With the flourish of his pen on Monday, President Trump imposed sweeping sanctions on Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as well as everyone in Khamenei’s office or appointed by him. It was a point of high drama in the escalating brinksmanship between the United States and the Islamic Republic. It was the closest that Trump has come to formally calling for a regime change. “The Supreme Leader of Iran is one who ultimately is responsible for the hostile conduct of the regime,” the President told reporters. “These measures represent a strong and proportionate response to Iran’s increasingly provocative actions.” Usually, the United States will sanction a head of state—such as Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, and Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro—as a signal that the leader is no longer deemed legitimate. In other words, Washington believes that a leader has to go.
Trump was opaque, even puzzling, about his intentions, however. “America is a peace-loving nation,” he said. “We do not seek conflict with Iran or any other country. I look forward to the day when sanctions can be finally lifted and Iran can become a peaceful, prosperous, and productive nation. That can go very quickly; it can be tomorrow. It can also be in years from now. So, I look forward to discussing whatever I have to discuss with anybody that wants to speak. In the meantime, who knows what’s going to happen.”
The new executive order also targeted the Revolutionary Guard commanders involved in shooting down a sophisticated U.S. drone last week. The Trump Administration intends later this week to impose sanctions on the U.S.-educated Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, who was the chief interlocutor during the two years of negotiations that led to the Iran nuclear deal, in 2015. Zarif once quipped that he and the former Secretary of State John Kerry spent more time with each other during that period than they spent with their wives. As Iran’s top diplomat, Zarif regularly travels to New York to attend U.N. sessions. He was here in April and had been expected to return next month.
At a White House press conference, the Treasury Secretary, Steven Mnuchin, vowed that the new sanctions will “lock up literally billions of dollars more of assets.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who was visiting Saudi Arabia on Monday, charged that Khamenei’s office “has enriched itself at the expense of the Iranian people. It sits atop a vast network of tyranny and corruption.” The new sanctions, Pompeo said, will deprive the Iranian leadership of the resources it uses to “spread terror and oppress the Iranian people.”
Ironically, the punitive new measure may not have major economic impact—at least not to the degree that the Administration advertised. “It’s a lot of hype, but it doesn’t mean much economically. It’s unlikely to have a damaging effect” on Iran beyond the sanctions that have already been imposed, Elizabeth Rosenberg, a former Treasury sanctions specialist who is now at the Center for a New American Security, told me. “It’s in the realm of the symbolic.” The sanctions are “a sideshow to a threat of military escalation and all-out conflict,” she said. They fuel a narrative focussed on Iran rather than the United States—and the fact that Trump blinked when he called off a retaliatory military strike last Thursday.
Former Treasury officials also claim that Trump did not need to sign a new executive order—beyond the hype and media attention it produced. The authority to sanction either entities or officials affiliated with the Iranian government has existed since 2012, when the Obama Administration issued an executive order, Kate Bauer, a former Treasury official who is now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said. “It’s clear that this Administration wants to send a message,” Bauer said. “This is a response to the recent escalation and the shooting down of the drone.”
The main impact of the new sanctions may be political—diminishing rather than encouraging diplomacy or deëscalation. Pompeo said that Tehran “knows how to reach us,” if it decides to “meet our diplomacy with diplomacy.” But Tehran immediately rejected talks. At the United Nations, the Iranian Ambassador Majid Takht-Ravanchi told reporters that Tehran would not succumb to pressure. “Nobody in a clear mind can accept to have a dialogue with somebody that is threatening you with more sanctions. So, as long as this threat is there, there is no way that Iran and the U.S. can start a dialogue,” he told reporters, before a closed-door session on tensions in the energy-rich Gulf. In a tweet, Zarif said that Trump’s advisers and allies “despise diplomacy and thirst for war.” Other Iranian officials condemned the new sanctions as “economic terrorism.”
