Iran faces its time of reckoning. Since its inception in 1979, the regime has never been under such extreme pressure from all sides. Even President Hassan Rouhani, in a break with usual assurances that the government is capable of sustaining itself, acknowledged that Iran’s current circumstances are not “normal” and that the country is facing the most difficult economic conditions ever.
Donald Trump’s administration should capitalize on the opportunities Iran’s economic and political difficulties present by enhancing cooperation with its European allies to pressure Tehran collectively.
Instead of relying solely on economic pressure, Washington should employ all available tools of effective statecraft, including collective diplomacy, intermediation through allies, and public messaging.
Iran’s Economic Woes and Escalation Tactics
Since Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and the start of his “maximum pressure” campaign, Iran has experienced unprecedented economic challenges.
The International Monetary Fund projects Iran’s economic growth to shrink by a whopping 9.5 percent this year. Washington’s harsh sanctions already caused the country’s inflation to approach 40 percent, while its oil exports have been slashed by 80 percent, wiping out 29 billion dollars in annual revenues.
The regime has been further undermined by demonstrations over Tehran’s decision to increase fuel prices by 50 percent to blunt the effects of sanctions, shutting down the Internet, and repressing protestors (with already more than 100 deaths).
Economic difficulties at home have affected Iran’s foreign activities too. The regime was forced to cut its funding to Hezbollah and other terrorist groups that exert Tehran’s regional influence. Protests have also beset neighboring Iraq and Lebanon, a backlash against Tehran-linked regimes, which are threatening Iran’s previously strong grip over these countries.
In turn, Iran has responded with a “maximum pressure” campaign of its own. After the Trump administration ended waivers that allowed several countries to continue buying Iranian oil to drive the country’s oil exports to zero, Tehran’s regional activities have become more aggressive, including shooting down an American drone and attacks against Saudi Arabia’s oil fields, processing facilities, and tanker mines.
Tehran has also breached the limits of uranium enrichment as defined in the nuclear accord, bringing the country closer, though still far from, developing nuclear weapons.
Taken together, these escalating tactics aim to persuade the U.S. to halt its sanctions campaign and pressure Europe to urge Washington to reconsider its approach. They also make it harder for Gulf countries to export their oil and drive up prices, thereby keeping the oil-depending regime afloat, since, as Iran’s president has threatened, “If one day [the U.S. wants] to prevent the export of Iran’s oil, then no oil will be exported from the Persian Gulf.”
New Nuclear Deal Within Reach
America’s European allies, such as the U.K., France, and Germany, have backed Washington’s assessment and blamed Iran for its recent drone attacks against Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities in a joint statement:
“The time has come for Iran to accept negotiation on a long-term framework for its nuclear programme as well as on issues related to regional security, including its missiles programme and other means of delivery.”
In response to Iran’s expansion of nuclear enrichment, Europe warned Tehran that it might impose sanctions and stop supporting the nuclear deal.
The 2015 nuclear deal was not perfect. While Trump is consumed with political problems at home, it is difficult to imagine a better moment to negotiate a new agreement. Iran’s regime is crumbling, and while Europe’s resentment over Trump’s withdrawal from the deal remains, it seems like its support for the agreement is waning as Iran scales back on its commitments.
It is time for the Trump administration to form a common front with its European allies to forge a new deal with Iran. Trump’s sanctions campaign has been successful in harming Iran’s economy and thus limiting its regional activities. However, it has had little success in starting new negotiations, while the Islamic Republic’s provocative escalating tactics have provided Washington with an opportunity to win over Europe.
A new deal would not only block Iran’s path to nuclear weapons and put constraints on its missile program but also force Tehran to stop its aggressive meddling into the affairs of its neighbors such as Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon, while easing sanctions as negotiations continue.
Trump wants a better deal. It is time to seize the opportunity.