With Bolton Gone, It's Time to Discard Trump's Failing Maximum Pressure Strategy on Iran | Opinion

Diplomacy between Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and President Donald Trump appeared close to a breakthrough as recently as two weeks ago. French President Emmanuel Macron was reportedly standing outside Rouhani's hotel suite waiting to take the Iranian President to a secure room to speak on the phone with Trump, who was waiting on the other line. But the Iranian leader did not even leave his room. Rouhani, evidently, could not trust a President who has reneged on the last Iran deal to keep his word on a new one—or, at least, would not take the political risk of trusting him. More that a shallow phone call from Trump was needed to change that. Rouhani needed a substantive shift he could sell back home.

What mediation attempts by U.S. allies like France and even Japan tend miss is how backbreaking Trump's "maximum pressure" policy has been—not only to Iran's economy, but also politically, to the more moderate voices in Iran. When Iran and the P5+1 agreed to the Joint-Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), hardliners in Tehran consistently claimed that the United States could not be trusted in a deal. Trump proved them right when he withdrew. Having spent great political capital on the deal, Rouhani has since been forced to acquiesce to hardline views in Tehran.

The shift in the Rouhani administration's diplomatic posture is clear. Whereas former Secretary of State John Kerry was able to simply call Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif when U.S. sailors were detained in the Persian Gulf and get them released them in less than a day, there is no now quick way to manage the high tensions in the Persian Gulf that led to such incidents as the takedown of a U.S. drone by Iran. In Rouhani's own words, the "situation is not suitable for talks and our choice is resistance only." Rouhani needs Trump to make a substantive shift in order to counter the strengthening of hardline views that has fed off of Trump's rhetoric.

Fortunately, the French plan could auger a shift from Trump. Rouhani declared Macron had a plan that would lift some of the sanctions on Iran, as Iran had been demanding. According to the plan, if Iran agreed to never develop a nuclear weapon (already in the original JCPOA) and assure peaceful passage for trade through the Persian Gulf, the U.S. would stop sanctioning its oil exports. Trump apparently agreed to this plan in principle. All that was lacking was his willingness to agree publicly to lift sanctions.

This could be the off-ramp the Trump administration had yet to provide in its "maximum pressure" campaign, especially when former National Security Adviser John Bolton was at the helm. The results of "maximum pressure" had been detained oil tankers, bombed oil facilities in Saudi Arabia, and being mere minutes away from U.S. military strikes against Iran that would have led to regional war. Beyond the moral questions of sanctions and its effect on the local population, the "maximum pressure" strategy prevents diplomacy and encourages U.S. allies like Saudi Arabia to act with greater bellicosity. It creates a moral hazard in America's engagement with local allies, who emboldened into recklessness by U.S. backing. It's beyond time to declare "maximum pressure," and the array of crises it has created, dead.

The JCPOA not only lowered the risk of Iran developing a nuclear weapon, but it also provided the United States with an opportunity to extract itself from the moral hazard problem it has with its allies in the region and even from the Middle East itself.

At the time, President Obama said that "our friends as well as the Iranians... need to find an effective way to share the neighborhood." But instead of encouraging diplomacy that could have led to a "cold peace," as the former president put it, his administration sold weapons to the Saudis and green-lighted the war in Yemen. Combine that policy with Trump's election and withdrawal from the JCPOA, and you get Gulf Countries that feel overly confident that they can confront Tehran. After all, the U.S. seems to guarantee their security.

Interestingly enough, the moment the Trump administration showed its unwillingness to strike Iran after Iran took down its drone, the Saudis and the UAE relaxed their own stance toward Tehran. And the absence of response to bombing of Saudi oil facilities has since sharpened the lesson. The Trump administration's restraint created an opening two new diplomatic endeavors: the UAE coast guard sent a delegation to Tehran for the first time in six years and the Saudis asked Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi's government to mediate between them and Tehran.

In other words, the tough rhetoric, aggressive military posture, and draconian sanctions that characterized the Trump administration's "maximum pressure" strategy left the United States with no diplomatic off-ramp and aggressive allies that were unwilling to deescalate tensions with their neighbor. It also left Rouhani and his allies under pressure from Tehran's own hawks that prefer the status quo with the U.S. When Trump decided against striking Iran and showed willingness to lift sanctions on Iran in order to pursue diplomacy, tensions in the Persian Gulf began to lower and Rouhani was able to express low-level interest in talks with Washington.

If the risk of another Middle Eastern quagmire is to be eliminated, the Trump administration should engage in diplomacy and encourage its allies in the region to further their diplomacy with Iran. As we have seen over the last several months, the only logical conclusion to "maximum pressure" is war and that is not in anyone's interest. With Bolton fired, his policies should be fired with him.

Shahed Ghoreishi is a U.S. foreign policy analyst. His work can be found in The Atlantic, The Huffington Post, and The National Interest, among others. He's a graduate of Johns Hopkins SAIS. You can follow him on Twitter @shahedghoreishi.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​