The U.S. has levied heavy sanctions against Iran, seriously damaging its economy. Iran's President Hassan Rouhani recently said, "Today the country is facing the biggest pressure and economic sanctions in the past 40 years."
Those same sanctions appear intended to threaten Tehran with regime change, put additional pressure on Iran's 80 million people, drive wedges between us and our European allies and force Iran from the bargaining table. Longer term, they increase U.S. international isolation and reduce the power of the U.S. dollar and Treasury as instruments of world leadership.
Sanctions are applied to impel an adversary to seek an agreement on a problem that threatens U.S. interests. U.S.-led sanctions against Iran eight years ago combined with oil price declines and mismanagement of Iran's economy put its nuclear bomb program under stringent limits and unparalleled monitoring. The result showed an effective use of the sanctions tool.
The Trump administration has not spoken of the objectives of its sanctions. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued 13 unilateral demands to assure us that Iran will not make a nuclear weapon -- a trenchant example of the perfect being the eternal enemy of the good. The president's vague offer to talk about a "better" nuclear deal by throwing out the existing one is like buying a used car from a convicted carjacker.
These sanctions are undermining the well-being of millions of Iranians while egging on Iran to take ever-more aggressive action in Iraq and Syria and build more ballistic missiles. The sole conclusion that Iran can possibly reach is that the U.S. seeks regime change. The threat of regime change, as Pompeo admitted in Warsaw in a possibly unguarded moment, seems real. Looking only at the history of Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, the U.S. has not been very successful.
Meanwhile, Iran is launching diplomatic overtures around the world as the state that stands up to the xenophobia of "America First." Iran's role today recalls the high point of Fidel Castro's Cuba, which gained broad recognition as the obstinate David against the U.S. Goliath even though few sympathized with the Cuban system.
The abject failure of a recent Pompeo-promoted conference against Iran in Warsaw is a clear indicator that the U.S. strategy of trying (and failing) to build a broad coalition against Iran is undermining U.S. world leadership.
Friendly and hostile nations are now planning many ways to work around the U.S. secondary sanctions levied against them to stop trade with Iran. Russia, China and many other nations that have ever more reluctantly used the American dollar as the world reserve currency have expressed greater interest in getting others to use the euro or their rubles or yuan instead. Bankers and government officials assure us that the dollar will remain a great source of American power long into the future, but cracks are developing.
Our European allies set up a financial facility specifically to avoid the long arm of U.S. sanctions against their trade with Iran. The Instrument in Support of Trade Exchange will allow goods to be bartered between Iranian companies and others without dollars or international banks. It is unclear whether it will be effective, but it is another signal of mounting rejection of the U.S. and its Treasury Department.
The administration's determination to restrict Iran's export of oil to zero is designed to crush Iran's access to currency and foreign goods. Pushback against these U.S. efforts from states that have traditionally depended on Iranian petroleum has forced the administration to give short-term waivers to eight countries (including China, India and Japan), thereby confusing the world market. For example, the U.S. has brought significant pressure on Iraq to cease importing refined petroleum products and electricity from Iran. This extra demand on Baghdad has added to the mounting disenchantment of with U.S. confrontational strategies against Iran on Iraqi territory.
The U.S. objective should be to undermine Iran's posture as the victim of U.S. hostility, repair the isolation into which our policies have put us, and put on the table a set of ideas for ending Iran's flirtation with nuclear weapons. There is no major conflict in the Middle East that can be solved without Iran's involvement, most especially the nuclear question. The paradox of Iran's mounting influence because of the sanctions is real. The way to solve it is to build a multinational, cooperative diplomatic commitment to convince Iran that constructive engagement beats aggressive estrangement any time.