Trump’s Magical Thinking on Iran Sanctions Won’t Advance U.S. Interests

When U.S. President Donald Trump announced in May his plans to withdraw from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and re-impose economic sanctions, one of the many reasons he gave was to compel better Iranian behavior across the Middle East. Iran, senior administration officials often said, was “behind every problem” in the region, and cutting off its oil exports would choke off the resources it was using to foment instability in neighboring countries. Earlier this month, the sanctions went into force.

In Trump’s vision, sanctions are a quasi-magical, multi-purpose tool: They would force Iran back to the table to accept an improved nuclear deal, include restrictions on Tehran’s ballistic missiles program, and give inspectors unlimited access. They would compel Iran to end its support for regional groups hostile to the United States. And they might even lead the Iranian people, facing a collapsing economy, to rise up and sweep aside the Islamic regime.

That’s an impressive wish-list. It’s also utterly implausible. If the tough new U.S. sanctions did in fact lead Iran to embrace less aggressive behavior in the region, that would be a most welcome development.  But the problem is that, far from incentivizing better Iranian behavior, let alone producing a new Iranian regime, the administration’s approach is likely to make that behavior worse. The availability of resources for foreign proxies has never been the main constraint on Iran’s regional interference—which comes fairly cheap—and nothing in the Islamic Republic’s long history suggests that it will simply cave to U.S. demands, even under heavy economic pressure. By imposing comprehensive sanctions that will only be lifted if Iran does everything the United States wants, the administration is likely ensuring that Iran will do nothing it wants.

This dynamic is likely to be most clear, and most tragic, in Yemen. A small but real chance exists today to wind down a conflict that has gone on for far too long. The murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October, along with sharply deteriorating humanitarian conditions and heightened media attention, has increased pressure on the Saudi leadership to change its approach. Last month, Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo took unusually tough stands, calling on all sides to implement a ceasefire and come to the negotiating table—a stance now backed by a credible Congressional threat to cut off arms sales to Saudi Arabia if Riyadh does not cooperate. The administration has also announced that it will cease providing in-air refueling to Saudi planes for Yemen bombing operations.  These new measures mark a change in the Trump administration’s posture toward the Saudis, for whom U.S. support had previously been virtually unconditional.

There is good reason to doubt whether the Saudis and their Emirati partners are ready to halt the war, given all they have invested and their genuine concerns about Iranian and Houthi threats and intentions. Still, pressure to repair the kingdom’s reputation along with a growing realization that military victory is not on the horizon offers some hope for change. The Saudis and Emiratis don’t exactly welcome the pressure for new talks, but it could prove to be an opportunity for them to get out of a costly and disastrous conflict.