In response to Washington’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal and reimposition of related sanctions, Iran will likely act in accordance with principles that have guided it through past nuclear crises. It may test or exceed nuclear limits imposed by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), respond in kind to intensified pressure in other domains, seek alternative ways forward when confronted by a firm response, and attempt to mitigate the impact of sanctions by driving wedges between the United States and the international community.
Tehran may also ramp up its regional activities—which have not been part of its past nuclear pushback—thereby eroding the boundary between the two and raising the potential for escalation in one or both arenas. In the event that U.S. sanctions lead to drastic reductions in Iran’s oil income (an uncertain proposition at present) or Tehran concludes that Washington is actively pursuing regime change, it may resort to subversion or sabotage in the Persian Gulf, terrorist attacks, or even a nuclear breakout. The Trump administration’s actions in the coming months may help determine which path Iran chooses.
The Islamic Republic’s response will be shaped in part by the intensity of the U.S. pressure campaign, the manner in which Washington reacts to Iranian tests, and the degree to which Tehran believes America will back up its policy of maximum pressure with military force. If Iran can muddle through despite sanctions, it might continue observing JCPOA limits and decoupling its modest attempts at nuclear pushback from its non-nuclear and regional activities. If U.S. sanctions cut deeply, Iran might remain in the JCPOA to avert the snapback of international sanctions while pushing back in other arenas. In the worst case, Iran could push back on all fronts at once—though such a scenario seems unlikely for now. Thus, Tehran has a broad range of response options that it can calibrate according to circumstances.
Read the full article at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.