Iran is in a bad spot.

The Islamic republic’s sanctions-battered currency is trading at an all-time low against the dollar. An outbreak of the novel coronavirus is killing more people each day than it did at its original peak earlier this year. And a series of explosions, suspected to be part of Israeli operations to damage Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, has exposed severe vulnerabilities in the regime’s ability to protect its most sensitive sites.

The government of Ukraine, meanwhile, is preparing to sue Iran for damages over the downing of one of its civilian aircrafts in January, in which all 176 people on board were killed by an Iranian missile.

Iranian officials may very well be feeling the pressure, but if they are, they have a strange way of showing it. Rather than addressing the wide array of problems, they are busily fighting among themselves. Usually they close ranks against external threats, but that’s not what is happening now.

One possible reason for the Iranian leaders’ continued air of confidence may well be the massive deal they’re negotiating with China. If successful, it would see hundreds of billions of dollars invested in Iranian infrastructure as part of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative.

If Iran and China come to terms, it will yet again highlight the failure of the Trump administration’s maximum-pressure campaign against Iran. The stated logic behind the U.S. strategy of unrelenting sanctions is that they will cut Tehran off from access to world markets, forcing it to the negotiating table.

Yet Iranian officials don’t seem terribly concerned. Iran’s embattled foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, has been attempting to remind his critics of their common foe — but no one seems to be listening. Under intense scrutiny for his handling of Iran’s international relations, Zarif issued an urgent warning to his rivals this week.

“America doesn’t recognize liberals, reformists, conservatives, revolutionaries or non-revolutionaries,” Zarif, said addressing angry members of parliament on Sunday. “We’re all in the same boat.”

Some U.S. officials undoubtedly view the internal conflict as evidence of the success of their strategy and are preparing to celebrate the imminent fall of the regime. They couldn’t be more wrong. As the China deal shows, the gaps in the maximum-pressure campaign are growing larger by the day.

For one thing, the Trump administration’s Iran policy has done nothing to empower viable alternatives to the regime inside Iran. The sad truth is that Iranians who oppose the regime, of which there are many millions as evidenced by widespread protests in recent years, currently pose no meaningful domestic threat to the system. Neither can Trump’s Iran policy architects point to a credible external alternative among the wealthy and highly educated diaspora.

The only thing the administration has managed to do is to wreak havoc on an already weak economy. Sanctions are a wrecking ball that destroy the livelihoods of anyone unlucky enough to live in a country targeted by them. But they are incapable of nurturing realistic and honest agents of change.

Sanctions exacerbate the worst behavior of corrupt elites. You could argue that this is exactly what they are designed to do, by causing such economic suffering in the hopes that ordinary Iranians will rise up against the regime. In the process they make the lives of ordinary people worse without providing anything in return. Despite the promises of change, sanctions actually deprive those who wish for change of the resources they need in order to make it happen.

That’s not to say that this regime will last forever. Of course it won’t. Change is coming to Iran, but there is no one guiding it.

Figures capable of delivering lasting positive change are conspicuously absent. Why? Because the regime has done whatever it needed to eliminate those threats.

In the past, regimes that stood on the wrong side of history — think of the Soviet Union or apartheid-era South Africa — found themselves with few good choices. They could either concede to the will of the populations they ruled over or face violent eviction.

In Iran, there are two problems standing in the way of the people’s date with destiny.

First, the United States can claim no moral high ground when it comes to Iran. Our policies — whether harsh economic sanctions or travel bans — have consistently been designed to punish, without offering any clearly positive incentives. Maximum pressure is all sticks, no carrots.

Second, China cares little about the regime’s transgressions against the Iranian people. Beijing appears prepared to help keep this regime afloat for the foreseeable future. Any potential influence Washington hoped to have with Iran has been ceded to Beijing.

Our inflexible policies have cost us an opportunity to influence the course of events in Iran in the short term and perhaps for many decades to come. After trying to cut off all of the options available to the regime, we should hardly be surprised if the regime is willing to accept the way out offered by the Chinese. Couldn’t the Trump administration have seen this coming?

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