” he added.
The 12 demands issued to Iran by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on May 21
- 1. Iran must provide a full accounting of its previous nuclear weapons research and abandon such work forever.
- 2. Iran must stop enriching uranium, never pursue plutonium reprocessing and close its heavy-water reactor.
- 3. Iran must give unqualified access to the International Atomic Energy Agency to all sites in the country.
- 4. Iran must end its proliferation of ballistic missiles and stop developing missiles that can carry nuclear weapons.
- 5. Iran must release all U.S. citizens and those of U.S. allies and partners.
- 6. Iran must end support to Hezbollah, Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and other Middle East “terrorist” groups.
- 7. Iran must respect the sovereignty of the Iraqi government and permit the demobilization and reintegration of Shia militias.
- 8. Iran must end its military support for the Houthi insurgency and work toward a political settlement in Yemen.
- 9. Iran must withdraw all forces in Syria under Iranian command.
- 10. Iran must end support for the Taliban and cease harboring al Qaeda leaders.
- 11. Iran must end the support for terrorists and militant partners by its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
- 12. Iran must end its threats against Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other neighbors.
- (Source: U.S. State Department)
Write to Michael R. Gordon at [email protected]