Iran's national flags are seen on a square in Tehran a day before the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, February 2012.
Morteza Nikoubazi / REUTERS

U.S. President Donald Trump appears to be on the brink of withdrawing the United States from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the landmark 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran. He faces a May 12 deadline to renew waivers of key U.S. sanctions on Iran, and despite pressure from French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel to do so, Trump seems set to deliver on his January threat to stop waiving sanctions and to kill the deal.

JCPOA critics inside and outside the administration assume that the simple act of letting U.S. sanctions waivers lapse will result in crippling economic pressure on Iran. This pressure, they argue, will give Washington leverage to renegotiate the deal’s limits on Iran’s nuclear program and to press Tehran to curb its support for Syrian Hezbollah and other malign activities throughout the Middle East.

The reality of how sanctions work, however, is far more complicated. It took the combined efforts of Congress and two U.S. presidents—George W. Bush and Barack Obama—nearly a decade to cripple Iran’s economy. Rebuilding economic pressure after Washington pulls out from the JCPOA would be an even greater challenge, given international opposition

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  • PETER HARRELL is an Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a lawyer who advises on sanctions compliance. He served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Counter Threat Finance and Sanctions from 2012 to 2014.
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