With Trump's Iran Envoy Out, Change Is Needed | Opinion

On August 18, 2018, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo named Brian Hook, a senior State Department adviser, as his point man for Iran policy. Hook is vacating the job two years later with Washington's Iran policy in an even grimmer state than when he first came in. U.S.-Iran relations are in such troubled waters that the two powers were alarmingly close to going to war last January.

While it would be convenient to blame Hook for shredding a more diplomatic relationship with Iran, the truth is Washington's failures with Tehran are not the result of any one individual, but rather a U.S. policy that has produced the exact opposite of what its proponents anticipated. And until the Trump administration sees the error of its ways and reforms the way it deals with Tehran, the failure will simply congeal into a more hardened form.

Ever since May 2018, when President Donald Trump announced the formal U.S. withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear deal, Washington has depended on the stick to the exclusion of the carrot. The carrot, in this case, is coldhearted, pragmatic diplomacy that aims to de-escalate bilateral tensions, increase the international community's access to the Iranian nuclear program and produce momentum for a more productive relationship to the benefit of the U.S. interest. By attempting to bankrupt the Iranian economy and holding out for the most unrealistic of demands, the Trump administration strategy of "maximum pressure" has managed to make a bigger and better deal with Tehran far less likely.

The two-year-long maximum pressure campaign that Hook implemented during his tenure was built on top of a very dubious assumption: The more depleted Tehran's finances become, the more likely Iran's leadership will come to the table for a new round of negotiations. Those new negotiations would, in turn, produce a more comprehensive agreement littered with a far more expansive series of Iranian concessions, including a complete transformation of its decades-old foreign policy and the permanent end of Iran's uranium enrichment capability.

Unfortunately, proponents of the sanctions campaign not only overestimated Washington's coercive power, but underestimated Iran's ability to retaliate and resist.

There is no doubt U.S. secondary sanctions have a severely negative impact on Iran's finances. Countries around the world wary of being penalized by Washington are finding alternative suppliers for their energy needs. Iran's crude oil exports have declined from 2.5 million barrels per day in April 2018 to as low as 100,000 barrels per day in May 2020. Tehran has lost out on as much as $200 billion in foreign exchange and investment. The International Monetary Fund has projected Iran will lose 6 percent of its GDP this year.

None of this economic strangulation, however, has led the way to the policy capitulation Washington seeks. Tehran is not buckling under the pressure or suing for peace, but rather doubling down on the status quo, pursuing investment agreements with China to offset its lack of business transactions in the West and engaging in a wave of well-calculated reprisals in the nuclear realm. Iranian scientists have gradually increased the country's stockpile of low enrichment uranium and heavy water, thereby increasing Tehran's leverage in the event talks with Washington resume. Out of either hubris, miscalculation, excessive self-confidence or all of the above, U.S. officials have forgotten that Iran, fiercely protective of its sovereignty, has independent agency.

At this stage, diplomacy between Washington and Tehran is hard to envision. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, already extremely cynical about U.S. intentions in the Middle East, is now giving speeches about how foolish it was for his government to enter into nuclear negotiations with the U.S. in the first place. The same pragmatists within the Iranian government who staked their personal capital on making diplomacy with Washington work are now finding themselves sidelined or disenfranchised from the decision making. Hardliners like Khamenei, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the security establishment are today calling the shots—and right now, the U.S. maximum pressure campaign has persuaded all of them that negotiations with Washington are at best a ruse and at worst a trap.

Brian Hook
Brian Hook speaks to the media about Iran at the Department of State on June 2, 2018, in Washington, D.C. Hook is stepping down from his post as the State Department's special envoy for Iran, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced Thursday. Getty/Mark Wilson

If the U.S. maximum pressure strategy was crafted to force Iran into wholeheartedly accepting U.S. demands, the strategy has failed abysmally and created a cycle of escalation between the two adversaries with no end in sight.

Any U.S.-Iran grand bargain is far away—assuming such a bargain is remotely possible anymore. Right now, the U.S. objective with Iran should be limited to de-escalating the tensions that have accumulated over the past two years and gradually creating some space for officials on both sides to participate in the traditional, give-and-take diplomacy that forms the core of good statecraft. Washington may have dug itself into a hole, but there is still time left to climb out of it.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a columnist at the Washington Examiner.

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