In four years, Donald Trump has stepped up sanctions against opponents of the United States like never before, but this policy of “maximum pressure” applied around the world has not had the desired results.
“Sanctions have clearly been the Trump administration’s favored tool in responding to rogue regimes,” Richard Goldberg of the AFP told AFP. Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) which advocates this hard line.
“Previous administrations used sanctions, but in a more narrow or targeted manner,” he adds, without seeking “macroeconomic upheavals to destabilize governments and force them to change their attitude.”
Until the end, 25 days before the presidential election, the US government announces punitive measures against Cuba, Syria or Belarus almost daily.
Sometimes it still strikes a blow: the Treasury cracked down on the 18 Iranian “main banks” on Thursday.
Washington will have tightened the screws on almost every sector of the country since President Trump left the Iran nuclear deal in 2018.
This “maximum pressure campaign” was theorized in May 2018 by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who set out twelve conditions for reaching a “new deal” with Tehran.
The stated objective: to bend the Iranian authorities by suffocating their economy so that they agree to “change their behavior”. The Trump administration has always denied, without necessarily convincing, seeking regime change.
Today, none of Mike Pompeo’s conditions are met, and the Islamic Republic has even relaunched, in retaliation, some nuclear activities that bring it closer to the making of an atomic bomb.
“The government will say ‘we have weakened Iran’, which is true, but there has been no real change in Iranian behavior,” said Thomas Wright of the Brookings Institution think tank.
For Richard Goldberg, “the success” of a sanctions policy “depends on the objectives set.”
“In Iran, the regime has considerably fewer resources to spend on its nefarious activities, which in itself is a victory for the national security of the United States,” he said. And in his eyes, “the regime will be forced to negotiate in 2021 with whoever wins the US presidential election.”
On the contrary, Barbara Slavin of the Atlantic Council think tank sees the latest sanctions as “sadism disguised as foreign policy” as “they will not bring the Iranian government to its knees but will weaken ordinary people.”
In Venezuela, the American intention was very clear: to oust President Nicolas Maduro, deemed illegitimate, from power.
But the socialist leader is still there. “Trump lost interest in the matter when he saw that Maduro was not leaving,” said Thomas Wright.
The result is more nuanced in North Korea. After a series of nuclear tests and intercontinental missile fire, Washington succeeded in 2017 in rallying the international community to the UN to impose draconian sanctions.
Backed by the military threat, this helped bring North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to the negotiating table in three historic meetings with Donald Trump.
“Trump ended up giving in a lot,” in “a sort of de facto deal that freezes intercontinental fire and nuclear testing in exchange for a more peaceful relationship,” Wright said.
But the “complete, definitive and verifiable denuclearization of North Korea,” long touted as the only valid outcome, remained in limbo as Pyongyang even continued its atomic activities.
Yet with their sanctions against Iran, the Americans have demonstrated their full force.
Not only did they target Iranian institutions, leaders and companies, they also matched their so-called “secondary” sanctions measures: any country or company that continues to trade with Tehran is in turn targeted.
The effect is drastic. European countries tried by all means to maintain their trade relations with Iran to save the 2015 agreement, but the price to pay was too high, as their companies risked being barred from accessing the vast markets and American financial sector.
“The main lesson of the past four years is what the United States can do on its own, without the support of its traditional allies,” said Richard Goldberg. “It is a game changer. “
Will this use of sanctions remain as an achievement of American diplomacy?
“There is a growing consensus among politicians that they must be part of a larger strategy, and not a strategy in itself” as has sometimes been the case in recent years, explains Thomas Wright.