When President Trump unilaterally withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal in May 2018, he said he was doing so because the agreement was too weak and did not limit the Iranians’ “other malign behavior…in Syria, Yemen, and other places all around the world.”
Allegedly in search of a “better” deal, the U.S. began re-imposing economic sanctions on Iran that had been suspended under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). This culminated in May 2019 in a decision to slap a complete embargo on the export of Iranian oil. The U.S. also imposed sanctions on Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, the first time the military of a foreign country has been so designated, as well as on Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and its foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, a principal negotiator of the JCPOA.
The results of this “maximum pressure” campaign are now clear: growing instability in the Persian Gulf, including an unprecedented attack on Saudi oil installations that caused a bigger disruption of world oil markets than the Iranian Revolution, and an incremental but steady resumption by Iran of nuclear activities proscribed by the JCPOA. Iran has refused to negotiate a new agreement and has rebuffed repeated overtures by President Trump for a bilateral encounter on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. European efforts to salvage the JCPOA are in limbo.
Since the U.S. revoked waivers for even modest imports of Iranian oil, half a dozen tankers have been sabotaged or seized in the Persian Gulf, and America and Iran nearly went to war after Iran shot down an expensive American drone in June. President Trump reportedly stopped a planned retaliation for the shoot-down only 10 minutes before the missiles were to have been launched, explaining later that he did not want to take the lives of 150 Iranians at the installations that would have been targeted.
American policy has arguably killed many more Iranians, depriving them of medicine for cancer and other diseases because of U.S. sanctions on Iranian banks. Millions of other Iranians are eliminating meat from their diets; unemployment and inflation are rising. Still, Trump wisely pulled back from a military response to Iran that could have led to thousands of American and Iranian deaths.
The situation now is arguably even more serious. The attacks on facilities that process nearly 9 million barrels of oil a day have, according to the Saudis, taken 5.7 million barrels a day offline. While the Saudis hope to rapidly repair the installations, there was a spike in the price of oil on Monday and new uncertainty about Saudi plans to sell shares in their giant Aramco oil company.
In Washington, President Trump met with his principal cabinet secretaries who deal with national security and reportedly considered options for military action. Unnamed American officials said the attacks had originated from Iran. But the U.S. has no legal authority to respond to an Iranian strike on a third country and neither the U.S. military nor the American public has the stomach for yet another war in the Middle East, one that would make Iraq and Afghanistan look easy by comparison.
So what should the Trump administration do?
It may be too hard for the president to admit that quitting the JCPOA unilaterally was a giant mistake. However, the Trump administration could start by restoring waivers for limited Iranian oil exports or by green-lighting a French plan to extend Iran a $15 billion credit for purchases of food and medicine.
Trump could also give up his fantasy of a handshake with Rouhani at the UN and appoint a new Iran envoy with a proven track record of successful talks under a Republican administration—for example, former ambassador to Iraq and Lebanon Ryan Crocker, or Jim Dobbins, who worked with Zarif to create the first post-Taliban government in Afghanistan after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Brian Hook, the current administration point person on Iran, is too identified with the “maximum pressure” campaign and is reportedly about to be disciplined by the State Department for illegally firing career employees who had worked the Iran file under the Obama administration.
Trump should also encourage Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council to accept Iran’s offer to negotiate a political solution to the hideous and unwinnable war in Yemen. The reckless decision of de facto Saudi ruler Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman to begin bombing Yemen in 2015 has failed to defeat the Houthis, driven them into the arms of Tehran, and killed tens of thousands of Yemeni civilians. While the Saudis are understandably angry that the Houthis keep shooting rockets into their territory, they have yet to accept any responsibility for creating the world’s worst humanitarian disaster. The Emiratis have recently had the good sense to withdraw from this catastrophe and the Saudis should be the next to look for an exit ramp.
Over the past 40 years, the Islamic Republic of Iran has committed many crimes, beginning with seizing the U.S. embassy and holding 52 Americans hostage for 444 days. It has supported groups that have killed American servicemen in Lebanon and Iraq and innocent civilians as far from the Middle East as Argentina. Successive U.S. administrations have punished Iran through sanctions and by tilting toward the murderous Saddam Hussein, who invaded Iran in 1980. The U.S. turned a blind eye to Saddam’s use of chemical weapons against Iran and accidentally shot down a civilian Iranian airliner in 1988, killing all 290 people on board.
Like a couple that has gone through a painful divorce, it may never be possible for the U.S. and Iran to truly reconcile. But they can learn to co-exist in a less destructive manner for the sake of the “children.” Maximum pressure is a failure but maximum diplomacy is worth a try for war-weary Americans, long-suffering Iranians, and America’s Arab and Israeli friends.
Barbara Slavin directs the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council. The views expressed here are her own.