If Not Maximum Pressure, Then What?

The Iran echo chamber does not provide a viable alternative

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (R) with military leaders / Getty
May 15, 2019

In recent weeks, analysts and commentators who oppose President Trump's policy toward Iran have expressed the same argument: his strategy of exerting maximum pressure on the regime to push it to renegotiate the nuclear deal, and possibly to negotiate other contentious issues, will fail. The strategy will fail, these voices argue, because of the regime's resolve not to submit to American coercion. This view may sound reasonable, but its logic collapses upon closer examination, especially considering those articulating it support the nuclear deal and a rapprochement with Iran.

Ali Vaez, director of the Iran project at the International Crisis Group, argues in a recent article that Trump's "maximum pressure" will not make Iran yield. "The one thing Tehran would find more intolerable than the crushing impact of sanctions is raising the white flag because of them," he writes. "Convinced that Trump's national-security team is bent on toppling the Islamic Republic, the Iranian leadership views economic sanctions as just one in a range of measures designed to destabilize it. Its counterstrategy can be summed up in two words: Resist and survive. The mere act of survival would constitute victory, however pyrrhic."

NBC News correspondent Andrea Mitchell similarly says that Trump's "hawkish circle of advisers very well may be underestimating Iran's resolve and resilience" as Tehran decides whether to wait out the Trump administration, hoping a Democrat wins the 2020 presidential election. Former senior officials in the Obama administration have echoed these sentiments, arguing that maximum pressure will not work.

It is true that Iran's government, especially Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, sees giving in to Washington's demands as a form of surrender, and one that would actually invite, rather than relieve, sanctions. Indeed, Tehran may see capitulation as an existential threat. Beyond opening up the floodgates of American demands and pressure, the Islamist regime believes submission at this time would undermine its anti-Americanism, which is fundamental to its identity. So Iran's leaders will resist American pressure for as long as possible.

But agreeing to negotiate with Washington is very different from submitting to Washington's demands. Trump has repeatedly made clear that he wants to launch fresh talks with Iran. Clearly, he sees maximum pressure as a way to force the regime to pick up the phone, call him, and return to the negotiating table—not as a tool to punish Iran simply for the sake of hurting the country, nor as a way to foster regime change. Negotiations would determine whether Iran's decision is a victory or a defeat for the regime. After all, the nuclear deal was a clear victory for the mullahs, allowing them to maintain the ability to obtain nuclear weapons in the long run while also securing relief from sanctions, despite agreeing to negotiate in the first place only because of economic pressure.

Still, Khamenei said Tuesday that negotiating with the United States is "like a poison." Yet his predecessor as supreme leader, the late Ruhollah Khomeini, agreed to "drink from the poison chalice" in 1988, agreeing to a ceasefire with Iraq following a brutal, eight-year war. The Islamic Republic has shown that, amid intense pressure, it will completely change its position if it sees no escape. Critics of a hardline approach to Iran, such as Vaez, argue the ceasefire with Iraq is a bad comparison because, at the time, Tehran thought the strategic gain of consolidating the young Islamic Republic's power without losing any territory outweighed the costs of continued warfare. These same voices argue that the regime will not negotiate now until it gains a strong hand and can speak from a position of strength. That may be true, but the point reveals logical holes in the argument against maximum pressure.

If the regime will not yield to maximum pressure, and if the regime is now trying to strengthen its negotiating position by inflicting a price on the United States and its allies, then how would less pressure be more likely to foster talks and serve American interests? Think about it: if everything that Vaez, Mitchell, and former top Obama officials argue is true, then anything less than maximum pressure would not work either; in fact, less pressure would make the situation worse. The regime would still be anti-American and fear that Washington seeks to topple it. The only difference would be that Tehran would have less incentive to engage the United States and more resources to oppress its people and cause mayhem across the Middle East. Applying pressure on Iran, but not to the maximum level, would still do enough to anger the Iranians and foster resentment against the United States, but would not do enough to make Tehran rethink its belligerence by causing the regime serious pain.

Arguments against maximum pressure only make sense, then, in the service of three alternative proposals. One is to pursue regime change in Iran, which is of course not an option for analysts and commentators who consider simply floating, let alone advocating, such a policy a monstrosity. Another option is to scrap any deals or negotiations and instead pursue a policy of containment through robust deterrence. But that would require serious threats of military force, which advocates of engagement find too risky. That leaves a final choice: reentering the nuclear deal and striking a rapprochement with Iran.

Alumni of the Obama administration, such as Rob Malley and Colin Kahl, support this last approach. Of course the nuclear deal failed to blunt Iran's internal oppression and external belligerence in any way. The regime got what it wanted and continued on its path of death and destruction, stronger than before negotiations began. The deal is a ticking time bomb, allowing Iran to use advanced centrifuges, which make the enrichment process much more efficient, and install and operate more of its older models beginning in 2026, and to enrich uranium without any restrictions beginning in 2031. Under these conditions, why would Iran entertain any further negotiations? Doubling down on the nuclear deal is not a viable option for the United States after a few years.

Nor is seeking rapprochement more broadly, an idea based on misguided assumptions. For the zillionth time, there are no moderates within the regime with whom the United States can engage to moderate the Islamic Republic. So-called moderates, such as Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, agree with the supreme leader and his allies on the issues that matter most in Iran, especially ensuring the Islamic Republic's survival and bringing about its preeminence in the Middle East. And even if these individuals were genuine moderates, they do not have the power to foster any serious change in Iranian society, let alone in Iranian foreign policy. Rouhani said as much just recently, according to reports.

Those who support a rapprochement often note that the Iranian people are sophisticated, well educated, and largely pro-Western, and they are certainly correct. But that is an argument for exerting maximum pressure on the mullahs, not appeasing them. The Iranian people are the regime's hostages, trying to break free. Recall the anti-government protests that erupted across Iran in December 2017. Those demonstrations continue to this day and show brave Iranians expressing their disgust not only with their economic situations, but also with the regime's cruel and incompetent rule. Protesters across Iran continue chanting "death to Khamenei" and other slogans that signal they want to rid their country of the Islamist theocracy that has ravaged it since 1979. Yet those who tout the nuclear deal have said the United States should do nothing to support the protesters, and they would have the regime empowered to crush such dissent. The latter point may not be their intent, but that is the effect of their ideas, which would turn Iranians away from the United States by enraging them—thus undermining the notion of moderating the Islamic Republic.

Remember that the goal of maximum pressure is to push the regime to call the United States. By advertising that goal, the United States would put the onus on Iran to stop the pressure, showing the Iranian people that their government, and not the United States, is responsible for Iran's economic hardships. The regime could make the pain stop but lets it continue. The Iranian people's opposition to the regime is an asset that would be immoral and just plain stupid for the United States not to use. The best chance for maximum pressure to work is to make the regime fear that Iranians will continue, and go to greater lengths, to challenge its rule.

The real problem with Trump's approach is actually that it is not maximum enough. The administration has done too little to counter Iran's imperial expansion in the Middle East and to support the Iranian people, both of which would put that much more pressure on the regime. Sanctions are absolutely essential, and the administration has done a great job in punishing the regime economically. But sanctions, no matter how strong, are not sufficient by themselves to push Iran to seek negotiations or alter its behavior. If the current approach is maximum pressure, then Trump should look into a campaign of extra maximum pressure, one that recognizes the evil that the regime in Iran brings into this world and the wonderful qualities of the Iranian people, the mullah's greatest enemies.