When it comes to curbing Iran’s ambitions in the Middle East, the American policy experts are polarized between two positions. The first is the reinstatement of the Iran Deal (i.e. the JCPOA). This position is popular among the Democrats. The second is continuing Trump’s unilateral maximum pressure strategies, which is rather (if not completely) popular among Republicans. The next president of the United States – be it Biden or Trump – will be better off not adhering to any of these two positions. And it is for good reason.
To understand why neither Obama’s nor Trump’s approaches were effective against Iran, allow me to first illustrate an everyday life scenario. Imagine a hungry person with a $100 budget. If we want to starve this person out, it is not useful to take away a significant sum of their money. Say, if they are left with $5, they will not give up eating. They rather will find a gas station and buy a bag of beef jerky in the corner store. It is true that they will not be enjoying a wide array of options including a steak chateaubriand at a fancy steakhouse. If we manage to take this person’s whole $100, this will not make them give up on eating either. They will consider stealing or finding someone else who can share their food for a favor. One way or another they will figure something out to avoid starvation.
Now imagine that this person is Iran, their hunger is Iran’s aims to influence the Middle East region, the $100 is Iran’s military capabilities, going to the steakhouse is Iran’s direct use of armed forces, buying jerky from a corner store is Iran’s support for terrorism, and taking away from $100 is imposing economic sanctions on Iran. Finally, suppose that China is this someone who can share their food for a favor.
What Trump and to a lesser extent Obama administration did was to focus on reducing Iran’s material capabilities. They however ignored the fact that Iran could pursue its ambitions through different means given what available resources it has. With enough resources, it can dispatch its army directly or send vast sums of aid to the regimes it supports. With reduced resources, it can rely on its Quds Force to sponsor and organize non-state militant groups. In the end of the day, focusing on Iran’s capabilities does not necessarily deprive Iran from pursuing its ambitions.
How Has Iran Been Responding to Sanctions?
Economic sanctions from UN or the US for the most part crippled Iran’s capability of waging direct wars or using its military directly in the Middle East. However, as an alternative, it moved on to a cheaper and clumsier alternative – sponsorship of militant groups that use terrorist tactics. Iran’s foreign policy ambitions remained the same. Thus, unfortunately, sanctions might have pushed Iran to be a sponsor of terrorism.
Historical data corroborates how Iran’s pro-terrorism foreign policy developed in the presence of sanctions. The Islamic Republic received its very first severe sanction right in 1979. According to data collected by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the year 1980 marks the first time Iran supplies Hezbollah with weapons. These weapons were worth around 0.5 million US Dollars. In 1984, the US imposed new major sanctions on Iran. Subsequently, Iran more than doubled its 1980 weapon transfers to Hezbollah. In 1988, the UK and the US threatened Iran with new severe sanctions. The following years, Iran not only shipped weapons worth 1 Million Dollars to Hezbollah, but also Hezbollah conducted six terrorist attacks in Lebanon and 3 in Turkey.
From 1995 and on, the US and NATO imposed additional sanctions on Iran. Yet, the results were not different than before. Data from SIPRI shows that Iran doubled its previous amount of weapon shipments in 1996 and carried on with the same amount until 2006 (except 1997). In 2006, Iran again received new UN sanctions. Subsequently, Hezbollah received a record number of weapons worth $6 million from – again- Iran. SIPRI does not have any record of Iranian weapon shipments to Hezbollah from 2006 on. Nevertheless, Hezbollah is recorded to have conducted at least two notable terrorist attacks shortly after 2006.
Publicly available data on Iran’s terror sponsorship is well-limited. However, there is a quite noticeable pattern of the Islamic Regime delegating deadly action to Hezbollah after it receives sanctions. So, basically, sanctions put an economic pressure on Iran because of which it has trouble using its army directly or developing nuclear weapons. Yet, as a consequence, it switches gears and conducts a foreign policy agenda driven by the sponsorship of terrorist groups.
