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Trump Increases Economic Sanctions on Iran

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Pompeo recently characterized weeks of Iranian provocations ahead of the drone shootdown—including explosions on energy tankers and missile and rocket attacks in Saudi Arabia and Iraq—as evidence of a successful “maximum pressure” campaign. Officially, that campaign’s aim is to drive the Iranians back to the negotiating table. But administration officials have cited what they see as a side benefit of depriving Iran of the resources it uses to fund terrorism. The past week has demonstrated that, after more than a year under Trump’s sanctions, Iran still has plenty of means to harass the U.S. and its allies.

Will this set of sanctions finally be what gets Iran to give up its hostility to negotiating with the U.S.? Or will it at least make it appreciably harder to stage attacks? Elizabeth Rosenberg, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, told me she doubted that Khameneir was using financial instruments that are exposed to U.S. jurisdiction anyway. Rosenberg, who worked on Iran sanctions during the Obama administration, said the sanctions are more symbolic than practical. “Not only do [the new sanctions] not have a major economic impact on Iran, they’re also kind of a sideshow to the military tensions and escalations and levers available that have been used so far by the United States and Iran,” she said.

Iran is by far the biggest target of U.S. sanctions, but the Trump administration has also leaned on economic pressure in pursuit of changes in Venezuela, North Korea, and elsewhere. Previous administrations have relied on the tool as something sharper than diplomacy but gentler than war, but Trump has far stepped up the frequency of their use. Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro has withstood the economic pressure campaign aimed at forcing him to step down; though Trump has cited sanctions’ success bringing the North Koreans to negotiate with him over their nuclear program. These negotiations have yet to yield a deal, however.

On Iran, other powers may have incentives to undermine the United States, if they think economic relief for Tehran is the only way to resolve the crisis. European countries have been scrambling to calm tensions, especially since Iran threatened in May to breach the nuclear deal absent economic incentives. Russia’s national-security adviser vowed that Moscow would look out for Iran’s interests at an upcoming meeting between Russian, U.S., and Israeli officials this week.

There are meanwhile faint signs of softening on both sides. The administration has offered to negotiate without preconditions. Critics of Barack Obama’s nuclear deal complain that the deal addressed only the nuclear issue and left other destabilizing Iranian activity, including ballistic missile testing and support for militant proxies, in place—Pompeo last year laid out 12 far-reaching demands touching on those and other issues he said would have to be a part of any new deal. But Trump seemed to walk that back slightly over the weekend, telling NBC’s Chuck Todd on Meet the Press: “I think they want to make a deal. And my deal is nuclear. Look, they’re not going to have a nuclear weapon. … I don’t think they like the position they’re in. Their economy is, is absolutely broken.”

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