Ray Takeyh is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
As the ebbs and flows of diplomacy with Iran once more fixate official Washington, a subtle shift is emerging in the Islamic Republic’s nuclear calculus. Officials in Tehran increasingly sense that it may be easier to get the bomb through an agreement than by pursuing it outside the parameters of a deal. But for this strategy to succeed, Iran has to get the right kind of an accord, one in which it trades size for transparency. Namely, the deal must allow Iran to construct an elaborate nuclear infrastructure in exchange for conceding to intrusive inspections. With the next round of talks looming, the challenge at hand is not just to negotiate an agreement with a disciplined adversary but to avoid the pitfalls of a flawed deal.
Iran’s current path to the bomb is perilous. Its incremental nuclear gains come at the price of debilitating sanctions that may erode the regime’s ability to sustain its patronage networks and thus its power. In the meantime, the Islamic Republic is exposed to the possibility of military action. It is often suggested that strikes against Iran will cause a resurgence of nationalism that will refurbish the legitimacy that the Islamist state lost during the fraudulent presidential election of 2009. It is, however, entirely possible that the Iranian population may blame their leaders for reckless diplomacy that caused such an intervention, further imperiling the theocracy’s fortunes. Either way, Iran’s current path of defiance, which is tempered by tantalizing but elusive promises, cannot forever shield it from either more sanctions or possible military retribution.