U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to kill the Iranian general Qassem Suleimani, the architect of Iran’s political and military influence in the Middle East, and the Iranian response represent grave escalations in hostilities between the United States and Iran. While both sides have signaled a desire to pull back since these strikes, the world should not exhale too deeply. Trump has offered fresh threats of “punishing economic sanctions” on Iran, which he followed through with on Friday, imposing sanctions on more Iranian officials who had a direct role in the missile attacks, as well as more important economic sectors such as steel, aluminum, copper, and iron.
The continued use of U.S. sanctions, in the absence of negotiations and with a heightened military posture, means that the United States and Iran are locked into a confrontational stance with no plans for de-escalation.
In his speech on Jan. 8 addressing Iran’s attack on U.S. targets in Iraq, Trump said he wanted a new deal to replace the Iran nuclear accord. He refrained from announcing fresh strikes on Iranian targets. Many relieved observers have praised the move as a critical pause in hostilities.
But it would be going too far to call this a de-escalation. In the press conference held by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin Friday, they framed these new sanctions as immediate, painful economic pressure on Iran. This is consistent with the president’s aggressive sanctions posture since leaving the Iran nuclear deal. His penchant for tough sanctions, alongside a willingness to use lethal force, suggests that the administration seeks Iranian capitulation rather than peaceful negotiations. To realize true de-escalation, Trump would need to signal the possibility for sanctions relief in the context of a meaningful and structured diplomatic process. At the present moment, such measures appear remote, at best. As a result, all sides remain prepared for the possibility of further hostilities.
The current tit-for-tat cycle of hostilities between the two countries can be traced to a particular tipping point: Trump’s reimposition of punishing financial sanctions on Iran in 2018. Last year, this move galvanized Tehran’s campaign of attacks on shipping and energy targets, as well as U.S. installations and personnel, in the Middle East. It also elevated Tehran’s demands for sanctions relief as a precursor for returning to any negotiations with Washington.
Trump’s ominous sanctions threats are not a middle ground policy option meant to create space for diplomatic negotiation or de-escalation. His track record on Iran sanctions suggests that the White House sees sanctions as a windup to missile strikes or other hostile measures. Sanctions are a new signaling tool to advise U.S. adversaries of lethal intent. They also now appear to be a diplomatic démarche. Sanctions exceptions permit the U.S. State Department to issue visas to Iranian political leaders to attend United Nations meetings. But Trump just threw out this adherence to the U.N. Headquarters Agreement and denied Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s visa to travel to the U.N.
The strictures of sanctions can illuminate the possible future trajectories of U.S.-Iran tensions. These economic measures box Iran and the United States in, foreclosing certain de-escalatory paths in the bilateral relationship. The forced isolation and stigma of sanctions make it difficult for Iran to communicate with the United States and others. This can be a particular challenge for conflict management in tense times.
Sanctions also make humanitarian exchanges extraordinarily difficult. This exacts a human toll on Iranians only exacerbated by Iran’s own mismanagement of funds for critical social spending. As a political matter, the sanctions hamper a possible future move by the United States to permit further food and medicine delivery to Iran—an olive branch that could create a pause in frantic, escalating hostilities.
Additionally, adding more U.S. sanctions now, as Trump has promised, can make a climbdown politically infeasible with dug-in domestic constituencies in Iran and in the United States. As Zarif said ahead of the September 2019 U.N. General Assembly, “Abandon the illusion that Iran can be defeated by pressure.” For Iran, each additional sanction is a freshly humiliating and offensive gesture by its greatest adversary. For the United States, new sanctions are an affirmation of the policy of denunciation and distance from a repressive and brutal regime. For all sides, further sanctions erode the small measure of political feasibility that exists to find an accommodation and seek de-escalation.
Former U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew saw sanctions with Iran as a way to forestall war and create leverage for diplomacy. He suggested “sanctions … give policymakers a unique capability to exert pressure beyond diplomacy but short of military force to achieve foreign-policy goals.”
Trump appears to agree that sanctions inhabit a middle ground between military moves and diplomatic talk. This is why he invoked sanctions as a way to pause in hostilities with Iran. But this is hardly a de-escalation or pivot toward diplomacy.
The lesson Trump is delivering to us now about sanctions is that the United States and Iran are entrenched in a middle ground of forever sanctions. This is Trump’s preference and periodic, violent attacks by both sides are tolerable. Forever sanctions may pull back adversaries from an escalation into all-out hostilities and another forever war in the Middle East. But the economic pressure measures have their challenges, and they may ultimately forestall diplomacy and true de-escalation.