Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s speech on May 21 only reinforced what was already known about Donald Trump’s strategy for Iran: Either the president is ratcheting up the pressure on Tehran to get a “better deal,” which is the official story and the gist of Pompeo’s message, or he is merely pretending to be interested in new negotiations, while putting into place the building blocks for a military assault on Iran. Yet even if Trump genuinely seeks new negotiations, he is more likely to end up in a war, because the very premise of Pompeo’s speech is false. That’s because more pressure on Iran would not have secured a better nuclear deal in 2015—it would only have led to war, or to a nuclear Iran.
A persistent mythology on the right insists that President Obama botched his own Iran strategy because he lacked the backbone to fully squeeze Tehran. Obama had assembled an impressive sanctions regime that was doing significant damage to Iran’s economy. With the value of its currency cut in half, its oil sales reduced to a trickle, and its GDP contracting by roughly 34 percent, Iran was on its knees, this narrative claims. All Obama had to do was to tighten the screws a bit more and give it another six months, and the mullahs in Tehran would have surrendered: No more Iranian nuclear program, no more challenges to US primacy in the Middle East, and no more defiance of Israel.
But, alas, Obama opted for compromise instead of forcing a capitulation. Rather than squeeze the country until it broke, he offered to lift the sanctions if Iran agreed to restrict its nuclear program. Tehran smelled Obama’s weakness, this mythology claims, and happily accepted the undeserved lifeline. The result was the 2015 nuclear agreement, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which granted Iran relief from nuclear-related sanctions in exchange for a large reduction in its stockpile of enriched uranium and its number of centrifuges, as well as periodic intrusive inspections of every element of its nuclear-fuel cycle by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Iran would still be able to enrich uranium, but only to 3.67 percent—well below what’s needed to produce a nuclear weapon.
Now Trump is seeking to reverse this alleged mistake by reimposing sanctions. Then, once the moment is right, he will go back to the negotiating table—this time not to negotiate, however, but to accept Iran’s capitulation. It all sounds so wonderful, simple, and tidy. What could possibly go wrong?
Everything. Indeed, the very premise of the right-wing narrative is wrong: Iran was not about to capitulate, and US leverage over the country was waning—not growing. When Obama first sought to cripple Iran’s economy to force Tehran to submit, Iran responded by doubling down on its nuclear program. When Obama took office in 2009, Iran operated roughly 8,000 centrifuges; by 2013, it had added another 14,000. Iran had also increased its stockpile of low-enriched uranium eightfold and significantly advanced its nuclear know-how, all of which provided Tehran with counter-leverage. In January 2012, the United States estimated that Iran’s breakout capacity—the time it would take to have enough material for one nuclear bomb—was 12 months. By 2013, that time had shrunk to eight to 12 weeks.