Even as Iran dismantles large portions of its nuclear facilities and the United States lifts sanctions, critics continue to believe that Iran is bent on achieving regional hegemony, is increasing its support of proxies such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen, and is likely to cheat on the nuclear deal. As Republican presidential candidates Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio like to remind voters, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei continues to claim that “Death to America” is a pillar of Iranian culture. But instead of taking Khamenei at his word, which is meant more for Iranian hard-liners, observers should focus on Iran’s actions.
Iran has made historic strides. It has complied with the nuclear deal in full up to this point, sooner and more comprehensively than expected. It has returned a number of unlawfully detained Americans, and when U.S. swift boats errantly breached Iranian territory, Iran set the crews free in less than a day—and with all their gear intact.
Of course, getting to this point has not always been smooth. Iran can seem erratic, compliant one moment and lashing out the next. But there is a method to Iran’s madness. Following cooperation with doses of defiance allows it to move forward on the nuclear deal while appeasing domestic hard-liners and keeping up the appearance that it is standing up to the United States.
For example, subsequent to the nuclear deal signing in July, and after Russia got involved in Syria in September, Iran intervened more deeply in Syria by supplying President Bashar al-Assad with additional military advisers, though with far fewer troops than predicted. Then not long after it signed the nuclear accord, Tehran rapidly passed the legislation through its parliament and the Council of Guardians, and by the supreme leader. Iran “covered” its cooperative behavior by convicting Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian of espionage and violated sanctions by testing its first medium-range ballistic missile. Later,
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