When the Trump administration backed out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), it was in a bid to strike a more comprehensive deal with Iran. This deal should include not just nuclear guarantees but also reduce what the United States considers hostile Iranian activities throughout the Middle East and eliminate Iran’s ballistic missile program. To accomplish this, the administration has adopted a strategy of maximal compellence to coerce Iran into negotiations and cease its hostile operations.
The administration’s strategy rests on three legs: strengthening support to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf client states to counter Iranian activity in the area, particularly in its proxy war in Yemen; pushing debilitating financial sanctions against Iran’s economy and threatening financial sanctions against American allies who allow private businesses to interact with the Iranian economy; and pulling waivers from sanctions on Iranian oil in a bid to deprive Iran of a significant source of revenue.
These tactics have had varied success in their immediate objectives. Iran’s economy has suffered significantly under sanctions, with Gross Domestic Product (GDP) contracting 3.9% in 2018. Iran’s oil output has decreased significantly from 2.5 million barrels per day (bpd) to presently averaging less than 1 million bpd. Sanctions have forced Iran to delay or possibly abandon hundreds of millions of dollars in direct financing to Hizbollah in Lebanon, a political organization which the United States, Israel, and the European Union designate as a terrorist organization. Conversely, in the Yemeni Civil War, cross border attacks into Saudi Arabia by Iranian backed Houthi rebels have intensified with rockets reaching the capital’s airport. Additionally, the United States has not found common cause with any allies in this strategy.
Any of these tactical successes haven’t compelled Iran to do what Washington wants.
First, while the Trump administration has offered to talk directly to Iranian officials, Iran has expressly refused to discuss U.S. conditions. A deep distrust of the administration’s intentions–past remarks about removing the current Iranian regime still hang in the air–and 40 years of open antagonism between the two countries make face-to-face talks an improbable prospect. Iran had offered lower-level talks to ratify the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Additional Protocol in exchange for sanctions relief, a condition the United States had not set when the United States shot down an Iranian drone in the Gulf.
Secondly, Iran has stepped up aggression in the Gulf by shooting down American drones and capturing, and allegedly attacking, oil tankers. Because the United States is pursuing its maximalist strategy alone, Iran is gambling on American allies to pressure the Trump administration to back off and offer sanctions relief in exchange for de-escalation.
Furthermore, while the captured tankers should create common cause in the Gulf to confront Iran, both France and Germany have rejected a U.S. led maritime patrol. Although the United Kingdom has joined the United States patrol effort, Jeremy Hunt, the British Foreign Minister, recently stated that Britain will not subject itself to the U.S. maximum-pressure policy and will work instead to preserve the JCPOA with other European participants.
Additionally, the Trump administration needs to contend with the reality of Iran’s government. Washington’s demands amount to a wholesale dismantling of Iran’s foreign policy, demands any country would deem unrealistic. Further still, Iran is a democratic government not ruled by a unitary actor like North Korea. President Trump simply cannot make common cause with a single person in Iran but must contend with a multi-level democracy. So not only are the Trump administration’s demands outlandish, it is unclear how anyone expects a democratic government to quickly acquiesce instead of showing its people that it will fight for them.
Finally, perhaps the biggest sign that compellence isn’t working is how close the two countries have already come to war. On June 20th, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps shot down an American drone in the Strait of Hormuz. President Donald Trump had ordered a retaliatory strike on Iranian missile and radar sites but was subsequently talked down by military officials. The situation revealed that a demonstrated show of force could easily escalate into war.
Ideally, the threat of war from the militarily superior United States should have forced Iran to reconsider its current trajectory. As discussed previously, however, Iran has continued to escalate by claiming to have downed another American drone and hijacking British oil tankers.
As things stand, Iran is not interested in talks. It is growing more aggressive. American allies are vocally opposed to the United States’ strategy while still working to support the JCPOA. Perhaps the United States’ best strategy is to quietly drop its demands for a sea change in Iran’s foreign policy. It could then tout its tactical successes in countering Iran’s foreign policy objectives and attempt negotiating incremental changes it would like to see in the JCPOA to be conditional for both sanctions relief and U.S. re-entrance to the JCPOA. This would ideally provide Iran more reasonable cover to de-escalate while signaling a good-faith effort by the United States to mediate on terms more consistent with its allies. Otherwise, the United States could see itself sliding, alone, inexorably toward conflict with Iran.