It’s a cynical maxim in politics, but one the Trump administration appears to be following now as it maintains pressure on Iran and Venezuela: Refuse to relax economic stress amid the destabilizing effect of the coronavirus pandemic, in hopes of splintering enemy regimes.
In both states, US pressure coincides with intricate internal political calculations, state-ordered lockdowns that could bottle up political dissent, and tragically rundown public health systems. Last week, the US picked its moment to hit Nicolas Maduro, whom it does not recognize as Venezuela’s legitimate President, with narco-trafficking charges and a $15 million reward for his arrest.
Washington is taking a risk. Hardliners here argue that letting up pressure now would only reward tyrannical governments for creating impoverished societies vulnerable to the pandemic. But Trump’s administration has already shown that its capacity to read and influence politics in Iran and Venezuela is far more limited that it expected.
When civilian lives are on the line, what is the moral calculus of accelerating a so-far failed “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran and a regime change push in Venezuela? And is hardball geopolitics — even in the midst of a pandemic — just the way the game is played in an “American First” world?