As of yesterday, the U.S. has re-imposed in their entirety the economic sanctions on the Islamic Republic that were in force on the eve of the 2015 nuclear deal. Tehran has previously responded to intense sanctions by ratcheting up its enrichment of uranium, as if to prove that it would not be cowed; in other instances it has attacked American forces in the Middle East or Israeli targets in Europe. But the current situation is different: Iran has so far responded to the American withdrawal from the nuclear deal by insisting that it will continue to abide by its terms, in the hope that Europe will continue to want to trade with it. If it now publicly resumes its nuclear activities, Europe will likely cease to provide cover. The situation, writes Michael Eisenstadt, puts the ayatollahs in a bind Washington ought to take advantage of:
Iran’s response to the U.S. withdrawal from the [nuclear deal] will largely depend . . . on how deeply renewed U.S. sanctions bite. If Iran is able to muddle through—because it sells enough oil, repatriates sufficient funds from foreign customers, benefits from higher oil prices, or some combination of these—it may continue to observe the deal’s limits and try to wait President Trump out, hoping for a different U.S. president in January 2021. Meanwhile, it may push back against U.S. efforts by largely symbolic means—in order to avoid a military confrontation with the United States, while lashing out however it can against U.S. allies, partners, and perceived proxies.
This is not necessarily a bad place for the U.S. government to be, with the Iranian leadership contained by the deal’s limits and rigorous sanctions. . . . .
Should sanctions cut deeply and exacerbate ongoing domestic unrest, Iran will face a choice: agree to a new round of negotiations with the United States in which it offers concessions in return for sanctions relief, or undertake various destabilizing activities—violating the nuclear deal’s limits, intensifying proxy attacks on U.S. allies, or even conducting proxy operations against U.S. interests and personnel—so that it can re-engage Washington from a position of strength. If hardliners in Tehran win the day, destabilization efforts could even include waging a low-level, open-ended struggle to oust the United States from the region. . . . Preserving the credibility of U.S. deterrence will therefore be key to avoiding escalation.