By Amir Mohammad Esmaeili

Trump’s maximum pressure on Iran has been a failure: Italian analyst

October 28, 2020 - 10:29

TEHRAN - Riccardo Alcaro, head of the Global Actors Programme of the Istituto Affari Internazionali, tells the Tehran Times that U.S. maximum pressure campaign on Iran has failed achieve its goals and the U.S. does not have “the support of its European allies” anymore. 

“The U.S. wanted to extend the arms embargo on Iran by making use of a mechanism that can only be used by JCPOA participants. If the Europeans had accepted that, they would have nullified all their efforts to keep the JCPOA alive, as Iran would almost certainly have abandoned the deal and perhaps even the JCPOA,” notes Riccardo Alcaro, who is the author of “Europe and Iran’s Nuclear Crisis.” 

On EU foreign policy toward Iran, he argues, “The Europeans do not have the capacity to protect themselves from American extra-territorial sanctions, but they have been awakened to the problem by Trump's willingness to use such sanctions against allies. This means that the Europeans are now contemplating steps they can take to insulate them more from pressure from the U.S.”

Following is the full text of the interview:

Q: As you might know, the United Nations Security Council rejected the U.S. resolution to extend arms embargo on Iran, and now Iran is gearing up to sell and purchase arms in international markets. In your view, why did not European countries come along with the U.S. in this effort?

A: The reason is very simple; the U.S. wanted to extend the arms embargo on Iran by using a mechanism that can only be used by JCPOA participants. If the Europeans had accepted that, they would have nullified all their efforts to keep the JCPOA alive, as Iran would almost certainly have abandoned the deal and perhaps even the JCPOA.

To be clear, the Europeans do not support conventional weapons to Iran (they have their own embargo in place until 2023), yet they do not believe that the best way to limit arms sales to Iran is to destroy the JCPOA. The Europeans were aware that the American push for the arms embargo extension in the UN was less a way to limit arms sales to Iran (the U.S. can still do this through extraterritorial sanctions against potential sellers of weapons to Iran) than it was a way to push Iran outside the JCPOA. That's why they opposed the move by the U.S. firmly. And wisely, Iran has not fallen into the trap.

“Ostensibly the goal (maximum pressure) was to press Iran to agree to greater concessions than the ones included in the JCPOA, to limit its ballistic missiles and scale back its support for allies across the region. This has not happened. Iran's nuclear program is more advanced than it was in 2018.”Q: Experts believe that the EU is unable to adopt an independent foreign policy from the U.S. toward Iran. What do you think?

A: The experts are right, to an extent. The Europeans do not have the capacity to protect themselves from American extra-territorial sanctions, but they have been awakened to the problem by Trump's willingness to use such sanctions against allies. This means that the Europeans are now contemplating steps they can take to insulate them more from pressure from the U.S. 

Also, the Europeans have consistently and publicly opposed the Trump-championed policy of maximum pressure. Politically, all EU governments and the UK have remained committed to the JCPOA. If the next U.S. administration opts for diplomacy again with Iran - Biden would surely do so, and even Trump may want to do so given that maximum pressure has not delivered the expected results - the continued existence of the JCPOA will be of paramount importance as a frame of reference. And Europe’s continued commitment to the deal is one key reason why Iran has not quit it yet.

Since Europe reached out to Iran on the nuclear issue in late 2003, its ultimate goals have consistently been that of facilitating the conditions for meaningful U.S.-Iranian nuclear diplomacy. They managed divergences with the Bush administration in 2003-8, then supported Obama’s diplomacy push in 2009-15, and have tried to limit the damage done by Trump since 2018. If diplomacy re-starts - and as I said, I think there might be a chance for it even under a 2nd Trump administration - Europe’s role in making that possible will have been important, even essential. Europe is a secondary player, but a crucial player nonetheless. It cannot replace the U.S., but it can contribute to making U.S.-Iran nuclear diplomacy start again.

Q: How do you assess EU foreign policy toward Iran after the nuclear deal?

A: It's a mixed assessment. The E3 and the EU have failed to persuade the Trump administration not to leave the JCPOA and to persuade it not to threaten European companies with American extra-territorial sanctions, which has forced European companies not to do business with Iran even if legal under European law. French-led attempts at shuttle diplomacy between Iran and the U.S. have not been effective either.

While this seems an utter failure, I think this assessment is too harsh or at least premature. The E3 and the EU have remained politically committed to the JCPOA, have never renounced their ambition to have normal economic relations and political dialogue with Iran (if the JCPOA is still working), have rejected maximum pressure, and have resisted American attempts to re-impose the UN arms embargo.

If the JCPOA is still in place three years after Trump quit it, I think it is because Iran’s government appreciates Europe’s commitment to the deal as in keeping with Iran’s national interest, both as a way to show the world that the U.S. maximum pressure policy has not the support of America’s European allies and - most importantly - as a way to keep in place a platform for U.S.-Iran nuclear diplomacy, which will surely happen if Biden wins the election in November and may still happen even if Trump is reconfirmed as U.S. president.

Q:  How do you see the future of the JCPOA? If Joe Biden becomes the U.S. president, will he embrace the nuclear deal?

A: I think Biden will surely be willing to re-engage Iran in nuclear talks and contemplate rejoining the JCPOA. But Biden will want to go further than the JCPOA, which I'm not sure Iran is so much interested in. 

Q: Do you think Trump's maximum pressure on Iran has been successful?

A: It has succeeded in harming the Iranian economy, no doubt about that. Trump has shown that the full unilateral mobilization of unilateral American sanctions has been more damaging for Iran than the partial mobilization of multilateral sanctions. Even in Europe, we did not expect U.S. “secondary sanctions” (that is, sanctions with an extra-territorial reach) could be as effective in bending the Europeans as they have.

This is said, inflicting harm on Iranians was always meant to be a means to a goal. Ostensibly the goal was to press Iran to agree to greater concessions than the ones included in the JCPOA to limit its ballistic missiles and scale back its support for allies across the region. This has not happened. Iran's nuclear program is more advanced than it was in 2018; the ballistic program is more or less where it was in 2018, and Iran is as involved in the region as it was in 2018 and will always be in the future. Yet the region is significantly more insecure for the U.S. than it was in 2015-16, with clashes between U.S. forces and Iran-allied forces in the region happening on a regular basis, the Strait of Hormuz more militarized than ever. So maximum pressure has been a failure - at least so far - if the goal was a new nuclear deal and a more secure region.

Many argue that maximum pressure's real objective is to provoke so much damage to Iran’s economy to foment social unrest, mass protests, and eventually resulting in regime change. I can't really tell from outside, but it seems to me that the Islamic Republic of Iran is not at risk of overthrow. So maximum pressure has also failed in that regard.

This said, let me finish with a warning; if Trump is re-elected, there is a chance he may be tempted to engage in diplomacy again (especially if Iran shows some interest in the matter). More likely, however, is that he will double down on maximum pressure, as many in his administration - especially secretary Pompeo - believe not so much that maximum pressure has not worked, as that it has not worked yet.

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