Iranian leaders are running out of options as President Donald Trump tightens the economic noose on the already ailing hardline regime, which is now intent on outlasting the Trump administration in hopes that a friendlier U.S. politician can beat him in the 2020 election, according to U.S. officials and regional experts.
Iran has made no secret of its distaste for Trump, and is now making moves to grow closer with traditional American foes such as China and Russia. However, it has become increasingly clear that Iran is feeling the pain as the Trump administration continues to sanction a range of entities and individuals tied to the country's contested nuclear program and oil sector.
As the sanctions continue to squeeze the regime—prompting protests that have threatened to topple Islamic theocracy—Iranian leaders have been left with only one long-term option: Outlast Trump and bet on a more friendly U.S. leader who will restore the landmark nuclear agreement that provided Tehran with billions in cash windfalls.
It now remains to be seen how far the Trump administration will go in its sanctions policy. While a range of efforts have choked off Tehran's revenue streams, the United States continues to issue waivers permitting Iran to engage in sensitive nuclear research, as well as the sale of crude oil. Iran hawks on Capitol Hill want the administration to keep up the pressure and not back down before elements of the administration that favor rewarding Iran in a bid to keep the nuclear deal on life-support through the next election cycle.
Saeed Ghasseminejad, a senior adviser on Iran at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told the Washington Free Beacon it is increasingly clear that Tehran's only option is to outlast Trump.
"Tehran's plan is to wait and see what will happen in the 2020 election," Ghasseminejad said. "The clerical regime hopes that a less aggressive candidate will defeat Trump and the U.S. will return to the JCPOA," the acronym used to refer to the nuclear deal.
The time is now to further tighten the screws on Iran, Ghasseminejad said, emphasizing the need to abandon the consideration of more sanctions waivers.
"The administration's best approach is to force Tehran to collapse over the next two years," he said. "To do that the administration needs a much more vigorous economic, diplomatic, and regional pressure campaign, a well-devised information warfare and plan of action to support Iranian dissidents."
"At the moment," Ghasseminejad said, "we see none of these elements."
Instead, the administration has offered signs that it is backing away from its so-called "maximum pressure" campaign on Iran.
"The administration has failed to push Iran's oil export below the 500 thousand bpd [barrels per day], a critical threshold," Ghasseminejad explained. "The administration has been unable to use the opportunity in Syria and Yemen to financially bleed the mullahs and it has not curbed Tehran's influence in Iraq. On the other hand, the tension between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia is hurting Washington's oil diplomacy."
Iran hawks on Capitol Hill also are pushing for the administration to follow through on its vows to collapse the Iranian regime's revenue streams, which have been spent on foreign wars in Syria, Yemen, and other regional hotspots.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas), a vocal Iran opponent, is calling on the Trump administration to stop issuing oil and nuclear waivers.
"Sen. Cruz believes that the Ayatollahs make their intentions crystal clear when they chant Death to America and Death to Israel," a Cruz spokesman told the Free Beacon. "They will preserve the Iranian regime as long as they possibly can in pursuit of those goals."
"Meanwhile many top Democrats have made it clear they intend to reenter the catastrophic Obama nuclear deal, which enriched and emboldened the regime, as soon as they can," the spokesman said. "The time for maximum pressure is now, and the Trump administration should immediately end all of the waivers that are keeping the regime afloat, including all oil waivers."
As the Trump administration fights with itself over the waivers issue, Iran has been making moves to tighten its alliances with Russia and China.
Russia, in addition to building several new nuclear reactors for Iran, has emerged as Tehran's chief ally in the region, as the two combine forces to aid embattled Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.
China and Iran also have found common ground.
Iranian diplomats announced this week that, after meetings with Chinese officials, they would be boosting ties between the two countries, particularly on the economic front. This could provide Iran with another financial lifeline in the face of U.S. sanctions.
New reports further indicate that "China is Spying on Israel to Steal U.S. Secrets," according to Foreign Policy Magazine.
This could be a boon for Iran, which has waged its own spy operations in pursuit of information on both Israel and America.
One veteran Republican congressional aide working on the Iran issue warned that the waivers issue has the potential to save the Iran nuclear deal and with it the Iranian ruling regime.
"The people inside the Trump administration who are trying to preserve the deal know that they just need one last round of waivers to get past the Trump first term," said the official, who would only speak on background. "The next waiver renewal will be too close to the election, and no one is going to screw with energy prices that close to voting. Another round of waivers locks in the nuclear deal at least for the next several years, until it expires on its own."