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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
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Iran’s dilemma

Filed under: Iran, U.S. Policy

Iran’s dilemma

In Tehran, regime officials are worried that the pressure applied by the U.S. administration is meant to expedite regime change, not just curb Iran’s nuclear and hegemonic ambitions in the region.

The battle over the future of Iran has intensified in recent days. The U.S. has amplified its economic sanctions against the Islamist regime, namely waiving the remaining exemptions for certain countries that were purchasing Iranian oil; declaring the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist organization; prohibiting heavy metals imports from Iran; and disallowing Iran from exporting excess low-grade enriched uranium and heavy water, which it was permitted to do within the framework of the nuclear deal. Incidentally, the license was granted so that Iran could produce these materials without stockpiling them in larger quantities than stipulated by the nuclear deal. The U.S. has also begun moving forces to the Persian Gulf and closer to Iran.

Tehran announced that if Europe fails to act to temper the economic fallout from American sanctions, it will gradually withdraw from the nuclear deal. Its leaders, meanwhile, are threatening to target the U.S. and its allies. In response, the Europeans have stressed that despite their commitment to the nuclear deal, if Iran stops fulfilling its obligations they will have to renew sanctions. Russia and China are standing with Iran, as expected, while inside Iran tensions continue to foment over the country’s economic distress. Western nuclear experts are still publishing analyses of Iran’s nuclear archives. These reports highlight the progress Iran’s military nuclear program has made until 2003, and illustrate the degree to which the International Atomic Energy Agency was irresponsible in regard to the nuclear deal. (The agency itself continues to remain silent in the face of these reports.)

The Iranian regime’s ultimate objective is to ensure its own survival, and saving the nuclear deal gives it the ability to manufacture unhindered a large nuclear arsenal within 11 years. In Tehran, officials are worried that the pressure applied by the U.S. administration is meant to expedite regime change, not just curb Iran’s nuclear and hegemonic ambitions in the region.

Iranian leaders are presently at odds over the best way to contend with the American pressure. They could introduce austerity measures and also wage “economic jihad” (in the words of the Iranians) by attempting to extort from Europe, through threats, compensation for the financial losses they are expected to incur as a result of the sanctions. They are also seeking to deter the U.S. by threatening them and their allies with the use of military force, under the assumption that President Donald Trump and segments of his administration don’t want an escalation. It’s still unclear whether Iran’s most recent declarations reflect a concrete decision in this regard; it’s possible these threats toward the West are merely a trial balloon, and that the Iranians believe they can avoid having to back them up. These threats put the regime on a course that will only exacerbate its anguish: Europe will be compelled to move toward shedding the nuclear deal and there will be a greater probability of an escalation.

In all likelihood, the Iranians would rather wait until the next U.S. presidential election before making their decision, in the hope that Trump is replaced by a Democratic candidate who will restore the nuclear deal. However, it appears Ayatollah Ali Khamenei believes an immediate response to the sanctions is needed to maintain the regime’s reputation as all-powerful in the eyes of Iranians; and that the country’s dire economic situation can threaten the regime’s stability. Still, it’s more reasonable to assume that Tehran, at this stage, will seek to avoid a direct military clash with the United States by recognizing the limits of its own might and vulnerability in the face of American military capabilities.

It seems these insights are at the core of current U.S. policy. The Americans want to knock the Iranians off balance and force them to make a move before the next U.S. election. The Iranian regime’s dilemma: Adhere to the nuclear deal or trash it outright and jeopardize its survival, or succumb to the pressure and agree to renegotiate the deal. At this stage, the regime is rejecting the possibility of surrender, although their failure to boost the economy, together with festering popular unrest, could ultimately induce it to choose this course.

Israel needs to support the U.S. in its efforts to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. It must be prepared for the possibility that an escalation in the Persian Gulf will lead to a clash with Iran’s regional proxies, chief among them Hezbollah, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas.

This article originally appeared in Israel Hayom on May 14, 2019.