Trump’s ‘maximum pressure’ strategy on Iran did not fail

Despite Bolton’s departure and Tehran’s recent aggressions, Trump’s bold Iran strategy still has a chance to succeed.

trump JCPOA announcement reuters
President Trump announces his intention to withdraw from the Iran nuclear agreement during a statement in the Diplomatic Room at the White House in Washington, US, May 8, 2018 [Jonathan Ernst/Reuters]

On September 10, US President Donald Trump shocked the world by sacking his national security adviser John Bolton with a tweet. Bolton was the key architect of Trump’s “maximum pressure” strategy against Iran. He was seen by both the US and Iran as a hawkish player and was repeatedly accused of jeopardising Washington’s chances of reaching a new deal with Iran and raising the prospects of war between the two countries. 

Bolton’s exit offers a window of opportunity for the Iranian regime to de-escalate the situation and communicate directly with Trump. However, at least for now, Tehran appears more interested in posturing than engaging with the president.

The US administration, for example, repeatedly expressed Trump’s readiness to meet Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the upcoming United Nations General Assembly, with “no preconditions“. Even after blaming Tehran for Saturday’s drone attacks on Saudi oil facilities, Washington refused to rule out the possibility of such a meeting.

Tehran, however, outright refused that a meeting between Trump and Rouhani could ever take place. The Iranian foreign ministry on Monday said “Neither is such an event on our agenda, nor will it happen. Such a meeting will not take place.” 

Tehran’s continued insistence on refusing any dialogue with the US indicates that it views Bolton’s ousting as a victory and believes by staying firm it could convince the White House to soften its stance on Iran.

Hesameddin Ashena, an adviser to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, recently expressed this point of view openly when he tweeted, “The marginalization and subsequent elimination of Bolton is not an accident but a decisive sign of the failure of the US’s ‘maximum pressure’ strategy”.

“Do not doubt we can manage the behaviour of the United States of America toward Iran,” he added. ” Iran will never back down.” 

But is he right?

Is Trump’s strategy working?

When it withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal in May 2018, the Trump administration adopted a new and more aggressive “maximum pressure” strategy against Iran. This multi-faceted strategy, which consists of complementary diplomatic, economic and military pressure methods, aims to push the Iranian regime to the negotiating table and force it to make compromises on crucial issues such as its nuclear ambitions and missile program. With this strategy Washington wants to deter Tehran’s future operations against the US and deprive it of the financial resources necessary for executing its malign activities and sustaining its influence in the Middle East. 

Opponents of this “maximum pressure” campaign believe that it is not working. They say that it not only failed to end the aggressions of the Iranian regime in any significant way but also exacerbated tensions in the Middle East. The critics say the strategy did not put a stop to Iran’s uranium enrichment efforts or compel its regime to end its involvement in regional conflicts such as Yemen and Syria. Instead, they argue, Trump’s strategy has emboldened Iran and made it more aggressive and willing to use its proxies to defend its influence in the region. As a result, they claim, the strategy made a US-Iran war more likely than ever before. 

Nevertheless, the US administration says that its strategy is working, and some analysts seem to agree. They say that sanctions Trump imposed on Iran and its oil have deprived the regime of a substantial amount of money that would have normally been used to fortify the country’s influence in the region and attack US interests. Thanks to the “maximum pressure” strategy, they argue, Tehran no longer has the luxury of time. They say the Iranian regime is lashing out only because the strategy is working. They say, ultimately, Tehran will have no option but to negotiate. 

Trump’s strategy needs more time and support

It is indeed too early for Trump’s detractors to call the time of death for the “maximum pressure” strategy, as any such strategy would need more time to succeed. To expect such a strategy to yield instantly and push Iran to stop funding its proxies, end its regional operations, give up on its ambitions to become a nuclear power and transform itself into a “normal” state in just over a year is naive at best.

Trump’s Iran strategy is in no way perfect, but despite the noise made by its many critics, it still has a chance to succeed. If the US can apply more pressure on Iran, it can indeed force the regime to the negotiating table and ensure that the US has the upper hand when the negotiations finally begin. This, of course, can only be achieved if the EU also gets on board with the plan, the Gulf crisis comes to an end and important players such as Turkey, China and India can be convinced not to give the Iranian regime a lifeline.

This may seem like a long shot, but unlike the 2015 JCPOA, it gives the US a chance to subdue Iran and protect its allies in the region in the long term. The 2015 nuclear deal, after all, was not designed to definitively address the regional malign activities of the Iranian regime. It was designed to put the Iran problem on hold rather than solve it.

Trump’s decision to withdraw exposed the flaws and fragility of this deal. Trump’s critics say Iran is now acting “aggressively” because of his “maximum pressure” strategy, but they fail to acknowledge that Iran could have done anything it is doing now at any point in the future, whether the US remained committed to the JCPOA or not. Washington’s long-term commitment to the nuclear deal would have made only one difference: when Iran eventually decided to take action against its adversaries (and again, it is naive to think Iran would have given up its ambitions of regional domination because of its commitment to the JCPOA), it would have been richer, more confident and militarily stronger with advanced missile and nuclear programmes. 

What next?

There is no guarantee that Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign is going to subdue the Iranian regime and end its destructive activities in the region. Nevertheless, for now it appears to have rattled the regime. And as the critics of Trump’s strategy offer no real alternative, this is the best the US can hope for at this point. 

For some, both in Iran and in the US, Bolton’s abrupt departure from the White House is a positive development. They believe by firing the only member of his administration who openly wanted to go to war with Iran, Trump signalled that he prefers diplomacy over military confrontation when it comes to the issue of Iran. 

Nevertheless, Bolton’s sacking may not be the end of the ongoing escalation between the US and Iran. The Iranian regime may view Trump’s decision to fire Bolton as an admission of defeat and decide to go on the attack (Ashena already made it clear that this is currently the dominant reading of events in Tehran). In other words, Bolton’s sudden removal may convince Tehran that its own “maximum resistance” strategy is working and encourage it to stay away from the negotiating table for longer. 

This could mean that by removing a warmonger from his administration Trump lost a much-needed stick he could use to pressure Iran to come to the negotiating table on his terms. What will happen next will be dependent on who Trump will choose as his next national security adviser and how he will proceed from here. If the president succumbs to pressure to ease the sanctions on Iran without getting major concessions, he will fall into the same trap as his predecessor and find himself not solving but simply putting on hold the Iran problem. But if he can keep with the “maximum pressure” campaign and convince Tehran that even without Bolton he is not willing to be the first one to budge, he can one day be the person who closes the deal that ends the Iran problem once and for all.  

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.