WASHINGTON – The United States and Iran may have pulled back from the brink of war, but they have refused to stand down since the U.S. drone strike in January that killed Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of Tehran’s elite Quds Force.
Instead, the two adversaries have needled each other with increasing pressure. The Trump administration has imposed new sanctions against Iran, while Tehran has flouted Washington’s warnings by shipping weapons to Shiite allies in the Middle East. Iranian-backed militias continue to attack bases in Iraq where Americans are deployed.
The stalemate could last for another year at least, officials and experts say. As Iran leaders grapple with a severe coronavirus outbreak and occasional protests, its leaders are signaling it will wait out the American presidential election in November to decide whether to open new nuclear negotiations with world powers. In the meantime, Congress wants to clip President Donald Trump’s authority to strike Iran.
With Secretary of State Mike Pompeo scheduled to brief the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Friday about the administration’s next steps, here is a look at where things stand.
The administration is sticking with ‘maximum pressure.’
Pompeo will be asked about the decision to kill Soleimani in the Jan. 3 strike in Baghdad after an Iranian-backed militia had protested at the U.S. Embassy. But Congress appeared unconvinced of the urgency of the strike: Both the House and Senate have since voted to restrain Trump’s war powers against Iran.
Over the past two months, the Trump administration has imposed more sanctions against Iran’s oil exports, metals, manufacturing and textile industries, as well as against some of the country’s military commanders, senior officials in its government and officials involved in its elections and nuclear program.
The sanctions are the main tool being wielded by the Trump administration in its push for new limits to Tehran’s nuclear and military programs.
European allies and other world powers have opposed the sanctions against Iran — particularly the oil embargo — while Arab Gulf States have supported them. But both sides are now united over worries that the U.S. pressure campaign will end any hope of negotiating a new nuclear agreement.
In Europe, officials do not believe the maximum pressure campaign has curbed Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon.
New nuclear negotiations are unlikely soon.
Two senior Middle Eastern officials who speak to the Trump administration regularly on Iran said they do not expect Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran, to agree to start new negotiations with the United States soon. Instead, they said, he will wait to see the outcome of the U.S. presidential election in November before deciding on a new strategy.
Trump said he wants to strike a new deal with Iran that is more expansive than the 2015 nuclear treaty that the Obama administration brokered with world powers and Tehran — and from which Trump withdrew the U.S. in 2018. Administration officials say they are looking not only for tougher restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program, but also for limits on its ballistic missile efforts and its support for regional militias.