Middle East Ticker
Trump’s Plan B for Iran: All Sanctions, No Friends
Trump Administration Proposes an Unworkable Strategy for Iran
Almost two weeks after President Donald Trump formally announced he was withdrawing the United States from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Secretary of State Mike Pompeo belatedly laid out the administration’s “Plan B” Iran policy yesterday in a speech at the Heritage Foundation. “We must begin to define what it is that we demand from Iran,” Pompeo said, setting out a list of 12 conditions for the Iranian government. The new demands are a significant expansion of the ultimatum the Trump administration laid out just this past January for what a revised JCPOA should include: They range from issues already covered by the JCPOA (preventing Iran from enriching plutonium, allowing inspectors access to Iranian nuclear sites) to fundamental tenets of Iran’s foreign policy that the regime will never accept (discontinuing funding to Hezbollah and withdrawing proxies from Syria). By insisting that Iran disclose the complete details of its nuclear program, discontinue its missile development, release U.S. citizens held by the government and walk away from its regional policy, the Trump administration has moved the goalposts yet again.
While long on demands, Pompeo’s speech was short on strategy. He stressed the role of new sanctions, which he promised would be “the strongest sanctions in history” when they are fully implemented, but did not discuss other means of coercing Iran to concede to the new, extensive list of U.S. demands. “After our sanctions come in force, it will be battling to keep its economy alive,” Pompeo said. “Iran will be forced to make a choice: either fight to keep its economy off life support at home or keep squandering precious wealth on fights abroad. It will not have the resources to do both.”
That’s optimistic at best, and probably downright delusional. The United States does not do business with Iran, so making the sanctions bite will require enforcing secondary sanctions on foreign companies trading with Iran. That may have some limited effect—for example, French oil company Total is considering pulling out of an agreement to develop an Iranian offshore oil field—but it seems likely to penalize European companies more than it will actually harm Iran’s economy. Total is currently seeking a waiver from the Trump administration’s sanctions, but if it does drop the project, China National Petroleum Company, China’s state-owned oil giant, has reportedly expressed interest in stepping in. As noted previously in the Ticker, Europe is also considering measures to shield its companies from U.S. sanctions, setting up a showdown that already involves threats of new U.S. tariffs on steel and aluminum.
The sanctions that were so effective in coercing Iran to the table to negotiate the JCPOA relied on a coordinated, international effort led by the United States and backed by the United Nations. When the agreement was reached in 2015, that sanctions regime was already fraying: China, which made drastic cuts to Iranian oil imports in 2012, had ramped imports back up and was exceeding pre-sanctions levels, and Russia was already lining up new business with Tehran before the deal was finalized. As Fareed Zakaria wrote at the time, “The idea that China, Russia and the European Union would maintain sanctions against Iran if Washington turned down a deal that they painstakingly negotiated and fully embrace is far-fetched.” The effective sanctions that allowed the JCPOA to happen would not have come back then, are not coming back now, and in their more limited capacity will not produce the leverage to bend Tehran to meet the administration’s demands. After three years of experts noting this, Trump officials can’t say they weren’t warned.
Then again, the Trump administration does not have to look outside the White House to find people that argue a strategy founded on U.S. sanctions will be ineffective. John Bolton, Trump’s national security advisor, wrote in 2009 for the Wall Street Journal that the Obama administration's coordinated sanctions policy would not work because he could not imagine the international cooperation necessary, and even if a sanctions coalition was formed, he did not think it would dissuade Iran from its nuclear weapons development. (Never mind the fact that all the available evidence suggests Iran had shelved its weapons program two years before at this point.) “For Washington, the question should not be whether ‘strict sanctions’ will cause some economic harm despite Iran's multifarious, accelerating efforts to mitigate them. Instead, we must ask whether that harm will be sufficient to dissuade Iran from pursuing nuclear weapons. Objectively, there is no reason to believe that it will,” he wrote then. Instead, Bolton argued, the United States needed to face “hard decisions on whether to accept a nuclear Iran or support using force to prevent it.”
