“My sources inside the country say the circle of regime insiders around Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei truly believes an attack is inevitable, perhaps even before the U.S. presidential election,” says Century Foundation analyst Genevieve Abdo. ”Therefore, to save face at home and in the region, Iran’s saber-rattling has reached a fever pitch.”Iran’s leader has a strong domestic political incentive to maintain the conflict with the West, she argues, but at the same time to avoid a confrontation which could lead to the regime’s destruction. A number of Iran analysts have noted that Khamenei’s traditional response to foreign pressure is to escalate the confrontation by raising pressure of his own. The Supreme Leader, warns Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “wants to make clear to the outside world, specifically the United States, that Western pressure is going to harden, not soften, Iran’s behavior.”

The escalation of an external threat also helps him reunite a dangerously divided regime (whose rival factions face off in a parliamentary election in March), creating a narrative that blames hostile Western pressure for the economic pain suffered by ordinary Iranians. It also fosters a siege environment in which political opposition is equated with treason…

Whether Khamenei gives the order to launch a weapons program will likely be determined by his perception of Iran’s threat environment. The logic of those agitating for sanctions is that only the pain they inflict, and the threat of force, will persuade the Iranian leadership that the cost of seeking nuclear breakout capability is prohibitive. But the Iranian leaders’ view of the motivations of its adversaries, and dynamics in the region, may in fact convince the regime to absorb whatever blows come its way in order to acquire a nuclear deterrent. (Pakistan and North Korea would provide encouraging examples of badly behaved weak states treated with kid gloves because of their nuclear status; the fate of leaders like Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi who gave up their own nuclear programs speaks for itself.)