The latest warning by Iran, that a United States aircraft carrier that recently transited through the Strait of Hormuz should not do so again, is a sign to the West that should be well-observed. It tells us the regime in Tehran is ready for a fight.
Tensions between Iran and the U.S. are so high a conflagration could be tripped off without either country intending it. This latest spiral of hostility began after the U.S. and its European allies responded to the International Atomic Energy Agency's report on Iran's nuclear activities by imposing and threatening additional, tougher sanctions. New U.S. measures may drastically cut Iran's oil revenue.
That, in turn, may threaten the Iranian regime's hold on power. Predictably, then, the ruling clerics are responding with shows of strength to boost solidarity at home. And they can be counted on to accelerate Iran's nuclear program, which they see as a deterrent to foreign intervention.
To escape this self-defeating outcome, the Western powers should imagine how the situation looks from Tehran.
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In recent months, Iranian protesters have brazenly attacked the British Embassy in Tehran. Iran has claimed to have downed a U.S. drone, put on 10-day war games simulating attacks on U.S. ships, and threatened to push oil prices to $250 a barrel and to close the Strait of Hormuz, through which about 20 percent of all oil trade passes.
This defiance marks a change. Until recently, Iran had absorbed economic pressure from abroad. It had remained silent in the face of covert operations aimed at slowing the progress of its nuclear program, brushing off the destructive Stuxnet computer worm, apparently a joint U.S.-Israeli project. But the government has been embarrassed and unnerved by multiple assassinations of its scientists and by suspicious explosions at its military facilities. One blast killed the general charged with developing Iran's missile program. The attacks have shaken the country's security forces.
The ruling clerics are also worried about economic sanctions, which have greatly reduced Iran's access to global financial markets, created shortages of imported items, and increased inflation and unemployment. The rial has fallen to its lowest point against the dollar, and capital is fleeing the country at an alarming rate. The government has been forced to scrap numerous infrastructure projects, especially in the oil and gas sector.
These hardships have caused popular discontent. The next set of sanctions may bring street protests. Iran's rulers fear a repeat of the demonstrations of 2009. They now see the U.S. policy on Iran -- of toughening sanctions and also, at the United Nations, addressing Iran's human-rights record and support for terrorism -- as one aimed at regime change.
That makes attaining nuclear weapons critically important to the clerics. Without such weapons, Iran could face the Libya scenario: economic pressure causing political unrest that invites intervention by foreign powers that feel safe enough to interfere in the affairs of a non-nuclear-armed state. The more sanctions threaten Iran's internal stability, the more likely the regime will be to pursue nuclear deterrence and confront the West to win the time to reach that goal.
It wasn't preordained that Iran would opt for battle. For much of the past year, its leaders have debated how best to deal with Western pressure. The alleged plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington, which U.S. officials uncovered in October and blamed on Iran, suggests a faction has been making the case for direct confrontation with the West. But President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had hoped the September release of two Americans, hikers arrested by Iranian authorities and charged as spies, would shield Iran from further pressure and even create a diplomatic opening with the U.S. on the eve of his trip to the U.N. Instead, Ahmadinejad went home empty-handed.
Subsequent events seem to have settled the policy debate in Tehran. They included the accusations by the U.S. in the Washington plot; a U.N. report critical of Iran's record on human rights; the IAEA report articulating "serious concerns" about a possible Iranian nuclear-weapons program; and the ensuing fresh sanctions.
By a remarkable unanimous vote, the Senate passed a bill imposing sanctions on foreign financial institutions engaged in oil-related transactions with Iran's central bank, which would greatly hinder that country's ability to sell its oil. Reluctant to go that far, President Barack Obama opposed the bill and instead signed a slightly amended measure that gave the U.S. administration six months to enforce the sanctions if it judges they could cause oil prices to soar. Iran has interpreted sanctions that hurt its oil exports, which account for about half of government revenue, as acts of war. If there are new, mysterious attacks on Iranian scientists or military facilities, the climate for conflict will be that much hotter.
Obama administration officials think Iran is weak and isolated. The see the country's tattered economy, its faltering relations with Europe, and the Arab Spring's role in turning Middle East public opinion against Iran.
But Iran's rulers have a different outlook. Here's what they see: The U.S. and Europe are economically weak and extremely vulnerable to high oil prices. China and Russia have broken with the U.S. and Europe over Iran. The U.S. is hastily leaving Iraq and abandoning the war in Afghanistan. U.S. relations with Pakistan are unraveling.
Iran's rulers believe the new Middle East is a greater strategic challenge to the U.S. than to Iran. For the U.S., the region will be far less pliable under rising Islamists than it was under secular dictators. As those Islamists take control of governments from Morocco to Egypt, new opportunities arise for Tehran to forge diplomatic and economic ties.
Consequently, the Iranian regime thinks it can counter international pressure on its nuclear activities long enough to get to a point of no return on a weapons program.
Rather than discourage this aggressive Iranian position, U.S. policy is encouraging it, making a dangerous military confrontation more likely. There are no easy options for dealing with Iran, but not persisting in a failing strategy is a good place to start.
Vali Nasr is a Bloomberg View columnist and a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts.