A year ago this week, the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump kicked off what it called a “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran. The United States had withdrawn from the Iran nuclear deal in May 2018. In November, it reimposed a raft of economic sanctions squeezing Iranian oil exports and curtailing the country’s access to the international financial system. Some analysts predicted that Iran’s friends in Europe and Asia would defy the United States to lend Iran economic help. Others reckoned that the sanctions would send Iran’s economy into a “death spiral,” leaving Tehran the choice to either surrender or collapse. Neither of these predictions came to pass.
Rather, Iran now enters its second year under maximum pressure strikingly confident in its economic stability and regional position. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and other hard-liners are therefore likely to continue on their current course: Iran will go on tormenting the oil market while bolstering its non-oil economy—and it will continue expanding its nuclear program while refusing to talk with Washington.
FRIENDS LIKE THESE
Even after the United States withdrew from the nuclear deal, Iran expected that other parties to the agreement would help shore up its economy. After all, the deal’s signatories had committed to sustaining Iranian oil exports. Owing to U.S. pressure, however, this support never materialized. Europe did help devise a financial mechanism that would bypass U.S. sanctions, but the mechanism will only handle humanitarian trade. Ultimately, European governments could do only so much to support trade with Iran, because they could not force private companies to defy U.S. sanctions.
Nor did other friendly governments—China, Russia, and India—pick up the slack. These countries all have higher priorities that they don’t wish to jeopardize in their relations with the United States. For China, trade negotiations and the broader strategic relationship take top billing. Russia wants to avoid giving Congress another reason to pursue sanctions against the Kremlin. And India is keen to deepen
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