Conventional wisdom holds that it is in Iran’s near-term interest to calm tensions with the West, particularly the United States. But with those tensions now rising, it’s worth considering the dynamics at work in Tehran’s relationship with the rest of the world. In fact, the Iranian leadership’s incentives may run counter to our expectations, making a continuation or escalation of tensions more, not less, likely.
Iran’s long-term national interest is best served by developing nuclear weapons, which would fundamentally alter the strategic balance in the Middle East. A nuclear capability would allow Tehran to bully its neighbors and pursue its regional misadventures more aggressively by providing a credible deterrent against any American intervention to stop it. Thus, it is in Iran’s interest to play for time until its bomb program bears fruit.
In that light, Iran’s recent escalation of tensions with the West -- by pressing ahead with its nuclear program, allegedly planning public assassinations in the United States, storming the British embassy, threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz and sentencing an American citizen to death -- would simply signify short-term tactical efforts to increase diplomatic leverage in order to buy still more time to develop nuclear weapons. If that is the case, then barring any escalation due to miscommunication or poor diplomacy, Iran will soon seek to calm tensions in the Gulf. At least, so goes the conventional wisdom.