Will US sanctions bring Iran to the negotiating table?

William Burns, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said pressure only works if it’s connected to a “realistic set of aims,” and Pompeo’s “12 things” don’t do that.
Sunday 05/05/2019
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo leaves after a briefing on Iran at the State Department in Washington, April 8.  (Reuters)
Striking while the iron is still hot. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo leaves after a briefing on Iran at the State Department in Washington, April 8. (Reuters)

WASHINGTON - Experts disagreed about whether US oil sanctions, a terrorist designation for Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s list of 12 demands for Iran to accomplish leave room for Tehran to return to the negotiating table.

“On the face of it, the game plan is producing, through maximum pressure, either the capitulation of this regime… or the implosion but it remains opaque to me whether there’s a serious negotiating strategy or not,” said William Burns, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, which hosted a panel on the issue April 29.

Retired US Army General David Petraeus, former director of the CIA and chairman of the KKR Global Institute, said Pompeo’s “12 things” are “opening positions for negotiation” because Iran will need to respond to a population not willing to go through more financial hardship.

“The Iranian people are going to say, ‘My gosh. Look what you’ve done to the economy because of your nefarious activities within these other groups,’” Petraeus said.

Still, he said he doesn’t expect changes in the next 12 months and he agreed with those who wondered whether Iranian leaders would “grit their teeth” and wait to see what the next US presidential election brings.

Panellists said they were concerned about whether US President Donald Trump’s desire to avoid conflict would collide with the more aggressive tendencies of his foreign policy advisers, whether the administration hoped to see the Iranian leadership collapse rather than negotiate and if there was historical precedent to indicate that Iran might bend to financial pressure.

“I worry about the incoherence between the president and some of his advisers and our capacity to manage that kind of an escalation,” Burns said.

The gap between Trump and his foreign policy team has “been a consistent one,” said Suzanne Maloney, a senior fellow at the Brookings Centre for Middle East Policy and Energy Security and Climate Initiative.

Trump campaigned on renegotiating the Iran nuclear deal, Maloney said, and “is quite convinced, I think genuinely, that he could produce a better bargain than was negotiated after more than a decade of talks through two administrations here in Washington.”

Petraeus said Trump has some capital because of the possibility he might take military action.

“President Trump presents sort of an unknown to them,” he said.

Trump’s foreign policy advisers say pressure will work.

“That’s fine rhetoric: Pressure for the sake of pressure may keep Iran in a box for a period but it doesn’t actually produce a resolution of the situation,” Maloney said. There’s no serious opportunity for engaging with this administration, she added.

Pompeo defended his “12 things” plan April 29 at a session sponsored by the Hill, a Washington publication, saying he’s had “professionals in the establishment foreign policy community” tell him they’re “outrageous.” Iran must agree to and act on the items before the United States will agree to talk about ending oil sanctions and other pressure, Pompeo has said.

“I’d simply ask you to go look at each one of them, each of the 12 things we asked for and tell me which one you actually think is outrageous,” he said. “We’re simply asking Iran to behave like a normal country, right. They’re simple things like ‘Don’t kill people in Europe,’ ‘Don’t conduct assassinations.’ It’s not outrageous.”

Pompeo described several of the requests and then said, “If you stare at them, they’re not much different than we ask of the Dutch, right?”

Pompeo said if Iran complied, the United States would “happily engage.”

So how many of those things is Iran complying with?

“You know, I’d have to go back and look at them,” Pompeo said. “My guess would be zero.”

Burns said pressure only works if it’s connected to a “realistic set of aims,” and Pompeo’s “12 things” don’t do that. What’s on offer for the Iranians “is in effect aimed at not a better deal but more at capitulation or implosion,” Burns said, which is not an achievement that is “tethered in history.”

Instead, it “widens the fissures” between the United States and its allies, “doing [Russian President] Vladimir Putin’s work for him,” he said.

Petraeus argued that Pompeo’s pressure initiatives may work because they are hurting a country that’s “already in a recession and watching the rial go down.”

There have been spontaneous demonstrations across the country, causing Petraeus to wonder if Iranian leaders will “grit their teeth” and try to wait out Trump’s term or “come to the table now.”

Maloney reminded that this isn’t Iran’s first pressure campaign.

“Iran can muddle through an enormous amount of economic duress,” Maloney said. “We’ve seen it repeatedly.”

However, things may be different now: 80 million Iranians have a cell phone and access to social media, she said, and the leadership may recognise that economic duress will not play out well.

“I think they’re looking for a way out of the impasse that they’re in,” Maloney said. However, the Trump administration hasn’t created any platform for negotiations, she added, saying that perhaps “they’re doing it back channel but we don’t see any evidence of it from Iran’s behaviour or from this administration.”

Maloney said there’s evidence the pressure is causing financial shortages for the Lebanese Hezbollah “but ultimately it’s not hurting Iran’s posture across the region.” She said, there’s no history for that kind of pressure leading to a transition to more responsible leaders.

“I think, in fact, we could be facing a potential outcome that is much worse than we’re seeing today,” she said.

She acknowledged that Iran’s foreign minister’s trip to New York and an appearance on Fox News could be considered evidence that the Iranians are trying to engage. However, she said the real advantage could come if Iran tries to disrupt energy flow to their neighbours, which would hurt the bottom line and Trump’s political capital.

Maloney said the United States should address the “vacuum of good governance” in the Middle East because that’s where Iran tends to move in.

Burns agreed, saying the United States spends too much time indulging authoritarian regimes that “creates counterpunch opportunities for a country like Iran.”

“Of course pressure matters,” Burns said, “but that has to be combined with a willingness to selectively engage.”