When President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Iran nuclear deal last year and reimposed economic sanctions on Tehran, he justified it on the basis that the agreement did not go far enough to keep Iran from permanently acquiring nuclear weapons. Yet rather than give in to Trump’s pressure, Iran is responding by restarting nuclear activities that the deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, had successfully frozen.
Trump and others in his administration haven’t just focused on Iran’s nuclear program, though, pointing to other issues of concern with Tehran, including its missile tests, support for terrorism, and adventurism in the Middle East. They have issued blanket demands to Iran to give it all up, in what amounts to a wish list from Washington. But if the goal really is more restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program, it is unlikely to be delivered just by economic sanctions. If the underlying goal is regime change instead, as many suspect, then the odds of sanctions alone leading to that are even more remote.
There are two main problems with waiting for sanctions to work. The first is that the longer this stalemate drags on, the greater the pressure will be on the U.S. to up the ante and respond militarily. The second is that Iran is not standing still with respect to its nuclear activities. Tensions already rose sharply last spring when the U.S. blamed Iran for attacks on oil tankers in the Persian Gulf, which prompted the Pentagon to send additional naval forces to the region. Iran then shot down an American drone that it claimed was over its territorial water in the Strait of Hormuz. That was followed, most significantly, by a coordinated drone and missile attack on key oil facilities in eastern Saudi Arabia—again blamed on Iran—that shut down a significant share of Saudi oil production for weeks.