Iran US Aircraft Carrier

In this Friday, May 10, 2019 photo released by the U.S. Navy, logistics specialists prepare to attach cargo to an MH-60S Sea Hawk helicopter on the flight deck the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln in the Persian Gulf. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Amber Smalley, U.S. Navy via AP)

During a recent speech, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani declared that “Obama, the president of the United States, asked me 19 times for a meeting. But the government did not have the authorization to respond.”

Most likely, President Barack Obama did not ask 19 times for such a meeting, but another U.S. president has made it publicly clear that he wants to have talks with Iran.

Rouhani was signaling to his own hard-liners that it was time to engage President Donald Trump. Iran cannot win a war against the United States, but it is confident it can outwit Washington at the negotiating table.

The most persistent question in Iran today is not about war but whether it is time to entrap the Americans in another lengthy diplomatic process.

For the past two years, the Trump administration has had the luxury of imposing a series of punitive sanctions on Tehran without the Iranians doing anything in response. They gave truculent speeches and pledged defiance while essentially waiting for 2020, when, they hope, a more accommodating Democratic president will come to power.

The guardians of the Islamic republic assured themselves that the Trump team would not be able to persuade America’s allies to join in its sanctions policy, much less drive Iran’s oil exports to zero.

All this has now changed. Iran’s economy is imploding, and the inflation rate there is skyrocketing. The Trump administration has deterred European commerce and Asian investment from going into Iran. And it may yet succeed in driving down Iran’s oil imports close to zero.

These are ominous signs for a regime whose power is based on an elaborate welfare state that sustains its dwindling supporters. Today it is patronage and not piety that holds up the wobbly foundations of the Islamist regime.

For now, the Islamic republic has settled on a policy of calibrated terrorism. This has been one of the more ingenious innovations of the theocratic state, which engages in acts of terror where its complicity is clear but difficult to prove.

It is unlikely that the Revolutionary Guards’ creaky speedboats will confront the U.S. armada in the Persian Gulf any more than they will directly attack U.S. troops in the region. But Iran will gradually escalate pressure by relying on its many proxies to target the United States’ accomplices, particularly the Saudis.

Oil installations, diplomatic compounds and trade routes are likely to be menaced by Iran’s Arab agents. This will not be a systematic campaign of terrorism but a selective use of violence over a prolonged period. This policy is not without its risks, but it does have the advantage of putting pressure on the United States without risking retaliation.

The subtle debate in Tehran today revolves around whether it is time to take up Trump’s offer of talks. Rouhani and his cagey Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif have long been intrigued by the possibility of negotiating with Trump. The Rouhani-Zarif team clearly perceives that it can use talks to similarly chip away at whatever prohibitions the Trump team brings with it. It is hard to fault their history or reasoning.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his hard-line disciples stand in the way of Rouhani’s diplomatic gambit. They believe the Islamic republic should strive for insularity rather than integration in a global society that will only generate pressures for reform.

The Trump administration’s maximum-pressure strategy is empowering Rouhani as he seeks to press his supreme leader into granting him an opportunity to coax concessions from another set of Americans.

Should the Rouhani-Zarif strategy succeed, Iran is likely to couple its measured escalation with private hints of willingness to talk. The authorities in Tehran have already offered to negotiate over Americans held hostage in Iran. This was meant to jump-start the processes of diplomacy that could soon cover other areas of contention. The Trump team may find itself in its most significant Iran dilemma yet — namely dealing with Tehran’s diplomats rather than its soldiers.

Ray Takeyh is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations

We're improving out commenting experience.

We’ve temporarily removed comments from articles while we work on a new and better commenting experience. In the meantime, subscribers are encouraged to join the conversation at our Post and Courier Subscribers group on Facebook.