After exhausting a feckless sanctions strategy and alienating its European allies, the Trump administration may see that as its choice—and it is doubtful that it could meet its list of demands short of changing the regime in Tehran. If the administration reaches that point, it will have little support from the international community. In one telling moment in his speech, Pompeo listed countries he hoped would join the U.S. effort to pressure Iran: “the Australians, the Bahrainis, the Egyptians, the Indians, the Japanese, the Jordanians, the Kuwaitis, the Omanis, the Qataris, the Saudi Arabians, South Korea, the UAE, and many, many others worldwide.” It’s an odd grab-bag of countries that already perceive Iran as a regional threat and countries with economic ties to Iran. Notably absent, though, are the U.S. partners in the P5+1: France, Britain, Germany, China, and Russia. Even before the Trump administration’s strategy has begun, Pompeo seems to be acknowledging that the United States will be going forward without the support of some of the most powerful countries in the world, including its closest friends.
Saudi Arabia Proceeds with Reforms but Arrests the Activists Responsible
Saudi Arabia is set to lift the country’s ban on women driving vehicles at the end of June, a policy first announced last September. Women are preparing for the change by attending driving schools, Uber is planning to recruit women drivers to the ride-sharing service and car manufacturers are gearing up for increased demand. The revised law is part of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s (MBS) larger agenda of liberalizing social reforms, but, as with many of his policies, it has been accompanied by a crackdown on political dissent, including against the activists that helped push the kingdom to adopt the reforms in the first place.
The Saudi government’s approach has been evident since last fall. In the days before the announcement that the ban would be lifted, Saudi women who had been outspoken advocates of changing the law were told by government authorities to not comment on the policy. Reuters reported in October that 25 women had been instructed to remain silent. Then, last week, seven of the country’s most prominent advocates of women’s rights were arrested. They include women ranging in age from their twenties to 70-year-old Aisha al-Mana, who first drove a car in protest of the ban in 1990. State media has accused the activists—five women and two men—of committing treason and engaging in “contact with foreign entities with the aim of undermining the country’s stability and social fabric.” Some of the activists have been arrested before, but they could now face trial in the country’s counterterrorism court and as many as 20 years in prison.
The arrests and particularly egregious accusations are the latest demonstration that MBS is pursuing reform on his terms, and his terms alone. The expansion of some rights has been accompanied by the closure of others—especially the previous boundaries of acceptable criticism of the government. “Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s ‘reform campaign’ has been a frenzy of fear for genuine Saudi reformers who dare to advocate publicly for human rights or women’s empowerment,” Human Rights Watch’s Sarah Leah Whitson said last week in a statement. “The message is clear that anyone expressing skepticism about the crown prince’s rights agenda faces time in jail.”
Assad Regime Controls Damascus, Bides Time in Negotiations
The Assad regime announced on Monday that the city of Damascus and its outskirts were, for the first time in years, completely under the government’s control. The announcement followed news earlier this month that Syrian rebels had reached an agreement with the regime to cede control of the last besieged rebel enclave in exchange for safe passage to rebel-held districts in the country’s northwest. The last pocket of Damascus to be retaken by regime forces was the Yarmouk refugee camp, a neighborhood that previously housed 160,000 Palestinians but has been reduced to rubble by years of bombardment. The last fighters in the area, mostly members of Jabhat al-Nusra, were vacated in recent days.
President Bashar al-Assad’s recent successes securing control of contested areas, especially in the area around the capital, have firmed up his position both domestically and in international negotiations. Russian officials said last week that the regime has refused to consider a draft of a revised constitution prepared by the Russians that would decentralize some state authorities, impose a limit of two consecutive seven-year terms for the president, and grant the parliament the authority to remove the president. “I don’t see any possibilities for making the draft proposed by Russia as a basis for this constitutional process,” Vitaly Naumkin, a senior Russian government adviser, said last week, according to Bloomberg. The Assad regime is participating in parallel diplomatic tracks—one organized by the Russians, the other by the United Nations—but is holding out for the best terms to settle the conflict. Regime officials have said they will not accept a redrafting of the constitution, only amendments. With most of western Syria, including all its major cities, under regime control, Assad can afford to bide his time, even if this irks his patrons in Moscow.
The United States is also taking steps to wind down its involvement in the Syrian civil war. Earlier this month, the Trump administration announced that it was withdrawing funding for stabilization programs in northwestern Syria, including aid to the White Helmets, the civil first responders organization. As International Crisis Group’s Sam Heller explained on Twitter, this won’t jeopardize funding from other aid groups helping to support civil society in rebel-held areas, but it is indicative of the United States’ focus on eastern Syria, where U.S. troops are supporting local forces to hold and govern areas recaptured from the Islamic State.