Where is 'maximum pressure' on Iran heading?

Where is 'maximum pressure' on Iran heading?
Comment: The Trump administration is simply running out of non-military options for intensifying 'maximum pressure' on Iran, writes Giorgio Cafiero.
6 min read
27 Jun, 2019
'Trump finds himself pushed into a box' writes Cafiero [Getty]
On 24 June, President Donald Trump signed an Executive Order to impose sanctions on the Islamic Republic's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the Office of the Supreme Leader of Iran.

He did so while Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was 
meeting with Emirati and Saudi officials in the Gulf to discuss building a global coalition against Iran.

These sanctions will deny the Supreme Leader the means to access certain financial resources or assets under US jurisdiction. Yet such measures against the Supreme Leader, which are mainly symbolic and probably redundant, will have little economic impact given that Khamenei does not travel outside of his country, let alone to the United States.

Yet from Iran's perspective, this political move, which marks the latest escalation in Trump's campaign of "maximum pressure" is aggressive, hostile and petty.

In response, Tehran's senior officials 
said the move on the US' part closed the door to diplomacy between the US and Iran. President Hassan Rouhani called the sanctions against Khamenei "outrageous and idiotic", "hilarious" and a "stupid and ugly act" while maintaining that the White House suffers from "mental disability".

The announced sanctions directly targeting Khamenei followed weeks of escalating tension between Washington and Tehran.

Hawks in the Trump administration point to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)'s 
downing of an American drone that officials in Tehran claim entered Iranian airspace, the attacks on six tankers in the Sea of Oman since May 12, which the Trump administration accuses Tehran of carrying out, and Houthi missile and drone strikes against strategic targets in Saudi Arabia.

The sanctions targeting Khamenei need to be understood within the context of Trump's crisis of credibility

Such Iranian conduct justifies the White House's sabre-rattling in the eyes of figures such as Secretary of State Pompeo, National Security Advisor John Bolton, and CIA Director Gina Haspel who see this "maximum pressure" on Tehran as a realistic way to bring Iran's leaders to the roundtable for talks on a new nuclear accord that places far greater restrictions on the Islamic Republic. 

Perhaps the sanctions targeting Khamenei need to be understood within the context of Trump's crisis of credibility combined with the fact that he's running out of tools for going after Iran in non-military ways.

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His claims to have called off airstrikes against Iran in response to the recent drone downing angered some in the US who are pushing for a direct US confrontation with Iran, as well as certain voices in some Arab Gulf states and Israel.

These regional allies would welcome the US military pounding certain targets in Iran to demonstrate that Washington is not afraid to take such actions with Trump at the helm.

There is palpable disappointment among some of these allies with Trump's decision to retreat, as the Emirati political scientist Abdulkhaleq Abdulla 
tweeted on 22 June.

Trump finds himself pushed into a box as he wants to maintain his "maximum pressure" against Tehran while also preventing the US from sliding into another war in the Middle East that could hurt his chances at securing a second term.

The White House is undeniably handing Iranian hardliners many advantages

Yet a legitimate concern is that those who surround Trump in his inner circle may convince him that he can only maintain credibility vis-à-vis Iran if he orders direct US military action against that country.

Trump seems to have found a middle ground in terms of responding to the drone downing on 19 June. Two days before announcing sanctions on Khamenei, the American president approved a cyber strike targeting Iran's computer systems that control its rocket and missile launches.

The American president also asserted that the "restraint" which Trump claimed to have exercised after the drone downing incident would not be limitless.

But the White House must realise that its moves against Tehran undermine Washington's capacity to engage the Iranian government both now and at future stages.

Officials in Tehran reject the Trump administration's disingenuous offer to engage in talks because no credible offer for sanctions relief is in play.

As Iran's ambassador to the UN 
said in response to Trump's announcement of sanctions targeting the Supreme Leader, "You cannot start a dialogue with someone who is threatening you [and] intimidating you."

Because of the Trump administration's moves against Iran, there is a growing perception that the White House is not seeking a new and "improved" nuclear accord, but is instead determined to destabilise Iran and collapse its economy.

Without question, if US officials further escalate tensions with the Islamic Republic by sanctioning Iran's chief diplomat, Mohammad Javad Zarif, some will conclude that Trump may even been be looking for regime change, despite recently 
stating otherwise.

In the process of maintaining an all-sticks-no-carrots approach toward Iran, the White House is undeniably handing Iranian hardliners many advantages with the Islamic Republic's presidential elections in 2021 around the corner.

With such figures wanting to reverse Rouhani's outreach to the West and capitalise on the drone downing episode to demonstrate their means of fortressing Iran from external threats, the IRGC will be well-positioned to take advantage of Trump's blunders in order to undermine Rouhani and his "moderate" allies in the regime.

Read more: The road to Trump's face-off with Iran

The US administration must re-evaluate its campaign of "maximum pressure" against Tehran despite hawkish figures in the Trump administration and leaders of certain US allies in the Middle East urging the president to continue full steam ahead with the existing policies.

Over a year after Trump pulled the US out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), there are no signs of Iran losing influence in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, or Yemen, nor is Tehran changing any of its external or internal policies to the liking of Washington.

At this point, it's not clear what additional sanctions the Trump administration can use to further pressure the Islamic Republic into submitting to the White House's will, because the US has already crippled most of Iran's economy with sanctions targeting oil, banks, and steel, as well as secondary sanctions against Iran's central bank which hurt humanitarian trade too. 

The Trump administration is simply running out of non-military options for intensifying "maximum pressure" as this campaign against Iran is not achieving the results desired by the White House.

A fair concern is that as the US administration and Tehran continue with their tit-for-tit escalatory measures, the whole situation could quickly spiral out of control.

To prevent such an outcome, which would be disastrous for everyone, the US leadership must reconsider its approach to Tehran and abandon measures that could prove capable of preventing diplomacy between the US and Iran in the future, both in the Trump era and beyond.

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy.

Follow him on Twitter: @GiorgioCafiero

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.