On the one-year anniversary of the Trump administration’s pullout from an international agreement freezing Iran’s nuclear weapons program, Tehran announced that it would stop complying with some terms of the deal, threatening to begin enriching uranium again in 60 days if the deal’s other signatories do not counter Washington’s sanctions on Iran’s oil exports and international trading partners. This move came after several weeks of rising tension, spreading from diplomatic meeting rooms and oil-company boardrooms into the zone of guns and warships.
The U.S. exit from the Iran deal, which was negotiated by the Obama administration with European allies and Iran, was supposed to kick off a period of intensifying pressure on Iran, with a new coalition of U.S. allies bringing Iran back to the negotiating table to create a better deal.
Although Washington’s re-intensified sanctions have dented Iran’s economy and further heightened the suffering of its citizens, the regime hasn’t come back to the table on nuclear issues or slowed down its support for terror groups and proxy fighters across the Middle East. The year has been marked by rising protests across Iranian society, but few outsiders think that the regime overthrow National Security Advisor John Bolton so explicitly wants is close. And rather than falling in line behind the U.S., European countries — even Trump’s far-right allies — have worked to develop financial mechanisms that might undercut U.S. sanctions.
Despite few signs that its strategy is working, the Trump administration has forged ahead, making increasingly drastic moves against Iran. A month ago, the administration designated the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps a terrorist organization under U.S. law, potentially subjecting anyone who does business with the Corps — a major military and economic power within Iran and regionally — to prosecution, confiscation of assets, or exclusion from the U.S. This cuts a huge swath between the IRGC’s close ties to Iraqi, Syrian, and Lebanese political and military entities — including some that have worked closely with Washington in the past — and its economic holdings, which encompass at least one-sixth of the entire Iranian economy. Companies it controls are heavily involved in energy, construction, and other lucrative fields, affecting businesses both at home and abroad. (For instance, IRGC members may have laundered money through a hotel construction deal in Azerbaijan with … Donald and Ivanka Trump.)
Then, two weeks later, the administration also announced it would not extend any of the waivers that had allowed countries to buy Iranian oil over the last year without facing U.S. financial sanctions that threatened to cripple their ability to participate in global markets. Countries such as China and India may not entirely comply, or may shift to barter arrangements that skirt the sanctions. But Japan, South Korea, and others shifting away from Iranian oil put even more pressure on Tehran, and in particular on those Iranian factions that had pressed not to resume their nuclear weapons program or otherwise visibly retaliate against Washington.
One of the main reasons that Republican and Democratic administrations alike have over the years chosen not to designate the IRGC as a terrorist group was the recognition that it would view that as an escalation and respond, probably with threats of terror attacks. Sure enough, intelligence officials report an uptick in the number of credible Iranian plots against U.S. interests and soldiers around the region. Israeli officials went out of their way to warn Washington about Iran’s scheming, and to take anonymous credit in the media, via an Israeli reporter who writes for the D.C. insider newsletter Axios. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is fighting for his political life both against corruption charges and an intensifying conflict with Palestinian forces in Gaza (which are not allied with Iran) immediately jumped into the fray to call Iran’s moves away from the nuclear deal unacceptable. Hezbollah-aided attacks on Israel’s northern frontiers are thus a third front for Netanyahu, and one where he will use his political leverage to insist on U.S. help.
It doesn’t look as if the White House and Pentagon had worked out a response for when the inevitable Iranian threats began. They were left scrambling this week, opting to speed up and rebrand an aircraft carrier’s already-planned arrival in the region, something the Iranians noticed and were quick to mock on social media. On the positive side, that may mean Tehran sees Washington’s move as a bit of a bluff. On the negative side, there is no reason to believe that the Iranian threats are just bluffs. Over the last few years, forces allied with the IRGC have fought uneasily with the U.S. against ISIS in Iraq — but before that, they were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of U.S. soldiers during the Iraq War.
In sum, Washington’s actions over the last year have yielded no actual progress in dealing with the threats Iran poses to nuclear security, regional security, or domestic oppression. And with its threat today, Tehran presents Washington with a nasty dilemma: Move further away from European partners who try to meet Iran’s demands in hopes of keeping its centrifuges silent, or return to the unstable world in which Iran is moving toward nuclear capability.
From the European perspective, these are tough choices, too. Should they try to appease Iran, which is, everyone agrees, engaging in a bit of nuclear blackmail while continuing to destabilize the region and repress its citizens? Can they act together in a way that will get both Tehran and Washington out of this escalating spiral, or is that a hopeless task? What would that mean for U.S.-European unity, and for NATO?
Democrats, Europeans, and many Iranians had hoped that the U.S. could simply rejoin the deal under a new administration in January 2021 and quickly move at least one off the region’s many thorny problems off the to-do list. But the next 60 days may make that a quaint relic, like so much else about pre-Trump American foreign policy. With some efficiency, the administration has created a situation that may finally wreck one of the Obama administration’s singular accomplishments and cleave a crack in the Atlantic Alliance that none of the frantic patching of military leaders and foreign ministers can cover. And, of course, it adds Iran to a list of areas, along with Venezuela, North Korea, and Eastern Europe, where U.S. opponents believe Washington is hatching plans for military action, though no one really knows what the Trump administration is hatching.