The story is more complicated, the options are worse
Sanctions vs. nuclear bomb.
Economic pain vs. ultimate threat.
So the current standoff between the US and Iran seems to be. And this is, indeed, in the nature of the stand-off. But it is not the whole story. It might not even be the main story.
If the stand-off, as it seems, were the whole story, it would mean this:
On the American side, the US believes that a country will act in its own best interests. It is not in Iran’s own best interests to make its own people suffer grievously and to damage its own economy. Therefore, when the economic sanctions against Iran eventually become too much for the country to bear, the Iranian leadership will reluctantly come to the table for a renegotiation of the Iran nuclear deal of 2015.
On the Iranian side, Iran believes that by ratcheting up its enrichment of uranium and taking other steps to develop a nuclear bomb, Europe will recognize that it is in its own best interests either to pressure the US to relent on its sanctions against Iran, or to sidestep the US sanctions, no matter how high a diplomatic price it will have to pay in European-US relations.
This is the rational explanation of the current impasse. As such, it boils down to: Whose pain will become the worst? Iran’s or Europe’s?
Without discounting the force of this reality, there is another explanation for the current stand-off. There is another part of the story, perhaps a more predominant part. Namely, yes, the US acts on the presumption that Iran will act in its own best interests, and will come to the table if and when the sanctions become too painful for the people. But no, Iran, does not think this way. Iran is driven by religion, by ideology, and this trumps a rational calculation of national interest. This means that it does not make a difference to Iran’s leadership how much its people suffer.
If this is, or becomes, the predominant force behind Iran’s moves, it will win, for the simple reason that President Trump, like Presidents Obama and Bush before him, say that “no options are off the table,” but don’t mean it. The operative assumption behind the behavior of all three presidents toward Iran is binary: either economic sanctions or all out war. Because there is at least a fifty-fifty chance that irrational ideology controls Iran’s leadership — this is, after all, a fanatically ideological regime — it will not renegotiate the temporary provisions of the Obama-driven deal, no matter how much it must suffer. Especially given the distinct possibility that, if Trump loses in 2020, a Democratic president will likely cancel the sanctions and reinstate the nuclear deal of 2015, which does not call on Iran to suspend its pursuit of nuclear weapons permanently.
Two related miscalculations, one on the part of Iran, one on the part of the starry-eyed backers of the 2015 nuclear deal:
Iran never thought the US could either back out of the nuclear deal or intensify sanctions against Iran because Iran thought that it could respond by cutting its oil production, thus precluding any major anti-Iranian, American step. Iran did not count on the major boost in domestic American oil production, which has sterilized any threat of an Iranian cut-off. The days that the US economy is beholden to Middle East oil seem to be over.
Many of the starry-eyed thought that Iran may be developing a nuclear capacity for peaceful purposes. Yet, Iran’s reaction to the Trump-era, intensified economic sanctions — its re-start of its nuclear program — clearly intends to say: It is a nuclear weapon we seek. The threat to develop a medical device is not a credible or a dangerous response to harsh economic sanctions!
Where does all this leave us? Either with long, drawn out, increasingly dangerous stand-off with Iran; or with a lucid, dispassionate, militarily professional evaluation of how to hit Iran piecemeal, by such means as no-fly zones and selective but punishing attacks on its missile development sites (think Israel’s selective, punishing attacks against Iranian facilities in Syria).
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