Ray Takeyh is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
The perennial conflict between Iran and the West has entered a dangerous new phase, with tensions rising in the Persian Gulf since Iran has threatened retaliation for last week’s assassination of a chemical engineer linked to the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program. What accounts for Iran’s behavior? Behind all the sound and fury, Tehran is diligently pursuing a three-track policy that involves provocation of the international community and making noises about diplomacy as it relentlessly marches toward the bomb.
In recent months, the Islamic Republic has engaged in conduct that has confounded even its most seasoned observers. Shortly after a critical International Atomic Energy Agency report published in November was followed by threats of sanctions by the European Union, Basij militias masquerading as students stormed the British embassy in Tehran that month. Washington’s recent attempt to restrict Iran’s oil trade by sanctioning its Central Bank prompted Tehran’s threat to destabilize the global economy by closing the Strait of Hormuz, a waterway through which a sixth of the world’s oil passes. Such bellicose actions are a departure for a regime that has long exercised a modicum of restraint in its belligerence. Indeed, such behavior makes sense only if we appreciate that Iran sees itself as locked in conflict with the West and is determined to respond to recent escalations in U.S. policy with escalations of its own. Mas’ud Jazayeri, the deputy chief of staff of Iran’s armed forces, said in December that new guidelines for the armed forces from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei include that, “from now on, we will make threats against threats.” Iran hopes that its unsettling conduct will prompt Russia, China and members of the non-aligned community who fear war to defy U.S. efforts to tighten sanctions.
The second track of Iran’s strategy involves signaling its willingness to resume negotiations with the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany. It is important that Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons has always involved negotiations. A diplomatic path that is sporadic yet protracted can provide an umbrella under which Tehran advances its nuclear program. It is no coincidence that Iran has timed its latest diplomatic gesture with the intensification of its nuclear activities. By threatening the disruption of global oil supplies yet dangling the prospect of entering talks, Iran can press actors such as Russia and China to be more accommodating in an effort to avoid a crisis that they fear. Any concessions that Iran may make at the negotiating table are bound to be symbolic and reversible.
Beneath all its bluster and threats, Iran is limiting itself to incremental gains of its nuclear program. Khamenei has always sought to expand Iran’s nuclear capabilities systematically but cautiously. Tehran calibrates to acclimate the international community to its sequential gains. Consider that today, Iran is steadily enriching uranium, a position widely considered unacceptable in 2005. Iran is ratcheting up its enrichment activities and is moving its most sensitive technologies to a facility near Qom better able to withstand military attack. Such conduct was once viewed as a provocation. The Islamic Republic is working on a new generation of centrifuges that operate with speed and efficiency. Given that a limited number of such machines are required for enriching large quantities of uranium, Iran can begin housing its nuclear facilities in small installations that will prove difficult to detect. By gradually yet relentlessly expanding its capabilities, Iran has succeeded in breaching Western red lines while avoiding the type of crisis that could outright endanger its nuclear program if not its regime.
In any confrontation with the West, Iran remains the weaker party. But an inordinately tense situation can provoke accidental conflicts and mishaps. Weaker parties can act impetuously and irresponsibly. All this does not suggest that the international community should ease pressure on Iran or condone its aggressive behavior. But it does suggest eschewing conduct that further inflames the situation.
It is impossible to determine who killed the Iranian scientist Mostafa Ahmadi-Roshan, but such actions are self-defeating in the sense that they do little to slow Iran’s nuclear program and playing into the regime’s hands as it seeks to fracture the international community. The best means of holding the coalition together is to stress that it is Iran’s behavior that remains outside the parameters of legality so long as Tehran continues to enrich uranium in defiance of U.N. resolutions and threatens to imperil peaceful maritime traffic. Any action that distracts attention from Iran’s illegal behavior only retards the efforts to disarm the Islamic Republic.