Trump’s decision, a year ago, to unilaterally reimpose other sanctions—splitting with the five major powers who also brokered the nuclear deal—has battered Iran’s economy. In April, Washington vowed to sanction five nations that remain major importers of Iranian oil if they didn’t cease all purchases; the move cut off Tehran’s main source of revenue. Iran’s oil sales today are about a sixth of what they were in 2016. Inflation has exceeded fifty per cent in some months, with the price of basic necessities skyrocketing. The I.M.F. projects a six-per-cent economic contraction for Iran in 2019. Yet the Iranian economy is still far from crippled. The Islamic Republic has not witnessed the kind of economic protests that erupted nationwide in late 2017 and early 2018, Western diplomats in Tehran have told me
Sanctioning Iran’s supreme leader and his entourage could even backfire, some experts suggest. The Trump Administration’s goal is to get Tehran to make concessions on its missile development, regional interventions, and human-rights record, as well as its nuclear program. But “these sanctions will make discussions toward a new treaty very, very difficult,” Adnan Mazarei, a former deputy director of the I.M.F.’s Middle East program who is now at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, told me. “They send a bad political signal. The recent events—especially shooting down a U.S. drone—make Iran feel more comfortable and self-confident from a domestic perspective. It could say, ‘We won the last round and maybe we can talk now.’ ” No longer, Mazarei said. Tehran has boasted that it shot down the Global Hawk drone, one of the most sophisticated surveillance aircraft in the U.S. arsenal, with a homemade rocket. On Monday, the chief of Iran’s navy, Rear Admiral Hossein Khanzadi, warned that his forces could shoot down more U.S. aircraft flying in the Gulf, “and the enemy knows it.”
Over all, sanctions are an imperfect tool, former Treasury specialists told me. They can work—but they may take years, even decades. North Korea has been sanctioned to the hilt, but Trump’s negotiations with Kim Jong Un have yet to reduce his nuclear program, which is far more sophisticated than Iran’s. Iran is still more than a year from the ability to produce a bomb, whereas Pyongyang is estimated to have between twenty and sixty bombs. Sanctions to get Rhodesia’s white minority government to the negotiating table to end the country’s civil war took almost fifteen years. Sanctions are also most effective when the world unites behind punitive economic measures, as the U.N. did in invoking sanctions on Iran four times between 2006 and 2010. Today, the deepest split in U.S. relations with its transatlantic allies is over Iran policy.
As prospects of diplomacy dimmed on Monday, Trump signaled his willingness to deploy military force. “I think a lot of restraint has been shown by us,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office. “A lot of restraint. And that doesn’t mean we’re going to show it in the future.”
Sure, there’s plenty of confusion, diplomatic malpractice and dysfunction in Trumpian foreign policy. But on two critical issues it is deadly functional: The administration is focused like a laser beam on
- irreversibly burning U.S. bridges to Iran and
- administering last rites to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
And if you look at the administration’s actual policies, it’s clear they aren’t just meant to overturn President Barack Obama’s actions, but also to create points of no return—so that successor administrations cannot revert to past approaches even if they want to. If the administration succeeds—and it’s well on its way to doing so—it will have fundamentally damaged U.S. national interests for years to come.
The administration has now done a complete about-face. Whatever Trump’s personal inclinations to prove he’s the world’s greatest negotiator on Iran, his hard-line advisers, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton, want to get rid of the mullahs who rule the Islamic Republic, not engage them. Pompeo and Bolton are now pulling out all the stops not only to provoke Iran into withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action—and maybe into a fight as well—but to block a successor from engineering either a broader geopolitical pivot toward Iran or to engage in diplomacy to resolve outstanding U.S-Iranian differences. The administration’s Monday announcement that it will end all waivers of sanctions on countries still importing Iranian oil fits this pattern of relying on coercion and intimidation rather than diplomacy. As for Israel, whatever the president’s personal views on Israeli-Palestinian peace (and during the campaign they were more balanced than they are today), Jared Kushner and his team now seem hellbent on producing a “made in Israel” peace plan that will be dead before arrival and drive the final nail in the coffin of a peace process that is already on life support.
