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The basis of President Trump’s strategy on Iran is to coerce change through economic warfare. There are reasons to agree or disagree with Trump’s pull-out from the Iran nuclear deal, but to argue either that Tehran is impervious to pressure or that trade with Iran provides the best path to moderation are both false.
Firstly, pressure: Twice in the nearly 40 years since the Islamic Revolution, the Iranian government staked out extreme positions only to reverse course under pressure. The first example would be the 52 U.S. hostages, seized 39 years ago Sunday. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini ruled out their release until the U.S. fulfilled a host of demands including confessions, apologies, the Shah’s return (he would die of cancer in the interim), and compensation. These were impossible conditions to fulfill and yet, the day former President Ronald Reagan took office, Iran released the American captives.
What happened? Carter administration aides later said it was the persistence of former President Jimmy Carter’s diplomacy. Gary Sick, a White House National Security Council aide, spun the wild “October Surprise” conspiracy theory later discredited by congressional investigation. A late aide to former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Peter Rodman, however, observed that the only thing that had changed for Iran between Khomeini’s initial demands and the hostage release was Iraq’s invasion. Simply put, the isolation that the hostage situation precipitated had, in the new circumstances, become too great for Iran to bear.
The second time Iran reversed course was with regard to the Iran-Iraq War. Iran had largely pushed out the Iraqi invaders in 1982. Khomeini briefly considered a cease-fire then, but the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps convinced him to continue fighting until they had liberated not Baghdad, but Jerusalem. There followed six more years of stalemate and at least a half-million more deaths. Finally, Iran could take no more. Khomeini got on the radio and accepted a cease-fire, likening it to drinking a chalice of poison but saying it was necessary for the Islamic republic to survive. Facing tremendous costs, Khomeini caved.
What about the opposite? German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel in 1993 suggested that if Europe increased its trade with Iran, Iran would moderate and Western diplomats could simultaneously tackle the hard questions confronting relations.
This is an argument made more recently by Washington Post columnist Jason Rezaian. But Rezaian cherry-picked and ignored the history. Between 1998 and 2005, European Union trade with Iran almost tripled, and the price of oil quintupled. Iran took 70 percent of that hard-currency windfall and invested it in its then-covert nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
Increasing trade doesn’t work. Today, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps controls up to 40 percent of Iran’s economy. Increasing trade with Iran doesn’t moderate the regime — it finances it.
The point of this? There is much to debate about Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s approach to Iran. It is not clear if they can find the unity to coerce Iran to the degree necessary to make change. The number of waivers that the Trump administration has granted hardly equates to Khomeini’s proverbial “chalice of poison.”
But when it comes to the basic fundamentals of their approach: Yes, pressure can change Iran’s behavior.
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