Assessment of US policy toward Iran

The catch

  • The administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign has hurt the Iranian economy.
  • The campaign also had significant consequences for the United States.
  • Defense officials and reports indicate that the maximum pressure campaign has not weakened Iran strategically or caused a reduction in Iran’s regional influence.

The effectiveness of any US policy must be measured against the primary objective it seeks to achieve.

A policy may change some conditions in a target country, but not others. Terms that are modified by US policy may or may not be material to US interests. The key question is whether the policy affects the fundamental variables that the United States seeks to affect, and in the way that the United States seeks.

Regarding Iran policy, in May 2018 the Trump administration withdrew the United States from the multilateral nuclear agreement with Iran (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA) and made specific demands for that Iran change its behavior in exchange for a new JCPOA. and normalized relations with the United States. The requirements for Iran’s regional activities, as stated in a May 21, 2018 speech by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to the Heritage Foundation, are that Iran:

  • Ends support for terrorist groups in the Middle East, including Lebanese Hezbollah, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
  • Enables the disarmament and demobilization of Shiite militias in Iraq.
  • Ends military support for the Houthi movement in Yemen.
  • Withdraw all forces under Iranian command throughout Syria.
  • Ends support for Taliban factions and stops harboring senior Al-Qaeda leaders.
  • End threats to destroy Israel, attack Gulf States and international shipping.

To pressure Iran to accede to US demands, the administration reimposed all secondary sanctions that had been eased in accordance with the JCPOA. And, since April 2019, the administration has gone beyond pre-JCPOA sanctions to impose measures that would reduce Iran’s oil export revenue “to zero.” US secondary sanctions now apply to virtually all civilian sectors of Iran’s economy. Punishments :

  • Exclude from the US financial system foreign banks that transact with several hundred sanctioned Iranian entities or individuals, and additional entities are designated for sanctions virtually every week.
  • Penalize companies that invest in the Iranian energy sector or sell Iranian goods to develop this sector.
  • Penalize banks in any country that fail to reduce their oil purchases from Iran and sanction companies that ship Iranian oil. As of May 2, 2019, the administration ended an exception to U.S. sanctions for any country that cuts its purchases, essentially forcing all of Iran’s oil customers to stop buying Iranian oil.
  • Penalize transactions with Iran on precious metals, certain minerals, Iranian currency, automotive production equipment, shipping, shipbuilding, marine insurance, Iranian port operations, and industrial software.
  • On September 20, 2019, the Treasury Department designated the Central Bank of Iran as an entity supporting terrorism under Executive Order 13224. The new sanctions go beyond existing provisions that prohibit all U.S. transactions with the Central Bank of Iran or penalize foreign banks that deal with it. This new designation does not include a humanitarian exemption.

The administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign has hurt the Iranian economy. In October 2019, the International Monetary Fund revised down its estimate of Iran’s GDP for the March 2019-March 2020 period to a contraction of around 9.5%. In October 2019, Brian Hook, Iran’s top State Department official, said the administration’s own estimates indicated that Iran’s economy could contract by up to 14% over the same period.

The end of sanctions exemptions on oil purchases has driven Iran’s vital oil exports to levels not seen since the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. In the absence of oil-related sanctions, Iran’s crude oil exports are around 2.5 million barrels per day. But, for the whole month of October 2019, Iran exported around 250,000 barrels per day. The administration said sanctions pressure forced Iran to cut financial support to regional allies and proxies, and contributed to the outbreak of domestic violence in November in response to the government’s decision to cut fuel subsidies.

The campaign also had significant consequences for the United States. In May, Iran began exerting countervailing pressure on the United States and its allies by attacking Gulf oil shipping and oil infrastructure in the Gulf State. Most notable was the September 14, 2019 Iranian cruise missile strike on two Saudi oil processing facilities that destroyed half of all Saudi production for more than three weeks. In an attempt to deter such attacks, the United States deployed an additional 14,000 American forces to various installations in the Persian Gulf states, adding to the 60,000 American forces that were already in theater, as well as sending batteries additional missile defenses and US combat aircraft. . The United States has also set up a multilateral maritime security operation, the International Maritime Security Construct.

Defense officials and reports indicate that the maximum pressure campaign has not weakened Iran strategically or caused a reduction in Iran’s regional influence. On November 23, ahead of the “Manama Dialogue” security conference in Bahrain, the commander of US Central Command, General Kenneth McKenzie, publicly assessed that US buildup would deter Iranian attacks on US targets. , but that “…it is very possible [that Iran] will attack [Gulf
state targets] again.”

Overall, Tehran is able, despite the maximum pressure campaign, to deter an assault on Iran by threatening to inflict substantial damage…

General McKenzie’s comments reinforced the findings of the 2019 version of the Defense Intelligence Agency’s report on Iran’s military might, released in mid-November. The report says Iran has been able to develop cruise and ballistic missiles, mines, drones and other weapons, and supply these and other weapons to its regional and proxy allies. Overall, Tehran is able, despite the maximum pressure campaign, to deter an assault on Iran by threatening to inflict substantial damage on the attacker or the attacker’s regional allies and interests. Some Iranian allies and proxies, including those from Lebanon and Iraq, are being challenged by protest movements. But the link between these protests and US sanctions against Iran or its policy towards Iran is unclear.

Iran appeared in early fall willing to start talks with the United States on a new JCPOA, amid suggestions from some European leaders that Iran might agree to expand the limits of its nuclear program and also to accept restrictions on its longer-range missile programs. . Such an outcome would represent a clear product of US sanctions pressure. However, there is no indication that Iran is prepared to accept, in any negotiation, the fundamental objectives of the United States’ strategy of maximum pressure – the reduction of Iran’s regional power projection capabilities and support for one of its regional allies.

Dr. Kenneth Katzman is an expert on Iran at the Congressional Research Service. This article is written in a personal capacity and does not reflect the views of the Congressional Research Service or the Library of Congress.

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Image: Secretary Michael R. Pompeo speaks to the media and answers questions following the UN Security Council meeting on Iran. at the United Nations in New York on December 12, 2018. Ron Przysucha/US Department of State

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