Trump himself touts the achievements of that campaign. “Iran is in big trouble right now. Their economy is crashing,” he said yesterday. “It’s coming to a crash. They’re trying to bring soldiers back home because they can’t pay them. A lot of bad things are happening to them. And it’s very easy to straighten out or it’s very easy for us to make it a lot worse,” he said, a short while after reports broke that Iran had seized a British tanker in the Gulf, and one day after the U.S. announced it had destroyed an Iranian drone. (Iran denied it was theirs.)
Trump’s critics, and particularly the Obama-administration officials who helped design the Iran deal Trump ditched in favor of new sanctions, question whether this even counts as a strategy. “I know that it is about maximum pressure, but to what end?” asked Wendy Sherman, who led the U.S. negotiations for the Iran deal, onstage yesterday morning at the Aspen Security Forum.
Mandelker was the only Trump official in a panel otherwise filled out by Obama-administration veterans, including the moderator. She was one of the few Trump officials who showed up to the forum at all. “Without a doubt, the sanctions are working,” she said, citing Iranian complaints that their oil exports were at their lowest levels ever, and that Iranian proxies such as Hezbollah were appealing for donations.
The sanctions campaign certainly has been consequential in crippling Iran’s economy. Whether it’s effective in achieving its policy goals is another question, and one that can’t necessarily be evaluated yet. The administration wants to force the Iranians back to the negotiating table, and despite a steady increase in provocations in the Gulf region, there have also been feints toward diplomacy: Trump saying he wishes the Iranians would call him and dispatching Senator Rand Paul to meet with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, and Zarif floating the outlines of a possible deal in interviews this week. If indeed negotiations result, then the sanctions will have achieved a key diplomatic goal of the administration—but they haven’t done that yet, and perhaps they never will.
But there’s another stated goal, and this is the one Mandelker gets especially animated about. “Bad actors need money to do bad things,” she said, sounding incensed as she ticked off a litany of Iranian misdeeds, from threatening Israel to supporting Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, who she noted has killed his own people with chemical weapons. “That is why we have this massive sanctions regime … Every time we apply that pressure, that crunch on them, we deny them the ability to get that kind of revenue, we make the world a safer place.”
She takes it personally as a child of Holocaust survivors, and has spoken publicly about the 1940s-era Treasury Department’s role in freezing Nazi assets around the same time her parents were hiding in Eastern Europe. “They were hiding underground, in forests, in ditches and under haystacks,” she said in a speech at the Holocaust Museum in April. “I grew up hearing their stories, including about moments of great courage, some of which resulted in survival and others that ended in death.” She spent part of her earlier government career in counterterrorism roles. Stuart Levey, who under the George W. Bush administration was the founding official in the role Mandelker now holds, recalls working with her in the Justice Department following September 11 and says she was constantly at her desk in those days, trying to figure out new ways to target al-Qaeda.