The Stubborn Persistence of Failed Maximum Pressure Against Iran

John Bolton {Evan El-Amin via Shutterstock)

by Paul R. Pillar

It is a sure sign that the Trump administration’s campaign to squeeze Iran into submission is a failure when those who customarily favor pressuring Iran acknowledge that failure. Take what has become the administration’s go-to rationale for the campaign in the face of other evidence that it is not working: the claim that U.S. sanctions have undercut Iran’s “malign” activity in the Middle East by reducing the funds available for such activity. In a recent op ed, Dennis Ross and Dana Stroul of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy debunk this notion by describing how and why a financial pinch on Iran does not translate into retrenchment in Iranian regional activity.

In Syria, for example, Iranian-backed militias “may be suffering from salary cuts, but less take-home pay has not led to a reduction in violence.” The same pattern of reduced cash not leading to reduced armed activity is seen with Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen. And although the administration has tried to highlight reductions in Iran’s military budget, assertive Iranian activity in the Persian Gulf such as sabotage or seizure of foreign tankers has gone up, not down, since the start of the administration’s pressure campaign. In short, Ross and Stroul accurately observe, Iran does what it does in the region “on the cheap.” Its regional activity is not determined by the balance in its bank account.

Or consider another rationale for the pressure campaign: that inside Iran it will build opposition to the regime and, it is hoped, lead to regime change. A recent analysis by the Israel-based Institute for National Security Studies (INSS)—which cannot be accused of being soft on Iran—highlights the failure on this criterion, too. While the sanctions-induced economic pain in Iran is undeniable, the Israeli analysts conclude that the “Iranian regime is managing, as in the past, to contain the economic difficulties without leading to deterioration and unrest that will undermine its stability.” The Iranian public “has despaired of generating significant political change” and is focused on “the struggle for day-to-day survival.” The economic crisis has increased the dependence of many workers on government jobs and lowered their willingness to “risk their economic and employment security through political and civil involvement.” Citizens’ concerns “about chaos and the loss of stability … exceeds their preparedness to advance revolutionary political changes”.  The study presents data showing that protest demonstrations in Iran have declined, not increased, since the pressure campaign began.

Then, of course, there is the nuclear side of Iran’s response to the Trump administration’s reneging on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and waging of economic warfare. Iran’s exceeding of some of the JCPOA’s limits still leaves Iran, thanks to the severity of those limits, far away from any ability to build a nuclear weapon. Iran’s moves are easily reversible efforts to build leverage to induce the United States to return to compliance with the agreement. But the moves are in the opposite direction from what the pressure campaign was supposed to accomplish.

Ross and Stroul make some other pertinent and valid observations: that sanctions are not enough, that “credible economic gains” must be offered in negotiations, and that the Trump administration has erred badly in isolating itself from European allies. But even after recording this litany of failures, the authors can’t seem to tear themselves away from the notion that in the end, the task is one of exerting pressure. They lament the estrangement from the Europeans not because of missed diplomatic opportunities but instead because pressure works best when the Europeans are exerting it as well. And they want military pressure to add to the economic pressure. A “credible threat of military force,” they say, while saying nothing about exactly what would be threatened, and over what. It was the United States, not Iran, that blatantly violated an international agreement, and Iran’s responses since than have clearly been in response to the U.S. violations and waging of economic warfare. On what grounds would the United States credibly threaten to wage military warfare as well?

If discouraging any Iranian thoughts about building a nuclear weapon is an objective—and it ostensibly was everyone’s main objective back when the JCPOA was first negotiated—then threatening military attack is the wrong way to go about it, given how deterrence against just such an attack would be the prime reason for any Iranian interest in building a bomb. Insofar as politically weakening the Iranian regime is an objective, military threats are counterproductive here as well, given the usual rally-round-the-flag effects. The INSS study has something to say about this as well: “It seems that the increasing chances of military confrontation between Iran and the US contribute to internal cohesion among a public that frequently shows a readiness to rally behind the regime against threats of military attack or challenges to Iran’s territorial integrity.”

What neither the Trump administration nor pressure advocates such as Ross and Stroul are prepared to acknowledge is that the way out of the current U.S.-Iranian impasse is return to compliance with the JCPOA or something very much like it. Perhaps the energetic and imaginative diplomacy of French President Emmanuel Macron can help to chart a path toward that end. But two major obstacles need to be overcome.

