War by other means

The New York TimesCarol Giacomo:  Some American officials appear to hope that resumed sanctions on Iran will lead to a popular uprising. Have they thought that through?

President Trump’s gamble with Iran will reach an inflection point next month when his administration reimposes American sanctions meant to apply severe economic pressure on the government in Tehran.

These draconian penalties, part of Mr. Trump’s May 8 decision to withdraw the United States from the 2015 deal to limit Iran’s nuclear program, do more than repudiate the approach of his predecessor. They represent a radical break from America’s closest allies in Britain, France and Germany, who remain firmly committed to the deal.

In resuming sanctions, Mr. Trump hopes to force Iran to capitulate to unrealistic American demands, including ending all its nuclear activity and ceasing its military role in Syria and Yemen.

It’s unclear whether the administration has really considered the potential consequences of its actions. They may have the opposite effect of what is intended, by strengthening Iran’s hard-liners and stoking more regional instability.

Iran was promised sanctions relief in return for sharply curtailing its nuclear ambitions, but never reaped the expected benefits even though it continues to abide by its commitments, as the International Atomic Energy Agency has concluded in a dozen reports.

Crucially, Mr. Trump has failed to enlist Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China — the major powers that joined the United States in negotiating the nuclear deal — in his anti-Iran crusade. The Europeans say the deal is in their national security interest; they resent that Mr. Trump has unilaterally upended it.

And now the Europeans are trying to save it by developing a financial mechanism that would skirt American sanctions by enabling their companies to trade oil in local currencies or barter rather than in dollars. The aim is to create an alternative way to move money in and out of Iran when Western banks, handcuffed by Mr. Trump’s sanctions, won’t do it.

All the parties face a moment of truth after Nov. 4, when, Mr. Trump has decreed, any country or company trading with Iran will be barred from doing transactions with American financial institutions.

The European plan to get around the American sanctions reflects the depth of allied outrage over Mr. Trump. Whether it can work is another story. Major European companies, like the French oil giant Total, fearful of being shut out of the American market, have already cut ties with Iran. And some doubt that the mechanism will ever be put in place.

Some analysts say it could eventually benefit competitors eager to replace the dollar as the world’s dominant currency and do long-term damage to the United States.

Mr. Trump faces other trouble as well. No matter how painful the reimposed sanctions are, they won’t be as effective as when the major powers were united in their enforcement. China, India and Japan have signaled a willingness to continue at least some purchases from Iran.

As history shows, sanctions are most effective when they are applied judiciously and with broad international support. Conversely, the United States and its partners must be willing to remove sanctions when the target country changes its behavior.

President Barack Obama saw the nuclear deal as a way to prevent Iran from producing a nuclear weapon, to ease the hostility that has dominated relations since the 1979 Islamic Revolution and to appeal to a new generation of pro-Western Iranians.

Many hoped a less confrontational approach would eventually open the door to solving other problems, like Iran’s ballistic missile program; hostage-taking; threats to Israel; and military involvement in Syria, Yemen and Lebanon.

That not only didn’t happen, but in many ways Iran’s malign regional behavior has grown worse, a bad call by the country’s leaders.

Iran is already struggling with a fragile economy and internal unrest, and some American officials hope a tightening vise will lead to a popular uprising.

This tough approach, backed by Israel and Saudi Arabia, reached a crescendo last month when Mr. Trump and top advisers used a series of speeches to mount a coordinated verbal attack on Iran’s government and to warn of dark consequences if it doesn’t change its behavior.

The centerpiece was Mr. Trump’s address to the United Nations General Assembly in which he excoriated the “corrupt dictatorship in Iran” and accused its leaders of sowing “chaos, death and destruction.” More existential threats — Russia, China, North Korea — got barely a mention.

The same day, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and John Bolton, the national security adviser, spoke at a meeting in New York of United Against Nuclear Iran, a well-financed hard-line group. Mr. Bolton was especially belligerent, warning the Iranians, “If you cross us, our allies, or our partners, if you harm our citizens, if you continue to lie, cheat, and deceive, yes, there will indeed be hell to pay.”

So could Mr. Trump’s hard-line approach indeed spark regime change? And then what?

Despite recent unrest and economic weakening, experts say Iran’s government isn’t expected to fall any time soon.

It’s also worth remembering that America’s history of fomenting coups in Iran and overthrowing governments in Iraq and Libya has not had happy endings. In fact, Iran emerged the big winner from the Iraq War precisely because the Americans ousted Saddam Hussein, thus eliminating the main impediment to Iran’s regional ambitions.

Ultimately, dialogue is the best path to a peaceful outcome. And despite his bellicosity, Mr. Trump has dangled the idea of meeting Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s president, just as he met the North Korean leader.

If Mr. Trump had stuck with the nuclear agreement, he would have had the standing to lead an effort with the five other major powers to address concerns over Iran’s military presence in Syria, its missile program, its support for militant groups like Hezbollah, its hostility toward Israel and its backing for Houthi rebels in Yemen.

Instead, he has alienated America’s closest allies and set the stage for a conflict that could easily spiral out of control.

Carol Giacomo, a former diplomatic correspondent for Reuters in Washington, covered foreign policy for the international wire service for more than two decades before joining the Times editorial board in 2007.