After Donald Trump withdrew from the international nuclear agreement with Iran, ignoring much of his team and the judgment of key U.S. allies, the announcement was followed by a fairly obvious question: What are you going to do now, smart guy?
As the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank recently noted, after the president shared a “torrent of adjectives” to condemn the Iran deal, “Trump had few words left to say about what would happen next, beyond working with our allies (who oppose the U.S. reversal), economic sanctions on Iran (which does little business with the United States) and threatening Iran with military action for noncompliance (“bigger problems than it has ever had before”). In other words, he has no idea.”
Maybe Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has some idea? Maybe not.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned Monday that the United States would impose “the strongest sanctions in history” against Iran if it did not agree to change course.
“We will apply unprecedented financial pressure on the regime,” Pompeo said in his first major foreign policy address, delivered at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “The leaders in Tehran will have no doubt about our seriousness.”
Pompeo outlined an alternate path: reprieve from sanctions and restoration of full diplomatic and economic relations should Iran meet a list of 12 demands aimed at the heart of Iran’s foreign policy agenda.
The full list of demands is long and unrealistic. Stephen Walt, a professor of international affairs at Harvard, joked after the secretary of state’s remarks, “I’m still a bit surprised Pompeo didn’t demand that Iran agree to open a Trump-branded golf course in Teheran and pay for the wall with Mexico.”
But what struck me as important was Pompeo’s willingness to impose “the strongest sanctions in history” against Iran. Whether the Trump administration understands this or not, we already had the strongest sanctions in history against Iran.
Indeed, the Obama administration worked over the course of several years to create an international sanctions regime intended to force Tehran into diplomatic talks. It succeeded: Iran came to the table, the United States and its partners reached a historic agreement, and the policy worked as intended. It was, by some measures, the most impressive foreign policy achievement in a generation.
And then Trump threw it away for reasons he’s never been able to explain in any depth.
Pompeo may like the idea of creating a new sanctions regime, but that would require significant buy-in from our allies abroad – a group of countries Trump just ignored and betrayed. They no longer trust this administration, and given the circumstances, it’s tough to blame them.
All of which suggests something important: the Trump administration doesn’t really have a plan. It has an unrealistic fantasy, but not a policy.