One consists of those who oppose any agreement with Iran on anything and, unlike some hardline think tank, are in a position to do something about it. This includes Trump’s national security advisor, John Bolton, whose policies on Iran reflect his not being far removed from his days as a generously paid shill for the Iranian cult known as the Mujahedin-e Khalq. Another is Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Israeli government, which is willing to use military force to sabotage the diplomacy. Israel’s recent escalation of armed attacks across the Middle East is in large part designed to provoke Iranian retaliation that would make it politically difficult for either Trump or the Europeans to strike new deals with Tehran.

The other obstacle is the more traditional problem of how to get two sides in a bargaining relationship to come to terms when both are afraid of showing weakness through early concessions. The Iranians in particular—given how the history of this confrontation gives them good reason to believe they are the side in the right—have strong political and diplomatic incentives not to be seen as caving. Trump also doesn’t want to be seen backing down, but he clearly wants a deal and will want one more than ever as the U.S. election gets closer—especially if a failure to gain a trade agreement with China makes him even hungrier for something that he can describe as a foreign policy accomplishment. Perhaps the biggest element of flexibility in all this is Trump having no qualms about inaccurate descriptions, which in this case could mean describing a deal very similar to the JCPOA as something much different.

Paul Pillar

Paul R. Pillar is Non-resident Senior Fellow at the Center for Security Studies of Georgetown University and an Associate Fellow of the Geneva Center for Security Policy. He retired in 2005 from a 28-year career in the U.S. intelligence community. His senior positions included National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia, Deputy Chief of the DCI Counterterrorist Center, and Executive Assistant to the Director of Central Intelligence. He is a Vietnam War veteran and a retired officer in the U.S. Army Reserve. Dr. Pillar's degrees are from Dartmouth College, Oxford University, and Princeton University. His books include Negotiating Peace (1983), Terrorism and U.S. Foreign Policy (2001), Intelligence and U.S. Foreign Policy (2011), and Why America Misunderstands the World (2016).



  1. Malign activities?! When a country follows it’s national interests in it’s neighborhood it is called this way by a distant power following other initiatives in other’s neighborhood!

