President Trump
Credit: The White House/Flickr

One of Donald Trump’s first actions as president was to pull the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. He followed that up by ending this country’s participation in the Paris Climate accord and the Iran nuclear agreement. In the midst of all of that, Trump railed against our NATO allies while cozying up to Russia, the country whose incursions the alliance was developed to defend against. He berated Mexico and Canada while attempting to re-negotiate NAFTA and has been both hot and cold in his dealings with China on trade. Is it any wonder that our traditional allies are reacting with a mixture of distrust and distance?

The president now faces what could develop into national security crises with Iran, Venezuela, and North Korea. Having alienated our allies, that means that he is left to got it alone. Nevertheless, the administration is referring to their strategy as the application of “maximum pressure.” Ali Vaez notes what that means for Iran.

There can be little doubt that the administration’s “maximum pressure” policy is inflicting considerable economic harm on Iran.

To date, however, there is no sign that either Iran’s regional policies are shifting or its leaders are willing to come back to the negotiating table and submit to the Trump administration’s demands. Nor is there any hint that economic hardship has triggered popular unrest of a magnitude that would threaten the regime’s survival. In the absence of any visible shift in Tehran’s political calculus, Washington is presenting the sanctions’ impact by no metric other than their quantity and severity.

There appears to be a belief among U.S. policy makers, almost congealed into doctrine, that Iran will cave to nothing less than massive pressure, a point it clearly has not reached. With U.S. elections at the end of next year, the administration is therefore responding to Iran’s refusal to concede defeat by doubling down, and it’s going about it in a hurry. It has resorted to the unprecedented steps of designating a state entity, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a “foreign terrorist organization,” and of trying to push Iran’s oil exports to zero almost overnight.

This is a perfect example of how, rather than breaking with Republican foreign policy failures of the past, Donald Trump merely represents their escalation. His modus operandi has always been to reject partnerships, preferring to go it alone and rely on transactional relationships. Those are most often focused on assuming that adversaries will be subservient in response to his bullying threats.

Vaez notes several reasons why that approach will fail in Iran. Here is the one that is most notable.

First and most important: The one thing Tehran would find more intolerable than the crushing impact of sanctions is raising the white flag because of them. Convinced that Trump’s national-security team is bent on toppling the Islamic Republic, the Iranian leadership views economic sanctions as just one in a range of measures designed to destabilize it. Its counterstrategy can be summed up in two words: Resist and survive. The mere act of survival would constitute victory, however pyrrhic.

Donald Trump assumes, just like his Republican predecessors, that applying maximum pressure on a foreign adversary will cause them to retreat and submit. Any fool that knew a bit of history should understand that an approach like that will fail.

The term “blowback” was first used by U.S. intelligence services as a way to describe the fact that the 1953 coup in Iran, which was backed by the CIA, eventually led to the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Contrary to resulting in submission, that approach to foreign policy leads to disastrous results. 

While acknowledging the threat Iran poses to the Middle East, President Obama took a very different approach. Here is what he told Thomas Friedman during negotiations that resulted in the nuclear agreement.

Clearly, he added, “part of the psychology of Iran is rooted in past experiences, the sense that their country was undermined, that the United States or the West meddled in first their democracy and then in supporting the Shah and then in supporting Iraq and Saddam during that extremely brutal war. So part of what I’ve told my team is we have to distinguish between the ideologically driven, offensive Iran and the defensive Iran that feels vulnerable and sometimes may be reacting because they perceive that as the only way that they can avoid repeats of the past.

The major difference in approach between Obama and Trump is that the former always attempted to negotiate a win-win solution. Trump assumes that in order for him to win, the opposition must lose (i.e., submit). The result of that approach is usually a lose-lose, which makes the world a much more dangerous place.

Nancy LeTourneau

Follow Nancy on Twitter @Smartypants60.