WASHINGTON – One year after President Donald Trump bolted from the Iran nuclear deal, the United States is ratcheting up pressure on Tehran nearly by the day, from expanding sanctions to deploying B-52 bombers.
But even if the U.S. campaign has succeeded in causing economic suffering in Iran, the broader objectives remain vague, with no clear endgame on how to wind down tensions that have raised fears of war.
Iran — which for the past year has made a point of steadfastly complying with the multinational nuclear accord negotiated under former U.S. President Barack Obama — on Wednesday’s anniversary said it will stop observing some limits set by the deal.
Voicing frustration, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani appealed to European powers — which still back the agreement — to do more to allow trade so Iran feels the benefits of the agreement.
Trump on Wednesday quickly fired back, tightening the screws further on Iran by imposing sanctions that will punish anyone who buys or trades the country’s iron, steel, aluminum and copper.
The White House said that, after oil, the steel and mining sector is Iran’s second-largest source of foreign revenue, accounting for 10 percent of exports.
“Tehran can expect further actions unless it fundamentally alters its conduct,” Trump said in a statement.
His administration has relentlessly pursued a campaign of “maximum pressure,” on Wednesday vowing to stop all of Iran’s steel and mineral exports — after already threatening to punish any country that buys its top product, oil.
In recent days the United States has also announced the deployment of an aircraft carrier strike group and the nuclear-capable B-52 bombers to the region, warning of a response to what it charges is an “imminent” threat from Iran.
Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat, called Trump’s policy an “unmitigated disaster” that has goaded Iran into resuming a nuclear program that it had stopped.
“Trump’s Iran strategy is blind escalation. There is no end-game. No overriding strategy. No way out,” Murphy tweeted.
“It’s just escalation for the sake of escalation. That’s wildly dangerous and inexcusably dumb, in that order,” he said.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that the pressure campaign has achieved “significant successes” and has repeatedly pointed to financial woes of Hezbollah, the militantly anti-Israel Lebanese movement backed by Iran.
In May last year Pompeo laid out 12 demands that virtually no Iran experts believe the clerical regime will meet, including a complete scaling back of its regional role and support of Shiite militias, who often clash with U.S. allies Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Suzanne Maloney, deputy director for foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, played down the risks of war, saying that the Trump administration understands the dangers of a full-fledged conflict with Iran.
“What the administration does want is for Iran to be under maximum pressure for a sustained period of time in order to minimize or even reverse its advantages across the region,” Maloney said.
She said that U.S. officials believe from past experience that Iran “doesn’t bend under a small amount of pressure” but could change if faced with severe threats.
“I think there is a method to the madness,” she said.
But she doubted Iran will bow to demands to withdraw itself from the region.
“I don’t think they will pull back because if they did, the administration would read that as a signal that its approach is working and it would only double-down,” she said.
Some experts believe that the United States may in fact welcome an unraveling of the nuclear accord, which would no longer give Iran the moral high ground of complying with it.
“If the administration is willing to take the risk of the nuclear deal completely collapsing, then their policies to date are moving us in that direction,” said Dalia Dassa Kaye, director of the Center for Middle East Public Policy at the Rand Corporation.
An Iranian withdrawal would help the administration build support for a more confrontational approach, she said.
“The question is still, to what end?” she said.
“Some may hope for a regime collapse, but the Europeans — and certainly not the Russians or Chinese — will not support that objective,” she said, adding that there remains “a lot of confusion” over U.S. objectives.
Trump, who threatened to destroy North Korea before meeting its leader, Kim Jong Un, in two landmark summits, Wednesday said that he hopes “someday” to negotiate face to face with Iran’s leaders.
But few see a willingness to meet the hawkish president from Iran’s leaders, for whom hostility toward the United States is a bedrock principle of the 1979 Islamic Revolution that toppled the pro-Western shah.
Instead, Iranian officials may be waiting for next year to see if Trump is re-elected, with the Democrats seeking to unseat him broadly supporting the nuclear accord.
But Quentin Lopinot, a visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said an expected showdown could come much sooner.
“The question is the breaking point. When will the Iranians stop sticking to a point-by-point response?” he said.
In Iran’s announcement, it gave European powers 60 days to fulfill commitments on sanctions relief — a hard sell for European businesses that fear punishment in the United States.
“Until now the Iranians seemed to want to buy time, but this ultimatum risks bringing forward an escalation,” Lopinot said.
In an irony of history, Iran’s nuclear program actually began with the help of the United States. Under its “Atoms for Peace” program, America supplied a test reactor that came online in Tehran in 1967 under the rule of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. That help ended when Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution overthrew the shah.
In the 1990s, Iran expanded its program, including buying equipment from Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan, who used a Dutch centrifuge design to build Islamabad’s nuclear weapons program and later sold his version of the design to Iran, Libya and North Korea.
Among its activities, Iran “may have received design information” for a bomb and researched explosive detonators, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency.
By August 2002, Western intelligence services and an Iranian opposition group revealed a covert nuclear site at Natanz, in central Isfahan province. That underground site still hosts the country’s main uranium enrichment facility.
To this day Iran denies its nuclear program had any military dimension. Iran suspended enrichment in 2003 but resumed it three years later under hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
World powers imposed crippling U.N. sanctions in response. The Stuxnet computer virus, widely believed to be a joint U.S.-Israeli creation, soon disrupted thousands of Iranian centrifuges.
A string of bombings, blamed on Israel, targeted a number of scientists beginning in 2010 at the height of Western concerns over Iran’s program.