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CWA # 427, 21 February 2021

Global Politics
Trump’s Iran legacy: Maximum pressure, minimum results

  Apoorva Sudhakar

Trump's strategy of maximum pressure did not yield the results he expected. Instead, Iran hardened its stance thereby giving minimum results and rendering Trump's Iran strategy a failure

What is Trump's Iran legacy? Under his administration what did Washington achieve vis-a-vis Iran?

In retrospect, it is clear that the maximum pressure strategy of Trump has yielded minimum results in Iran.

JCPOA: A flawed withdrawal
The most important highlight of Trump policy towards Iran was the withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2018. In his statement, Trump termed the deal as defective and one-sided. According to Trump, the deal did “not address Iran’s support for armed groups across the region and its ballistic missile programme.” Further, despite criticism from France, Germany and the UK, he threatened that any country that would help Iran with its nuclear programme would be sanctioned. 

The withdrawal from the JCPOA was followed by a series of sanctions targeting Iran’s financial sector. However, in 2019, Trump blacklisted the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps, Iran’s military unit, as a Foreign Territory Organisation (FTO). This was the first time the US designated a government body as a terrorist organisation. 

The assassination of Soleimani: What did it achieve?
Trump landed a major blow to Iran in January 2020 after he ordered the assassination of Iran’s top military official, General Qassem Soleimani. Though the move was provocative, Iran refrained from an all-out retaliation. In 2020, the assassination of another top official left Iran on the edge. Mohsen Fakhrizadeh who led Iran’s nuclear programme was allegedly assassinated by Israeli forces; there is no evidence of the same. If the allegations are true, it would not be wrong to deduce that Israel would not have executed the assassination without the green signal from the US, particularly Trump. 

The Abraham Accords: Is Iran isolated?
The above developments highlight the course of the US-Iran relations since 2018. It is, however, impossible to observe Iran in isolation. The developments in the rest of the Middle East also shape how the US engages with Iran and vice versa. Therefore, the major development in the region, Abraham Accords, plays a major role in shaping the relations between Washington and Tehran. 

The current series of normalisation between Israel and the Arab countries indicate that the Accords are centred around US-Israel-Arab relations than the Arab-Israel peace deal. Further, as Iran criticises other Arab countries for betraying the Palestinian cause, it also observes that its enemy nations are uniting against it; the Arab-Israel peace has transitioned into an anti-Iran alliance. The goal of this new partnership between Israel and major Middle Eastern countries is to check the growth of Iran and its various proxies. Tensions are likely to increase in the region if Saudi Arabia, a major ally of the US and regional nemesis of Iran, signs the Abraham Accords. 

The maximum pressure: An Audit
Despite Trump’s claims that the sanctions would place Iran under ‘maximum pressure,’ Iran has not yielded to the same. Under the JCPOA, Iran was exempted from several sanctions, allowing its economy to recuperate. With the US withdrawal, Trump reimposed these sanctions and placed new ones as well. However, other than economically weakening the country, Iran’s policies towards the US and the region has not undergone substantial change. Instead, Iran abandoned its commitments to the JCPOA and implemented its nuclear enrichment procedures. Despite provocation by the US for two years, Iran abstained from major retaliations. However, it has strengthened its proxies in countries like Yemen and Lebanon, and also carried out numerous attacks on US military bases in the region, particularly in Iraq. 

Apart from Iran, Trump’s Iran strategy also targeted European countries’ policies and threatened them against engaging with Iran. For example, in January 2020, Trump threatened to impose tariffs on European automobile imports if Germany, France and the United Kingdom, “did not formally accuse Iran of violating a 2015 nuclear deal.” Though the US had previously threatened sanctions on European automobile imports, the warnings were aimed at negotiating better US-Europe trade deals. However, in this instance, the threat intended to shift European foreign policy.

In light of this, Russia has made significant gains with Iran. The two countries have increased their military cooperation in the region. The US actions against Iran help Russia widen the divide “between Washington and its partners and” propagate the “global perceptions of the United States as volatile and belligerent.” 

So what is Trump’s Iran legacy?
While Biden has reiterated his willingness to re-enter the JCPOA, Iran has indicated that it does not intend to renegotiate the deal. It has strengthened its position after the assassination of Fakhrizadeh, thereby complicating the US-Iran relations. This also challenges the European position as the countries have been rendered voiceless amid the US heavy-handedness. 

As Iran nears one year of Soleimani’s assassination, there are speculations that it would launch a major attack. While the government has displayed restraint, Iran’s hardliners are yet to back down. Any escalation from Iran is likely to result in cementing the deadlock in the US-Iran relations.

Trump’s strategy of maximum pressure was a failure.


About the author
Apoorva Sudhakar is a Project Assistant at the School of Conflict and Security Studies at the National Institute of Advanced Studies. Her areas of interest include peace and conflict in South Asia and Africa, climate change and human-wildlife conflict.
 

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