Above all, indiscriminate sanctions are likely to strengthen Iran’s hardliners. American pressure gives them excuses for bad behaviour; adventurism abroad becomes self-defence; oligarchic control of the economy is portrayed as a means to bust sanctions; and critics are dismissed as puppets of the Great Satan. If Iran casts off the JCPOA’s nuclear constraints, America and Israel will have to choose between the risk of Iran building a nuclear bomb and the dangers of a bombing campaign to stop it.
To nudge Iran towards normality, America needs to mix firmness with pragmatism, rather as it did in the cold war with the Soviet Union. This means containing Iran until its people grow weary of their rulers, and negotiating partial deals that limit the risk of outright conflict. America should seek unity with its own democratic allies and attempt to isolate Iran’s revolutionaries from their subjects. It should aim sanctions at hardliners rather than the country as a whole. It should do more to expose the regime’s brutality and corruption, counter its propaganda and increase contacts with Iranian citizens—giving them more visas to visit America, not fewer. And it should offer to talk to Ayatollah Khamenei. To him, America’s outstretched hand may be more Terrifying than its fist.