Maximum pressure has been a failure

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, right, and National Security Advisor John Bolton look on as President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, June 20, 2019. While Trump’s advisers have argued his contemplation of a strike should stand as a warning to Iran, some Iranian Revolutionary Guard leaders appear to have concluded the opposite: that Trump is determined to avoid a fight, and that the downing of the drone has strengthened their hand in any future negotiations. (Erin Schaff/The New York Times)
Erin Schaff/The New York Times
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (left) and National Security Advisor John Bolton look on as President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting in the Oval Office at the White House, June 20.

Americans are now seeing the limitations of the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” foreign policy — and not just with Iran but with Cuba as well.

Our relationships with both were on the upswing during Barack Obama’s administration. We were moving toward normalized relations with Cuba. But staffed with myopic hawks and a hatred of all things Obama, the Trump administration has done its best to reverse the former president’s policies, reimposing restrictions on tourism and travel with that Caribbean country.

We were also in a period of detente with Iran. No more. We’re now in a time of high tensions, brinkmanship, downed drones, and air strikes (wisely) called off at the 11th hour, all ultimately tracing back to the Trump administration’s decision to abandon the nuclear deal that had been signed with Iran by the United States, France, Russia, China, Germany, Britain, and the European Union.


That pact reduced short-to-medium-term worries about Iran obtaining a nuclear bomb by setting strict limits both on the degree to which it enriched uranium and on its stockpile of that nuclear fuel, applicable for 15 years. It also required Iran to alter a heavy-water reactor so it couldn’t produce weapons-grade plutonium, and gave the International Atomic Energy Agency inspection rights to the entirety of Iran’s uranium-mining-refining-and-disposal cycle for 25 years.

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Trump pulled out because the enrichment and stockpiling limitations weren’t permanent, saying that once they expired, Iran would be free to build nuclear weapons. Not really. With its longer-term inspection rights, the IAEA would have known if uranium was being diverted for that purpose. If so, the United States would have the same range of possible responses as it did before the deal.

Still, intent on making the perfect the enemy of the good, Trump has insisted Iran can be pressured into a permanent deal — and more. In a May speech at the conservative Heritage Foundation, Secretary of State Pompeo demanded unrestricted IAEA access to all sites around the country and insisted that Iran end any missile program with nuclear capability.

But the speech went far beyond that. Among other things, Pompeo demanded that Iran cease military support for Syria, quit backing the Houthi rebels in Yemen, and discontinue aid for any organization the United States considers a terrorist group. His bill of particulars would essentially require Shiite Iran to conduct its foreign policy according to the wishes of the United States, its Sunni Middle East allies, and Israel.

That is hugely unrealistic. But in its attempt to force Iranian agreement, the administration has clamped on damaging economic sanctions, unsuccessfully pressured other nations to abandon the pact, and bullied foreign companies to cease commerce with Iran. The aim is to bring Iran to its economic knees. Instead, those sanctions have triggered (what appear to be) Iranian mine attacks on oil tankers and the downing of a US drone.


Unlike Iran, Cuba doesn’t present any real threat to the United States, despite the administration fulminations about that nation’s foreign policy. Our Cuban policy is driven by right-wing hatred of its communist regime, an apparent desire to negate everything President Obama did, and a political instinct to pander to Florida’s conservative Cuban expat community. But that renewed toughness toward Cuba is unlikely to bring about regime change, any more than the US embargo did during its long duration. Instead, it will enhance the Cuban government’s sway by uniting the Cuban people in solidarity against the United States. Letting travel, tourism, and commerce grow is a far better way to promote change from within.

With Iran, the better course would be to reenter the nuclear deal and then try to negotiate an extension, and enhancement, of that agreement.

With both nations, we are currently seeing the folly of a foreign policy built on absolutism, sanctions, and bullying, and devoid of subtlety, deftness, or realism.

Or success.