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The need for American prudence: Losing leverage with Iran

President Trump’s policy of “maximum pressure” has resulted in nothing but failure. The administration’s tendency to aggressively apply pressure and seek demands with no tact has made it seem that negotiations for peace in Afghanistan, or an end to the trade war with China, is very unlikely. Trump’s policies towards Venezuela failed to loosen Nicolas Maduro’s hold on the country, and despite vacillating between threats and talks with Kim Jong-un, North Korea continues to develop its weapons and nuclear program. Whether it be Venezuela, North Korea, China, or Iran, very little foreign policy success can be seen in current US administration. This recent “maximum pressure” approach fosters distrust among allies, which not only sacrifices long-term regional stability, but also undermines the potential gains of negotiation. Instead, US foreign policy should center around negotiations and greater caution when applying pressure and bringing controversial countries to the negotiating table.

In less than three years, Trump has gone through three different National Security Advisors and continues to believe that hard sanctions and intimidation through troop deployment will lead to improvements in the Iranian regime. Trump’s recent firing of Bolton, the latest National Security Advisor, signals Trump’s desire for an advisor who is more supportive of his impulsive decisions in the international arena. Trump is not a rational actor. In the past three years, the US has been more isolated from its allies than ever, and the next President will be in a tight spot when it comes to peace deals and negotiations with those who oppose the US and even its own allies. Bolton seemed best suited when it came to delivering on Trump’s desire of an “America First” strategy. However, Trump’s interventions into much of the dialogue and peace negotiations with North Korea and Afghanistan caused bitter disagreement between Trump and Bolton. There was not much coordination and cooperation, either, in the overarching scope of the US Federal Government and entities dedicated to defense and national security: Trump not only cut the frequency of meetings between agencies and streamlined many positions in the National Security Council staff, but he also eliminated positions in the cybersecurity and global pandemics sections. While DC was struggling to generate a cohesive and comprehensive strategy for foreign policy, Iranian officials closely followed events which unfolded between North Korea and the US as a way to gage and develop their own strategy.

Iran will not easily succumb to pressure, as it is a nation of pride, nationalism, and a history of American and foreign intervention. Iran avoided negotiations for a long time, citing its disapproval of the changing attitude of US foreign policy and US administration’s lack of consistency in keeping promises. One major breach of trust was US’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which not only weakened the JCPOA deal, but also placed great pressure on the allies of the US to convince the Iranian government to follow the uranium-enrichment restrictions. The US has not forced Iran to capitulate, but instead caused Iran to counter-escalate by seizing cargo ships, shooting down an American drone, and encouraging the Supreme Leader to demand the development of sophisticated weapons. Iran thrives off thwarting US efforts with proxy conflict and indirect engagement. Tehran has consulted with Moscow and Pyongyang, and confirmed that the US under Trump lacks the ability to push forth with their agenda of protecting allies and remaining uninvolved, due to Trump’s belief of “America First.”

This distrust, which resulted in an unwillingness to engage in normal diplomatic processes with the US, has endangered stability in the Middle East. While Iran suffered tremendously due to the sanctions, their response to American decisions has not changed. What both Iran and the US have in common is the political capital and leverage they can utilize by engaging with each other: Essentially the US must “use leverage or lose it.” Currently, the US is losing its leverage, as it is not coupling its sanctions with a formal process of negotiation to properly present its demands. The same goes for Iran’s approach to countering the US. The limited leverage that the Obama administration did have over Iran increased during the secret negotiations of Oman in 2012-2013 due to the active engagement of both parties. The Trump administration must learn from the Obama administration and restrain from disregarding negotiations as its beneficial for the US since direct confrontation is too much of a high cost to bear.

Too much remains at stake for the US and their foreign policy goals, as Washington moved out non-essential personnel in its embassy of Iraq. This followed information from intelligence reports which revealed that Iran is more willing to attack US targets with its proxies abroad. Iran continues to support Hezbollah despite sanctions. Iran was also heavily linked with the attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil refinery which caused oil prices to skyrocket. Ironically though, in regards to its nuclear capabilities, Iran was following JCPOA guidelines, and the US had the best chance of stopping its nuclear program through the JCPOA uranium-enrichment restrictions. Experts agree that US airstrikes can only slow-down the nuclear program of Iran for anywhere from 18 months to 3 years. Iran could always develop such a program underground, however. A crucial example is Fordow, which is one of Iran’s most important nuclear facilities that is located underground. With the announcement of Rouhani of restrictions being lifted, experts agree that they will be able to enrich uranium at 10 to 20 times the speed as compared to the speed with the clause of the nuclear agreement. The inherent issue is that any military option will not resolve the fact that Iran has the knowledge to develop such a program. The US’s removal from the JCPOA gave Iran more pretext to undermine the restrictions, develop its intermediate-range missiles, and promote its proxies to weaken the US and as well as its influence in the region. The US does not have popular options towards confronting Iran over these attacks; troop involvement is risky and contradicts Trump’s isolationist desires. Engineering the fall of the regime is also complicated, as it can lead to a power-vacuum and regional instability. The American government should not commit to such demanding involvement, but it was reported that. Trump did consider an opportunity to negotiate in the UN General Assembly. However, with European and American delegates escalating the tension by condemning Iran for its recent actions, it seems very likely that the US loses its leverage and shows that it does not know how to act in light of a currently audacious authoritarian government.

Following Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s sanctioning by the current US administration, Senator Rand Paul tweeted: “If you sanction diplomats, you’ll have less diplomacy.” This point is one that the current administration surprisingly does not take into account, as it finds it easier to promote strongman politics and the idea that the US can simply acquire whatever it desires in its foreign-policy agenda through enough political pressure and economic sanctions. Such pretext that is given to Iran as a gift makes it harder for European countries, and even Russia, to prohibit Iran from developing a nuclear program. Disdain against Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, is counter-productive and will stop peace from emerging in the region. By alienating allies and applying heavy economic sanctions, the progress of previous diplomats of the JCPOA is being undone by an administration which lacks a cohesive or justified stance in its foreign policy. While the US has contempt towards the Iranian government and its actions, in the long-term, negotiations are a crucial component that must be considered. The US has dealt with opposing nations in the past, yet, it remains an art and skill to navigate such tough political tension waters and resolve such issues through peaceful matters. Hopefully, with current escalating tension, the current and future administration can once again return to a state of utilizing diplomacy to yield peaceful and positive outcomes for the international community.

Photo: Image via Photo (Flickr)

About the Author

Leonardo Moraveg '22 is a Staff Writer for the World Section of the Brown Political Review. Leonardo can be reached at