The Trump administration's Iran policy is known as the "maximum pressure" campaign, and it's predicated on a relatively straightforward idea: the U.S. will impose such severe burdens on Iran that officials in Tehran will have no choice but to come to the table, negotiate, and reach some kind of nuclear agreement with the West.
The Obama administration adopted a nearly identical strategy, and it worked to great effect, culminating in a successful and effective international agreement. Donald Trump killed that policy, vowing to replace it with a better one.
So far, however, the Republican White House appears to be moving backwards, with Iran now accelerating its nuclear program. As the New York Times explained last week, the American president's "gambit has effectively backfired."
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Team Trump still doesn't quite see it that way. White House National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien made multiple Sunday-show appearances yesterday, but it was this quote on Fox News that appeared to generate the most attention. From the network transcript:
"Look, I think the maximum pressure campaign is working. It's demonstrable that it's working. The Iranian economy is contracted by at least 10 percent. I mean, we haven't seen that with a modern economy in many, many years. Iran went from producing 3 to 4 million barrels of oil a day down to 150,000 to 400,000 barrels depending on the day. Iran is being choked off and Iran's going to have no other choice but to come to the table."
Hours later, O'Brien's boss stepped all over this line with a tweet. "National Security Adviser suggested today that sanctions & protests have Iran 'choked off', will force them to negotiate," Donald Trump wrote. "Actually, I couldn't care less if they negotiate."
Not to put too fine a point on this, but Trump's tweet is badly at odds with his own policy.
The whole point of the White House strategy is to force Iran into negotiations. As of yesterday, the president says he no longer cares about negotiations, suggesting he's engaged in a "maximum pressure" campaign ... just for the sake of a "maximum pressure" campaign.
I can appreciate why June seems like ages ago, but it was just last summer that Trump told reporters that if Iran were willing to forgo a nuclear-weapons program, "they are going to have a wealthy country, they're going to be so happy, and I'm going to be their best friend."
It now appears the president has no use for his policy; he doesn't want Iran to be a wealthy country; and he no longer wants to be Tehran's friend.
What Trump's policy will look like tomorrow is anyone's guess.
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