Hoover Institution (Stanford, CA) -- The Hoover Institution’s Hauck Auditorium was the venue for the nationally broadcast series Intelligence Squared US, which brings together the country’s top thinkers and practitioners for civil Oxford-style debates on the major issues facing America today.
The motion debated on the Stanford University campus was, “The maximum-pressure campaign against Iran is working.” Arguing for the motion were senior fellows Victor Davis Hanson and H. R. McMaster. Arguing against it were Research Fellow Abbas Milani and Martha Crenshaw, senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.
Prior to the debate, host and moderator John Donvan was joined on stage by Hoover Institution director Tom Gilligan and Robert Rosenkranz, Intelligence Squared founder and member of Hoover’s board of overseers.
Gilligan remarked that the Hoover Institution’s participation in the debate series was particularly fitting because of its commitment to high standards in empirical research and civil discourse in American society.
In his opening statement for the resolution, McMaster argued that the Trump administration’s maximum-pressure campaign of economic sanctions and deterrence, as exemplified by the strike against Iran’s military leader Qassim Soleimani, represents a clear break from four decades of failed conciliatory gestures to the Islamic Republic of Iran.
McMaster explained that the Iranian regime was born in hostility towards the United States beginning in 1979, when the US embassy was taken over and hostages held for over a year. He said that the consistent failure of successive American administrations to provide adequate responses to Iran’s behavior further emboldened the regime to authorize acts of terror against its own people, and throughout the Middle East and the world.
He listed a litany of incidents of Iranian aggression against the United States and its allies, including the 1983 bombing of the US Marine barracks in Lebanon, support for terror attacks by Hezbollah in Israel, the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, and the support of militias that have killed US troops in Afghanistan and Iraq over the past two decades.
“Goodwill with Iran does not beget goodwill,” said McMaster.
McMaster argued that the principal reason why maximum pressure is working today is that it has established a deterrence effect against Iran’s violence in the Middle East. Sanctions have politically and economically isolated the regime, as well as depleted the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps of the money and resources it needs to carry out attacks on foreign targets and exert control over Iran’s citizens.
Hanson added that the United States holds a strategic advantage and imposes sanctions on Iran at little cost. US troops have largely withdrawn from the Persian Gulf region, and the United States has achieved almost full energy independence. It is currently the world’s largest producer and will soon be the largest exporter of gas and oil.
“The world has changed,” Hanson said. “Iran does not have the levers of influence and power it once did.”
In her opening statement against the motion, Martha Crenshaw argued that a maximum-pressure campaign runs counter to US interests.
She said that the Trump administration is acting unilaterally in its strategy, alienating allies who were part of the multilateral coalition that agreed to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran in 2015. Furthermore, Crenshaw contended, applying maximum pressure has done little to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
“We simply don’t see the diplomatic part of maximum pressure,” said Crenshaw. “It is not producing the kind of change in Iranian behavior that we would really like to see.”
She cited a recent report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which states that Iran has tripled its stockpile of low-enriched uranium to 1,020 kg, and needs just an additional 30kg to produce a warhead.
Milani agreed with the premise that maximum pressure needs to be applied to Iran, but he said it must be done “with a surgeon’s scalpel, not a bludgeon.” He argued that current sanctions are unfairly hurting the Iranian people and denying them much needed foodstuffs and medicine. He said that a better strategy would be to help empower the Iranian people to induce regime change.
“We cannot have peace in the Middle East without a more democratic Iran. A more democratic Iran can be created and will be created only by the Iranian people,” Milani maintained.
In the second round of the debate, Donvan asked the participants to clarify their points and respond to their respective opposition’s arguments for the benefit of the audience, who would vote for or against the motion. This was followed by questions from the live audience and those watching on YouTube.
Hanson replied to Milani’s argument about the effect of sanctions on the Iranian people, explaining that their suffering is a short-term cost for the long-term peace dividend that would come as a result of the regime’s denuclearization.
He offered a reminder that history proves the case that, for authoritarian governments, “weakness is to be exploited.” At this moment, Hanson maintained, the United States must act firmly. As examples, he argued that President Reagan’s aggressive strategy against the Soviet Union led to its demise, and President Trump’s tough stance on China’s trade practices has caused Beijing to change its behavior.
McMaster contrasted the JCPOA with the maximum-pressure strategy, contending that the former resulted in billions in sanctions relief and cash payments to Iran—money that was used to support terrorist attacks across the Middle East. Meanwhile, maximum pressure reduced Iran’s military budget by 29 percent.
Milani and Crenshaw argued that the Trump administration’s maximum-pressure campaign may escalate the current conflict into a more serious global crisis. Milani noted that since the Soleimani strike, the Iranian regime made the unprecedented geostrategic move of conducting military exercises in the Persian Gulf with Russia and China. In addition, he believes, the regime has every incentive to nuclearize just as North Korea did, so as to protect its hold on power and gain leverage in possible future negotiations.
Each side maintained its original position in closing arguments. However, both conceded that there was essential agreement on the premise that pressure needs to be brought to bear on Iran. The fundamental disagreement was in how this should be done.
Prior to the debate, 41 percent of the audience was for the motion, 38 percent was against, and 21 percent was undecided. At the conclusion of the debate, 45 percent was for the motion, 48 percent was against, and 7 percent remained undecided. Thus, by a plurality of votes, the majority of the audience favored the arguments presented by Crenshaw and Milani.