Last year, Pompeo laid out 12 extreme demands that Tehran would have to meet before the Trump administration would agree to re-engage with Iran. The demands would have required Iran to give up all its rights under the JCPOA and to stop pursuing what Tehran sees as its legitimate interests in the region—for example, helping to stabilize Iraq and supporting the government of Adil Abdul-Mahdi to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq. This diktat was swiftly and angrily rejected by the Iranian government.
No amount of economic or diplomatic pressure the U.S. brings to bear on Tehran will force it to knuckle under to these orders. But the administration’s fantastical demands have established a standard that will be used to judge any future nuclear agreement a Democratic, or different kind of Republican, administration might negotiate with Iran, which will almost certainly require both U.S. and Iranian compromises. That means a president who fails to meet these standards will be accused of appeasement, making compromise as well as domestic support for a new agreement far more difficult. The administration is not just killing the Iran nuclear deal; it’s stopping it from coming back to life.
The administration’s decision to designate Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a Foreign Terrorist Organization is also willfully and unnecessarily confrontational, and once done, given the hardcore, militant and enduring nature of the IRGC, it will be nearly impossible to undo. A successor administration, if it did try to undo the designation, would find itself vulnerable to the charges of enabling state-sponsored terrorism. The move will strengthen hard-liners in Iran who oppose accommodation with the U.S. and weaken those elements within the country which favor improved relations with America, who will now have no choice other than to remain silent or close ranks behind the IRGC, further diminishing opportunities for future engagement and diplomacy with Iran. Empowered hard-liners will crack down even more harshly on Iranians who want less political oppression, greater respect for human rights, and more political and civil liberties. All these results were no doubt intended by Pompeo and Bolton, and work together with the economic warfare the administration is waging against Iran, which is aimed at provoking internal unrest inside the country that could ultimately lead to a toppling of clerical rule. The imposition of the total embargo on Iranian oil exports, if successful, will inflict even more economic misery on the Iranian people, hardening the perception that the U.S. government is an enemy not only of the ruling regime but also of the Iranian people—an attitude that will make it harder to ratchet down hostility toward America in the future.
In what would deliver the final coup de grace to any normalization of future U.S.-Iranian relations, Pompeo and Bolton are doing everything they can to goad Iran into a military conflict with the U.S.There is a growing risk that U.S. forces and Iranian IRGC units and Iranian-backed militias could stumble their away into an unintended conflict, especially in Iraq or Syria but also in Yemen, where the administration’s unstinting support for the Saudi Arabia’s inhumane and ineffectual military campaign against the Iranian-backed Houthis risks further provoking Houthi missile attacks on the Kingdom, creating a pretext for the Trump administration to come to the Kingdom’s defense.
There are a number of steps the U.S. could take to mitigate the risks of an unintended conflict with Iran. But the administration has failed to create diplomatic or operational arrangements for communications and crisis management with Iran, suggesting that its goal is not to prevent such a conflict but to deliberately provoke one. And predictably, the IRGC designation has met with a hostile Iranian response: The Iranian Majlis (parliament) has declared every American soldier in the Middle East a terrorist. Thousands of U.S. military personnel are now wearing targets on their backs. Because they operate in close proximity to IRCG units and Iranian-backed militias in Syria and Iraq, the odds have increased dramatically that there will be some kind of confrontation with a high risk of escalation. In other words, U.S. actions have helped set the stage for a U.S.-Iranian conflict that could rule out reconciliation for many more years.
A less confrontational relationship with Iran isn’t this administration’s only casualty. It is also doing all it can to kill and bury the long-standing policy of seeking a two-state solution to achieve a conflict-ending settlement between Israel and the Palestinians.
