And yet thus far, Tehran appears to be muddling through with only limited consequence to its political stability or capacity to project power. To be sure, there are signs of retrenchment in its economic assistance to proxies like Hezbollah and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, but there is little evidence that the Islamic Republic is approaching either a collapse or a capitulation. Nor has Tehran taken the tempting bait presented by Trump’s repudiation of the nuclear deal by reneging on its own obligations under the agreement, or otherwise launching retaliatory measures against American interests in the region, which might have facilitated wider international support for Washington’s coercive campaign.
If diplomacy were indeed the Trump objective, this uneasy state might present an opportune moment for a carefully prepared overture toward Tehran. Instead, the prospect that Tehran might simply accommodate itself to sustained long-term pressure presented new risks for the administration. As I wrote at the outset of the maximum pressure campaign, “survival is tantamount to success” for Iran’s leaders. Concerned that Tehran could snatch victory from the jaws of an American bludgeon simply by holding on, the Trump administration is now aiming to deal a death blow.