Iran is rolling out one defiant step after another these days. In recent days it has begun ten days of naval games in the Straits of Hormuz while warning that it would close those straits to oil shipments if it is attacked. It has warned Turkey that, if attacked, it will respond by attacking NATO facilities on Turkish soil. It has announced the successful construction of its first nuclear fuel rod. It has tested a medium range missile. The recent upsurge in sectarian violence and polarization in Iraq seems to reflect in part Iranian efforts to deepen relations with militant Shiites next door.
Iran also seems to be stepping up its efforts to forge relationships with some Latin American countries whose leaders are not overly fond of the United States. The great A-jad has a four country tour planned this month as Iran looks to build economic and security relationships that might help it evade sanctions.
Busy, busy, busy.
But this looks like the defiance of a cornered animal rather than the insolence of a rising power. Iran’s chief regional ally, Syria, continues to disintegrate. Hamas, the radical Palestinian group whose previous links with Iran gave the unpopular Shiite Persians greater standing in the mostly Sunni Arab world, is shifting from a Syria-Iran alliance toward one with Turkey and possibly Egypt. The rial continues to fall as sanctions hit the weak economy. The recent decision to stop fuel subsidies will make the government less popular at a time of great stress. As protests sweep Russia, Putin seems to be shifting toward a more cautious foreign policy, one that offers little comfort to Iran. China, too, is unlikely to offer anything more than a bit of political cover at the UN.
The wisest course for the US would appear to be steady as we go: continue ratcheting up sanctions, watch for danger signs in Iranian-Latin dealings, strengthen the coalition, increase the direct pressure on Tehran and press for the overthrow of the Assad regime in Syria.
Recent headline arms deals with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, not to mention a meeting between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in Jordan this week, suggest that the US and its allies have something like this in mind. It would be fatuous and naive to suppose that sanctions will inevitably change Tehran’s nuclear calculation or lead it to a more realistic regional policy; but it would be foolish not to recognize that the situation keeps moving in our favor.
Push, watch, wait, prepare: those are the four things the US needs to do in 2012. Tehran is off balance and flailing; the Supreme Leader is not as happy with President A-jad as he once was and the fissures in the Iranian ruling elite seem to be widening.
The US goal of stopping the Iranian nuclear program without war remains a stretch, but the US position continues to improve while Iran’s options narrow.