Marc Lynch imagines the most likely consequences of our current Iran policy:
With both engagement and war implausible, we seem to be left with variants of the status quo. But the political and strategic logic of the situation and historical precedent suggest that changes will only be in the direction of ratcheting up the pressure on Iran, not toward de-escalation or easing the sanctions.
If and when the current sanctions are determined to have failed (what that means is an important question to be debated elsewhere), then the pressure to "do something" will require ever-tougher policies. In this scenario, expect to see a push for "crippling sanctions", and then a propaganda battle over who is to blame for the mounting humanitarian costs and constant, debilitating battles at the UN which complicate American relations with China and Russia, as well as with much of the Muslim world.
Expect to see something like the ill-starred 1998 Iraqi Liberation Act calling for regime change to be official American policy. Expect to see military buildups in the Gulf to demonstrate strength (both our own and arms sales to our allies). Expect to see cultivated polarization of the region, including rising Sunni-Shi'a tensions (recent flareups in Bahrain and Kuwait offer a preview) and tense debates about Iranian responsibility for terrorism in a variety of theaters. Expect most of these developments to strengthen Ahmedenejad and other hard-liners inside of Iran, allowing them to blame the West for economic problems and to justify their crackdowns on critics while profiteering from the illicit sanctions economy. And then, in a few years, expect the regretful articles and books about how the still-ticking nuclear clock and the failure of all these alternatives leaves us no choice but to prepare for war.
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