Over the past year, the administration has waged a relentless campaign of economic and political pressure against the Palestinians—
- closing the PLO office in Washington,
- withdrawing U.S. assistance from the U.N. agency that supports Palestinian refugees and
- cutting aid to the Palestinian Authority.
While the details of the Kushner plan have been shrouded in secrecy for over a year, the way his team has operated and leaks to the media suggest a plan that gives priority to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s politics and needs—one that is reportedly heavy on economic issues and light on the core issues of
- refugees and
- Palestinian statehood.
Even if the words “two-state solution” were uttered, the administration’s view of the Palestinian state is clearly a far cry from the size and contiguity that any Palestinian leader could accept as part of a deal. In this way, the Trump administration’s policies don’t just roll back the very idea of a meaningful two-state solution and push the Palestinians further away from engaging seriously in negotiations leading to a settlement. They also, in aligning so closely with Netanyahu’s vision, make a deal much less likely in future.
For example, the administration’s gratuitous decision—untethered from any U.S. national interest—to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and open an embassy there
- inflicted serious damage on U.S. credibility as a mediator,
- marginalized the Palestinian Authority as a key U.S. interlocutor, and
- subordinated U.S. policy toward the Palestinians to U.S. policy toward Israel.
The administration’s treatment of Jerusalem has drawn a clear hierarchy: Israel’s needs are indisputable and sacred, Palestinian needs are negotiable and worldly. The prospects for a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem are now more remote than ever: With continuing Israeli efforts to formalize their control over all of Jerusalem and the presence of more than 300,000 Israelis living there, it’s hard to imagine there will be either political or territorial space for the establishment of a real Palestinian capital.
Once annexed, there will be no possibility of any solution that involves separating Israelis and Palestinians, thereby condemning them both to live in a one-state reality that is a prescription for unending conflict and violence. In the cruelest of ironies, the administration’s plan to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could extinguish any hope of a diplomatic solution to separate Israelis and Palestinians, and instead guarantee perpetual conflict.
So if the chances of the plan’s success are slim to none, especially in light of the recent Israeli election and the emergence of a very right-wing government, why launch it? The answer is obvious: We believe the administration has defined success in other ways. With zero chance of getting an agreement between Israelis and Palestinians, the administration’s real end game is to fundamentally alter U.S. policy toward the conflict and to do everything possible to raise the odds that no successor can reverse the new ground rules. And there may be no time better than now. Listen to U.S. Ambassador David Friedman—a key influencer of the administration’s policy—at last month’s AIPAC conference: “Can we leave this to an administration that may not understand the need for Israel to maintain overriding security control of Judea and Samaria and a permanent defense position in the Jordan Valley?” he asked. “Can we run the risk that one day the government of Israel will lament, ‘Why didn’t we make more progress when U.S. foreign policy was in the hands of President Trump, Vice President Pence, Secretary Pompeo, Ambassador Bolton, Jared Kushner, Jason Greenblatt, and even David Friedman?’ How can we do that?”
The goal isn’t just to drive a stake through the peace process but to ensure that America’s traditional conception of a two-state solution won’t rise from the dead.
Why couldn’t a new administration truly committed to engaging Iran and pushing forward on a two-state solution simply return to traditional policies? We cannot rule this out; but this possibility faces very long odds, particularly if the Trump administration is in charge until 2024.
Even under normal circumstances with a committed and highly skilled administration, Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are excruciatingly difficult issues even to manage, let alone resolve. Success depends on leaders America can’t control who have conflicting interests and their own domestic constraints and, in the case of Iran, on bitterly suspicious adversaries; the issues are politically radioactive for all parties and perceived to be existential, too. And the longer these conflicts persist the more entrenched attitudes become and options for progress contract. Indeed, time is an enemy not an ally; and even under the best of circumstances, any number of deal breakers are always present. In its own inimitable way, the administration is well on its way to hanging “closed for the season” signs on both improving relations with Iran and on a two-state solution and, sadly, irreversibly damaging American credibility and national interests in the process.