  2. This article offers compelling logic for a radical shift in U.S. policy towards Iran, but other than possibly Trump himself there is no one in the Trump Administration that has the capacity to listen and U.S. positions on the matter may no longer be consequential.
    JCPOA is an act of the UN Security Council authorized by UNSCR2231, which the five permanent members plus the EU committed to uphold jointly with Iran. JCPOA is not an agreement of the U.S. with Iran. U.S. withdrawal from JCPOA was made on the basis of information known to the U.S. government to be false. Iran was in full compliance with JCPOA, which is a fact confirmed by the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies.
    JCPOA was focused on preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear weapons state. The unified position of the P5+EU was secured on the basis of Security Council summit on nuclear weapons proliferation chaired by former president Obama in 2009. The unified position of the P5+ EU gave international moral force to the sanctions authorized in 2010 by UNSCR1929 that were voluntarily enforced by the P5 + EU and most other states.
    “Maximum Pressure” is based on Bolton’s plan for exiting JCPOA despite Iran’s compliance with JCPOA that was published in August 2017 in the National Standard. This plan articulates the vision that John Bolton offered to the MeK Congress in July 2017 for regime change in Iran thru economic and political pressure. At that time major demonstrations in Iran apparently fueled Bolton’s hopes for toppling the regime with economic and political pressure more severe than the severe sanctions authorized by UNSCR1929 because Bolton intended to drive Iran’s oil exports to zero, not to the 1 MBD level reached as a consequence of JCPOA sanctions.
    The focus of the large-scale demonstrations of 2017 was the failure of the government to deliver the benefits of JCPOA of sanctions relief to the suffering people of Iran, whose agriculture had been devastated by a prolonged drought, not just by UNSC sanctions. What Bolton failed to acknowledge is the landslide reelection victory of Rouhani in the 2017 election which had positioned him to push for reforms to strengthen the civil government vs the military. Given the sanctions relief that was supposed to come with JCPOA benefits could have been delivered to the people and the U.S. would have had some influence over the process.
    Bolton apparently expected the EU to fall in line behind the U.S. possibly because of the devastating impact U.S. tariffs could have on Germany and other EU economies. However, Bolton does not control U.S. tariff policy. China and Russia faced similar threats with the result that no country defected from JCPOA even though companies in the EU, China and elsewhere observed U.S. sanctions out of fear of losing access to the U.S. market, or in the case of Huawei to U.S. suppliers.
    Incoherent U.S. tariffs have encouraged many companies to seek other markets and Huawei is well on the way towards independence from U.S. suppliers blunting the extraterritorial force of U.S. sanctions and weakening this instrument that may be needed to counteract real international threats.
    Bolton’s and Pompeo’s rhetoric of Iran’s malign actions in the Middle East demonstrates blindness to Iran’s national security needs. Iran had compelling national security interests to support the Popular Mobilization Forces formed in Iraq in 2014 to fight ISIS because ISIS was overrunning the U.S. supported government of Iraq. If Iraq and Syria had fallen to ISIS Iran’s survival would have been threatened. ISIS and other Sunni terrorist elements in Iraq and Syria remain a potent threat and Iran’s presence, at the invitation of the two governments, is no less legitimate than the presence of U.S. forces in those countries. It is plausible that ISIS would still control territory in Iraq and Syria without the military support of Iran.
    Iran is a founding member of UN COPUOS in 1958 and a signatory of the Outer Space Treaty that promises the benefits from the peaceful uses of outer space to all countries . Iran’s rights to launch satellites are the same as all other countries including the U.S.
    JCPOA is a simple agreement addressing the clearly defined problem of nuclear weapons proliferation. Iran’s missile program as well as Iran’s military support beyond its borders raises the more complex problem of the mutual security of the countries in the Middle East. An agreement that would address Iran’s “malign actions” as well as its missile and space ambitions need to consider Iran’s national security interests as much as the national security interests of Saudi Arabia and Israel. The U.S. responded to the rise of ISIS by marshalling the Anti-ISIS Coalition, however, without Iran’s strong support which started prior to U.S. efforts ISIS would have gained substantially more territory in Iraq.
    The opportunity for Trump is to recognize the role of Iran in combating ISIS as consistent with Iran’s security needs and to encourage the development of a regional security regime that serves the needs of all countries in the region. This could begin to address the non-nuclear issues that the Trump administration has sought to jumble together with JCPOA. There was international agreement in the Security Council on denying nuclear weapons to Iran. There is no international agreement on a regional security regime for the Middle East. That would have been a significant diplomatic opportunity for Trump, that his advisors do not see, because they are focused on regime change in Iran. Trump’s positive cards to play may be much stronger than the U.S. dominance of the global financial system that has enabled the extraterritorial force of unilateral U.S. sanctions. The U.S. with NASA and Space-X and other private companies is the preeminent power in the peaceful uses of outer space. The U.S. could even offer Iran help to reach the Moon, which could be a powerful incentive to a country that celebrates Space Day. The U.S. could even provide support to a joint Saudi Arabia – Iran Moon mission to break the ice for broader cooperation for mutual benefit. Instead, the U.S. has sanctioned Iran’s space program while denying its defensive needs.

  3. Wise activities?! When a country follows the big powers interests even against its neighborhood it is called this way even if the country bombards its neighbors an a daily basis and without a good reason! Even she will receive support in any way, to evade a murder or thousands of murders and she will receive the used armament as well!

  4. As usual these types of articles, assume that it is fine to deal with aliens in Iran, who are committing human rights atrocities every day.

    As usual it is yet another US bashing article, using the situation in Iran as an example.

    Please find another country, or go to Iran and stand in the street helping the protesters as they get arrested.

    Otherwise this sort of an article would be seen as benefitting the Ayatollahs.

    I am sure the author dislikes the Ayatollahs, so why not write one article about that? Or a paragraph here? But not one word! Why?


    US needs to strategically settle with Iran and decamp from the Middle East.

    Trump understand the need for US leaving the Middle East, he does not accept the necessity of strategic settlement with Iran. Neither did Obama nor Bush II; each, in their own way, escalated against Iran and failed to achieve their goal – crushing of Iran.

    Iranians have to wait until the strategic logic of Iranian settlement is accepted by the leaders and planners of the United States.

    And even then there is the little matter of the folksy American religion – an Israel-enamored form of Anglo-Saxon Protestantism.

    In my opinion, it could be decades before a settlement is reached.

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