Key point: Both Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards know that they are largely unpopular inside Iran.
Iran and the United States are as close to direct conflict as they have been for three decades, since Operation Praying Mantis in 1988 which was, at the time, the largest surface naval engagement since World War II.
A lot of ink has been spilled and oxygen expended discussing the matter, some of it good and some of it simplistic. Here a few thoughts, informed by being lucky enough to spend close to seven months studying in the Islamic Republic while finishing a doctorate in philosophy on Iranian history. I worked on the Iran desk at the Pentagon during the George W. Bush administration, frequently visit the Persian Gulf, and have followed Iran almost continuously for a quarter century.
1) Pressure can work on Iran. There has been, for more than a decade, a curious line of argument that pressure upon Iran is counterproductive. The Century Foundation’s Dina Esfandiary, for example, tweeted that “#Iran won’t talk as pressure increases because it would be suicide for the government. They will talk when they can get something tangible in return for concessions.” And, using numbers of centrifuges as a metric, Wendy Sherman, an Obama administration negotiator, has repeatedly argued that conciliation trumps coercion on Iran.
Both Esfandiary and Sherman are wrong, however, to downplay the importance of pressure. As I detail in Dancing with the Devil, a history of U.S. diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups, there is precedent to the Islamic Republic caving under pressure. For instance, in 1981, Ayatollah Khomeini released U.S. hostages short of achieving his full demands. He did that not because of the persistence of diplomacy, but rather because Iran’s isolation had become too great to bear, especially against the backdrop of the Iran-Iraq War.