Why JCPOA was not as good as it seemed?
The JCPOA (the Iran Deal) of 2015 seemed like a huge success on behalf of the Obama administration. Iran would not enrich uranium at the levels of developing a nuclear weapon. In return, it would receive a significant sum of sanctions relief. However, JCPOA might have partially cost the US the Syrian Civil War. Shortly after the treaty, we observed a unique change in Iran’s foreign policy approach. Iran not only directly sent a thousand of its Quds force but also a smaller size of its traditional Artesh army soldiers to support Syria’s Assad regime. Put it differently: Iran sent almost two thousand soldiers to a country it is not even contiguous with. This was in addition to the 15 Million Dollars that it channeled to the Assad regime.
What did Trump do Wrong?
In 2018, the Trump administration announced the US’ withdrawal from the JCPOA and unilaterally reinstated a ban on Iran’s oil sales. Subsequently, in 2019, Iran increased its support for Hamas to $30 Million per month. Given the Islamic Regime of Iran’s history, this increase is hardly a coincidence. When the Trump administration pressured Iran with sanctions, the latter decided to allocate more funds to sponsoring a militant group notorious for employing terrorist tactics.
Towards the end of 2019, America’s severe sanctions against Iran’s commercial, financial sectors and political elites were again not highly effective. Iran still maintained its terror sponsorship agenda. Even the assassination of Qaseem Soleimani did not deter the Islamic Regime. In fact, Iran quickly found a new commander for the Quds force – Esmail Ghaani who swore to avenge his mentor Soleimani. Iran continued to act in shadows despite severe sanctions. Thus, the Trump Administration’s maximum pressure approach was far from yielding fruitful results.
Is There a Better Approach?
As long as Iran has security concerns, it will figure out a strategy to maintain its security in the Middle East one way or the other. With greater resources, it will directly get involved in wars to thwart the Saudi influence. Yet, with sanctions-reduced resources, it will operate in the shadows by supporting Hamas and Hezbollah.
First, the maximum pressure strategy is wrong. If the sanctions completely cripple the Iranian economy to the extent that it will not be able to support terrorism, Iran will then seek stronger allies. Iranians recently unveiled a draft that points to an economic partnership between Iran and China. This not only shows Iran’s despair under Trump era economic sanctions, but also its determination to maintain its foreign policy ambitions. Hence, my argument stands…
Second, the solution to the Iran problem is not a deal such as the JCPOA either. The Obama Administration and the other signatories placed too much emphasis on Iran’s ability to build nukes. Nukes are not the only way for Iran to maximize its security throughout the Middle East. Despite the West’s goodwill back in 2015, Iran did not shy away from directly supporting Assad who the US was/is opposed to.
The next president of the United States should pay greater attention to understanding Iran’s foreign policy ambitions than trying to fruitlessly curb its resources with sanctions. Iran is concerned with the pressure from its rivals in the Middle East region. Saudi Arabia is Iran’s main rival. The United States’ rapprochement with Saudi Arabia in the last two decades significantly contributed to Iran’s security concerns. So, rapprochement with Saudi Arabia and then sanctions against Iran are potentially the poorest way to curb Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism. As the experts typically suggest, direct diplomacy and communication still appears to be the optimal way to deal with Iran. Add reason on top of that.
 For those interested in the mathematically driven theory inspiring this argument, see Glenn Palmer and T. Clifton Morgan (2006) A Theory of Foreign Policy Princeton University Press.
 T. Clifton Morgan, Navin Bapat and Valentin Krustev (2009) “The Threat and Imposition of Economic Sanctions, 1971-2000” Conflict Management and Peace Science 26(1): 92-110
 See https://www.idf.il/en/minisites/iran/iran-in-syria/iranian-forces-deployed-in-syria/ . Artesh army is Iran’s remnant armed forces from the Shah era. The IRGC, however was created as the revolutionary guard with complete loyalty to Khomeini and the subsequent spiritual leaders.