What the U.S. Gets Wrong About Iran

William J. Burns, the director of the C.I.A., and one of the diplomatic architects of the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran, wrote that the agreement was spawned by “tough-minded diplomacy, backed up by the economic leverage of sanctions, the political leverage of an international consensus, and the military leverage of the potential use of force.” Today diplomacy has not been tough-minded, sanctions are not enforced fully, international consensus is more difficult to obtain, and Tehran appears convinced that President Biden has no interest in another military conflict in the Middle East.

The clerical regime that has ruled Iran over the last four decades is terminally ill, yet it continues to endure in part due to a lack of viable alternatives. It cannot meaningfully reform, out of well-founded fears that doing so would hasten its death. The four horsemen of Iran’s economy — inflation, corruption, mismanagement, and brain drain — are endemic. The common denominator between Iran and its regional spheres of influence — Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and Iraq — is insecurity, economic failure, and profound unhappiness.

Crane Brinton, author of the seminal book “The Anatomy of Revolution,” argued that most revolutions experience a radical period, the “reign of terror,” before normalcy eventually sets in. Although revolutionary fervor long ago subsided in Iran, normalcy has been elusive, partly because of powerful entrenched interests in the status quo.

The goal of Mr. Khamenei and his revolutionary cohorts — the remaining true believers — is to avoid a normal Iran, and normalization with the United States, which would deprive the Islamic Republic from the external adversary that has helped maintain the cohesion of the security forces, the asabiyyah that Ibn Khaldun wrote about. Although this is a losing strategy in the long run, the octogenarian Mr. Khamenei’s time horizon is limited. Mr. Khamenei’s priority has never been about Iran’s national interest, but it’s to keep his regime united and the international community divided.

If the four-decade history of the Islamic Republic is any guide, Mr. Khamenei may be unwilling or incapable of marshaling an internal consensus to revive the nuclear deal with the United States unless he feels regime solidarity is faltering, and societal exhaustion is beginning to fuel a new generation of power seekers. The paradox of the Islamic Republic is that it tends only to compromise under severe pressure, yet that same external pressure and isolation help keep it alive.

It is a game Mr. Khamenei has been perfecting for decades.