The U.S. Is Developing a New Way to Weaken Iran

17 Aug 2018

The U.S. Is Developing a New Way to Weaken Iran

The State Department’s Iran Action Group will mostly focus on “nukes, terrorism, and the detention of American citizens.”

By Krishnadev Calamur

August 17, 2018

Hook said the group’s work will center on the 12 demands made of Iran by Pompeo in a speech in May, adding that the focus will mostly be “around nukes, terrorism, and the detention of American citizens arbitrarily detained.” In that speech, Pompeo warned “of unprecedented financial pressure in the form of the strongest sanctions in history” if Tehran did not comply with the U.S. demands.

The announcement Thursday is part of the Trump administration’s policy of sustained pressure on Iran that followed the U.S. withdrawal in May from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the official name for the nuclear agreement that Iran signed with the world’s major powers in exchange for political and economic benefits. The first set of U.S. sanctions prompted by the withdrawal went into effect last week. More restrictive sanctions that target Iran’s oil exports will take effect November 4. The goal, the Trump administration says, is to squeeze Iran’s economy and, consequently, its regime in order to change its policies.

“The goal is to weaken Iran in the hopes that it will pull back in the region, suddenly become more amenable to the policies of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel,” Slavin said. That is unlikely to happen, however, as Iran views the region as part of its sphere of influence, just as the Saudis and Emiratis do.

The Trump administration and its supporters said the JCPOA did not adequately deal with Iran’s ballistic-missile program, its support for militant groups, and its involvement in regional politics. Supporters of the agreement said the accord was meant to deal with only the single-most problematic aspect of Iran’s behavior—its nuclear program—and argued that the agreement could serve as a starting point for talks on other issues. (Critics of the agreement say the JCPOA merely postpones Iran’s inevitable acquisition of nuclear weapons; the accord’s supporters dismiss that claim.) Donald Trump himself had initially said that he was open to talks with Iran with no preconditions, but officials in his administration have since walked that back. The United States now says it is open to talks with Iran—if the Islamic Republic changes its policies on a range of issues, including its political and military involvement in Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, and Iraq; its threats against Israel; its ballistic-missile program; and its dismal human-rights record. The Iranians have meanwhile signaled they aren’t interested.

“If the Iranian regime demonstrates a commitment to make fundamental changes in its behavior, then the president is prepared to engage in dialogue in order to find solutions,” Hook said Thursday. “But the sanctions relief, the reestablishment of full diplomatic and commercial relations with the United States, and economic cooperation with the United States can only begin after we see that the Iranian regime is serious about changing its behavior.”

But Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, shut the door this week on that prospect when he said that even permitting Iran’s foreign minister to talk to the Obama administration on what eventually became the JCPOA was a mistake. “It was a loss for us,” he said. Other Iranian officials say they will not talk to the United States either.

“Anyone who knows anything about Iran knows that there’s no way the government can agree to talk to the United States under these kinds of conditions,” Slavin said.

The other signatories to the JCPOA—China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the European Union—remain in the agreement along with Iran. They acknowledge, however, that the economic benefits for Iran that the deal promised will not materialize as the biggest Western companies that entered Iran following the accord have announced they are leaving the country because of the threat of U.S. sanctions. The remaining signatories say they will continue to bring economic and political benefits to Iran, but any such gains will be limited in nature because only those companies that aren’t exposed to the U.S. market or that don’t carry out transactions in U.S. dollars will be able to circumvent the U.S. sanctions on entities doing business in Iran. The true test will come in November when the U.S. sanctions that target Iran’s lucrative oil trade go into effect.  

“They’re traveling around the world and they’re making various countries cut or eliminate their purchases of Iranian oil, and they’ve had some success,” Slavin said of the Trump administration’s efforts. “But a number of countries have also indicated they’re going to continue to buy Iranian oil.” Those include China, India, and Turkey. Hook said the United States would examine requests for waivers from countries that are seeking to reduce their oil imports from Iran on a case-by-case basis, but reiterated that “we are prepared to impose secondary sanctions on … governments that continue this sort of trade with Iran.”

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KRISHNADEV CALAMUR is a former senior editor at The Atlantic. He is the author of Murder in Mumbai.