This paper assesses the impact of US President Donald Trump’s campaign of ‘maximum pressure’ against Iran, and the potential for future negotiations. It draws on 75 off-the-record interviews with policymakers and analysts in 10 countries (the US, Iran, France, Germany, the UK, Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Israel).
Respondents generally did not foresee a ‘grand bargain’ on Iran as a viable outcome of the US strategy. Their scepticism reflected in part the Trump administration’s execution of a zero-sum, sanctions-focused strategy, and its limited understanding of Iran’s decision-making priorities and national interests. Interviewees suggested the current stand-off would not result in Washington’s sought-after results.
The maximum-pressure strategy has produced greater regional instability and anxiety among the US’s regional partners, resulting in a loss of US credibility in Europe and the Middle East. The unilateral US approach has not only created divisions with Europe over Iran policy, but has also allowed Russia and China to exploit this disunity to further their own economic and political interests. As evidenced by European efforts to save the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in the face of increasing Iranian pressure for economic benefits, Tehran has also been deftly turning these divisions to its advantage.
Tehran’s position is complicated by domestic dynamics. Iran has repeatedly demanded sanctions relief as a precursor to further negotiations. It will continue to do so until it receives some face-saving solution that would allow for more negotiations. At the same time, respondents repeatedly pointed out that Tehran’s calculations are not solely predicated on economic variables, but rather are focused on protecting the longevity of the Islamic Republic and shifting regional and international policy away from containment of Tehran.
Respondents saw a ‘JCPOA+’ model as the best outcome of the current stand-off. A new agreement along these lines would offer improvements on the original JCPOA, including extensions to its sunset clauses, greater International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) access to nuclear sites, expanded monitoring and verification of Iranian compliance, and codification of stated constraints on intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).
Interviewees widely agreed that regional issues – including Iranian support for state and non-state actors in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen – and Iran’s pattern of ballistic missile proliferation can only be addressed via a multilateral, European-led negotiation. For most respondents, Europe is one of the few actors with the credibility to manage relations across the region.
For regional actors such as Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), outsourcing the containment of Iran has proven ineffective. Instead, governments in these countries should consider crafting independent bilateral outreach, and a multilateral regional strategy that does not rely solely on containment but also includes engagement.
Read the full report at Chatham House.