The Trump administration ambitiously set out to cut Iranian oil exports to zero and force it to the negotiating table, but as more sanctions are imposed, it seems the effect is slower than expected.

The US Treasury Department on June 7, 2019, announced a new phase of sanctions that target the Iranian petrochemical industry and its affiliated companies.

The decision came only a month after the Trump administration targeted the Iranian gold and metal industries earlier in May 2019. This new round of sanctions is in addition to the existing sanctions on Iranian oil exports. 

But a year after the unilateral withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, have the US sanctions been successful?

When President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of the United States from the deal l in May 2018, he seemed very confident that these sanctions would force Iran to eventually compromise and negotiate another deal with his administration. However, a year after the heavy sanctions and the setting of a new phase of sanctions indicates that the US government is not very satisfied with the results.

The aims and strategies 

The US government withdrew from the deal due to reasons that were not negotiated under the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA).

In his initial speech on May 8 2018, when he signed the withdrawal executive order, Trump was critical of the JCPOA not only because it allowed Iran to continue enriching uranium but most importantly because it could not limit what he called “other malign activities.”

Trump envisioned an alternative deal which would include not only the Iran nuclear programme but also restrict Iran’s missiles programme and military presence in the Middle East. Based on what Trump said, the ultimate goal was to isolate Iran by all means necessary. This is, of course, not unique to the Trump administration, but has been more or less the attitude of the United States government since the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

Soon after the withdrawal, in August 2018, Trump signed the order to re-impose sanctions on Iran with a few exceptions granted for six months for a number of countries including China and Turkey. 

Brian Hook, US Special Representative for Iran, in a press release introduced these sanctions as a mechanism to “change the behaviour of the Iranian leadership” and mentioned that the US strategy to inflict on Iran what he called “maximum economic and diplomatic pressure”. 

Hook also seemed confident that the US could reduce Iranian oil exports to zero.

To implement these sanctions and achieve a favourable result, Trump consulted with a group of hardliners including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, National Security Advisor John Bolton, Hook and of course Trump’s admirer Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Regional alliances against Iran were also emphasised especially by the inclusion of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, while the traditional European partners preferred to keep their distance. In one year the Trump administration sanctioned the Iranian oil industry, automotive industry, banking system, and named the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organisation. It is now ending oil export exemptions, metal and petrochemical industries.

Even Instagram banned the former IRGC commanders on its social platform and Google cut services for Iranian English and Spanish media outlets, Press TV and Hispan TV for a while.

In addition to the maximum diplomatic and economic pressure exerted on Iran, the US government had also taken on diplomatic and non-economic measures by deploying warships in the Gulf, ensuring massive arms sales to Saudi Arabia, and increasing security measures in their military bases in the region. 

Such harsh measures against a nation are rare in the history of international relations and, despite the comments of US officials, they seem aimed at a regime change in Iran.

The results

The Trump administration was relatively successful in targeting the Iranian economy and society and creating high inflation, a currency crisis and the occasional scarcity of consumer products. Many foreign companies have decided to leave Iranian industries and have put an end to their activities in Iran.

However, we do not see any particular change of behaviour from the Iranian government to signal its willingness to negotiate its military presence in the region, missiles programme or support of pro-Iranian armed groups. On the contrary, Pompeo and military officials have raised concerns over potential Iranian interference in Venezuela.  

The Trump administration also seems to have serious difficulties in reducing Iranian exports to zero as even after a year of heavy sanctions and the lifting of exemptions.  The Iranian diplomacy mechanism also seems to have been successful in counterbalancing US diplomatic pressure by establishing strong constructive relations with most of its neighbouring countries. Iranian Foreign Affaris Minister Javad Zarif and Pompeo’s frequent visits to Iraq can serve as a good example here.

During the last three years as the elected president of the United States Donald Trump withdrew from multiple international treaties, began trade wars with various countries and engaged in diplomatic conflicts that exhausted him and his crew. 

Few of his campaign promises have come true, too. There is no wall with Mexico, no deal with North Korea, no deal with Iran and serious economic warfare with China that does not seem to be ending soon. Considering the short time until the presidential elections in 2020, the Trump administration feels the urge to “wrap up” the situation if it wants to be re-elected. This might explain why it “passed a direct phone number” to Switzerland in case Iranian officials want to contact him.

With Ayatollah Khamenei’s clear message last month that “there won’t be a war and we won’t negotiate”, we will have to wait and see what would be next step of the US government and the Trump crew in dealing with Iran.

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