How America’s ‘Maximum Pressure’ Policy Makes Iran More Adaptive

Although the current pressure campaign against the Islamic Republic can be named as the toughest and most comprehensive one ever, and it has already shown its negative impacts on the Iranian economy, it would rather fall short of sparking a regime change in Iran, believes Valdai Club expert Hamidreza Azizi, Assistant Professor at the Regional Studies Research Institute of the Shahid Beheshti University, Tehran. 

One of the main aspects of the JCPOA, which has been frequently mentioned by the Iranian diplomats – as well as the officials of the other parties to the deal – is that it was based on mutual mistrust. In other words, all the parties to the deal tried to achieve the best deal possible according to their national interests, mindful of possible cheating or non-compliance of the others. As such, both Iran and the other six signatories to the JCPOA attempted to make the deal as solid as possible. This is exactly why they included the deal within a UNSC resolution (resolution No. 2231), so that it turned into an internationally recognized agreement. In fact, Iran and the P5+1 did predict, and attempted to prevent, possible challenges to the deal in the future. However, the unpredicted part was the possibility of coming to power of an administration in the United States with a super-aggressive foreign policy and indifferent toward international commitments. In other words, the problem was not with the JCPOA, but with the unprecedented foreign policy position that the Donald Trump administration started to pursue. From withdrawing from the Paris environmental agreement to quitting the UN Human Rights Council, Trump has shown no real interest in staying committed to the international norms and standards. As such, withdrawing from the JCPOA was just a part of a bigger picture of the new American unilateralism and does not mean that the deal was weak from the beginning. 

There’s no doubt that the US withdrawal from the JCPOA and reimposing the sanctions against Iran have complicated the relations between Tehran and the European capitals. The main problem in this regard is that while the European governments are trying to follow the generally accepted principles of international law and international relations, European companies follow the logic of international trade and the global market. In this vein, even after the establishment of Europe’s special mechanism for financial interactions with Iran (INSTEX), major European companies are still showing reluctance toward getting active in the Iranian market. 

At the same time, the European governments seemingly have their own policy of pressure on the Islamic Republic in such issues as Iran’s missile program and regional activities. As the major European powers continued to go into this direction, while failing to provide Iran with real economic benefits of the nuclear deal, Iran decided to revise its own commitments under the JCPOA – although in a gradual and step-by-step manner. The only way to prevent further complications in relations between Iran and Europe, the European powers should guarantee a certain level of Iranian oil to be sold in the global markets and its revenues to get into the hands of the Iranian government. This is, indeed, not an easy task to do considering Washington’s campaign of maximizing pressure on Iran, but that might be the only way to save the JCPOA from a total collapse. As frequently mentioned by high-ranking Iranian officials, although the Islamic Republic values Europe’s political will to save the deal, represented especially in launching the INSTEX, the mere political support could not provide enough incentives for the Iranian government and public opinion alike to remain fully committed to the JCPOA. 

It’s a known fact that the main element of the US “maximum pressure” policy against Iran is to cut Iran’s oil sales down to zero. However, given the risk of a huge spike in global oil prices, the US administration had issued some sanctions waivers for the main purchasers of the Iranian oil, conditioned that they reduce the level of purchases from Iran. The temporary waivers expired in May 2019 and in a rather surprising move, the US administration refused to renew the waivers. In fact, at the same time as tightening the grip on Iran on the oil issue, Washington started negotiations with some other major global oil producers in order to convince them to increase their production to compensate for the Iranian oil, which was being gradually pushed out of the market. Iran’s main regional rival, Saudi Arabia has shown willingness toward playing such a role and has already started to increase its production. Although the Saudi role on the one hand and an increase in the oil production of the US itself have so far prevented a huge shock to the markets, there are serious doubts that the situation could be sustainable in the long term. 

Meanwhile, tensions in the Persian Gulf between Iran and the US may also have serious impact on the global oil prices. In other words, the recent tensions in the region, which are also among the direct consequences of Washington’s maximum pressure policy against Iran, could even affect the oil market more than the sanctions policy itself. 

Although the current pressure campaign against the Islamic Republic can be named as the toughest and most comprehensive one ever, and it has already shown its negative impacts on the Iranian economy, I think it would fall short of sparking a regime change in Iran, for a number of important reasons. First of all, contrary to its persistent claims, the US is not just targeting the Iranian government, but is, in fact, causing suffer among the Iranian people. In parallel with this trend, and as a result of it, the US has been losing its means of soft power inside Iran. In other words, the more Washington increases its pressure on Iran, the more it turns the Iranian public opinion against the US. Meanwhile and in the sphere of foreign policy, Iran has already started to adapt its approaches to the current situation by trying to find alternative foreign policy options. In this vein, Iran is now showing more interest toward initiating economic and trade ties with its neighbors – from Iraq to Armenia and from Azerbaijan to Turkey – while at the same time, eyes expanding ties with non-western powers, mostly Russia, China and India. Although this new trend in Iranian foreign policy needs time to bear fruits, it would gradually decrease Iran’s vulnerability in face of the pressures. 

As mentioned before, Trump has an aggressive stance toward not only the JCPOA, but also all international norms and organizations. This has caused international trust to the US to hugely decrease, pushing American partners all around the world to look for various alternatives to decrease their dependency on Washington. The idea of forming a European army, which has been recently raised within the EU is an example in this regard. As for the role of Russia, the Russian-initiated Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) could be an alternative to be considered by some non-European states, including Iran. In fact, the current international situation has provided eastern powers like Russia and China with more room for maneuvering to propose new international structures and advance their own vision of the emerging international order.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.