Washington/Dubai: President Donald Trump’s new, more aggressive strategy toward Iran depends on getting help from US partners—the very allies he spurned in withdrawing from the 2015 nuclear accord with Tehran.
With a speech on Monday, secretary of state Mike Pompeo filled in details of an Iran strategy that has so far consisted of walking away from the 2015 accord that restricted the country’s nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of some economic sanctions. His 12-point list of demands called for Iran to acquiesce to the US virtually across the board.
The new vision is Trump-style diplomacy—a promise to “crush" Iranian operatives and impose the “strongest sanctions in history" unless the Islamic Republic abandons all nuclear development and gives up what the US considers its malign role across the Middle East. Any company doing business with Iran will be held “to account" through sanctions the US plans to implement within months.
The conundrum for Trump and Pompeo: After fracturing alliances and disregarding diplomacy in favour of quick action, the White House won’t be able to put that sanctions regime fully in place, or curtail Iran’s regional role, without participation of the five other nations that forged the deal with Iran. And there’s little sign they want to go along.
No one else
“It’s really tough to have an international sanctions regime that doesn’t include anyone else," said Suzanne DiMaggio, director of the Iran Initiative at the New America Foundation. “It’s shocking how they would move forward with a policy announcement that really has no clothes."
The administration envisions a “maximum-pressure" campaign similar to the one that has strangled North Korea’s economy but in an environment where there is far less unity. Moreover, Pompeo’s speech didn’t mention Russia or China, two partners in the original nuclear accord that could help Iran weather tougher sanctions. Along with the US, others in the deal included France, the UK and Germany.
“The challenge is converting that pressure into policy outcomes, and that takes diplomacy," said Michael Singh, managing director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a former senior director for Middle East affairs under President George W. Bush. “We’ve never tried to erect this sort of sanctions regime amid a really sharp strategic divergence with our closest allies."
Pompeo was defiant in his speech, reciting a litany of Iranian behaviours that have vexed American leaders for decades. He insisted Iran give nuclear inspectors unfettered access to the country and stop funding rebels in Yemen. It must cease any uranium enrichment and withdraw its forces from Syria. Funding of Hezbollah and Hamas must end.
“It’s not a pipe dream to ask the #Iranian leadership to behave like a normal, responsible country," Pompeo wrote on Twitter hours after his speech. “Our asks are simple."
Well before Pompeo spoke, European leaders suggested that the US approach won’t work. The European Union is studying ways to protect its companies from the sanctions and keep intact the 2015 accord, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, without the US. The EU’s foreign affairs chief, Federica Mogherini, said Monday that “there is no alternative" to the agreement.
Even the UK was willing to openly break with the US. Pompeo refused to commit to a timetable for the new American diplomacy, and British foreign secretary Boris Johnson suggested it wouldn’t happen anytime soon.
“If you try to fold all those in to a giant negotiation, a new jumbo Iran negotiation, a new treaty—that’s what seems to be envisaged—I don’t see that being very easy to achieve, in anything like a reasonable timetable," Johnson said before Pompeo spoke. He said the prospect for a new deal “is going to be very, very difficult."
Not surprisingly, Iran rejected Pompeo’s demands as well. President Hassan Rouhani said the secretary of state’s ideas were “in no way acceptable." A member of the Iranian parliament’s national security committee suggested that the best approach would be to wait for US policy to change once Trump leaves office.
“The essence of radicalism passes by fast," Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh told the Iranian Students News Agency. He said Iran should simply “allow for this era of extremism to end."
North Korea model
The speech was a fresh example of the Trump administration’s maximalist, with-us-or-against-us strategy that’s also playing out over North Korea’s nuclear program, and has been encouraged by Pompeo and national security adviser (NSA) John Bolton. In that crisis, the administration says it won’t accept a strategy of synchronized, step-by-step concessions in exchange for North Korea gradually giving into demands to give up its nuclear program. Instead, Trump wants North Korea to give up everything first.
Pompeo drew a direct link to the North Korea negotiation, saying Trump’s willingness to meet with Kim Jong Un showed the administration’s dedication to diplomacy.
“That willingness has been accompanied by a painful pressure campaign that reflects our commitment to resolve this challenge forever," he said.
The differences between the two are significant. The Korea sanctions were possible in part because the continued provocations by Pyongyang—most notably the testing of nuclear bombs—defied years of United Nations Security Council resolutions. And North Korea was already far more isolated from the global economy than Iran is now.
The US was able to prod countries—most importantly China—into cutting off economic activity, contributing to North Korea’s new willingness to consider concessions. Even then, analysts argue that Kim’s gentler tone was the result of internal considerations and not wholly dependent on US action.
For Iran, the administration is banking on being able to reconstitute an airtight sanctions regime that will give it no choice but to relent. There’s less appetite for that among Europeans, and even less among other countries willing to buy Iranian oil, such as China and India.
“Europe wants to find a way to work with us, and if you give them a little bit of opening they’ll take it, but there’s no opening here," said Jarrett Blanc, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former State Department coordinator for Iran nuclear implementation.
From both inside Iran and outside, the lingering feeling was that Pompeo had spelled out a litany of demands so onerous that the only goal could be ousting the current regime, given that it was so unlikely to agree to any of those requirements.
Pompeo fueled those suspicions by appealing to the Iranian people throughout the speech. Afterward, he was asked what the US time line would be for its new strategy. He said Iran’s people must be the ones to decide and “make a choice about their leadership."
“People like Pompeo and Bolton are not interested in any sort of political settlement with the Iranian government," said Foad Izadi, a foreign policy specialist at the University of Tehran. “They’re interested in regime change. That’s why the list that Pompeo talked about is a maximalist list. It’s a list that designed for Iran to reject."