11/21/2014 05:53 pm ET Updated Jan 21, 2015

Keep the Islamic Republic of Iran on a Tight Leash

The deadline to reach a deal curbing Iran's nuclear program is imminent. The world is waiting to see if Tehran will keep successfully kicking the can down the road to buy time as it hones atomic skills or if the U.S. can really rein in the ayatollahs' drive for nukes. The former seems probable -- both sides are already raising the possibility of yet another interim agreement, even if not designated as such. This time it's being termed "the outline of an agreement" by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

Discussions have dragged on, in different forums, since October 2003; the current six-month Joint Plan of Action should have been fulfilled by July 20 but was extended to November 24. Despite not reaching final agreement as yet and regardless of not being fully open to the International Atomic Energy Agency about its activities, Iran has benefitted from some sanctions relief plus repatriation of 6 percent of approximately $100 billion in frozen assets. It has regained acceptance among much of the global community too, through the very act of negotiation and by projecting an image of the long-suffering underdog harried by the U.S.

Iran's military ranks only 22nd in the world, its economy is 30th, its peoples' prosperity a lowly 107th, and personal and economic freedoms an abysmal 116th among 123 countries. It remains vulnerable not only to externally-imposed targeted sanctions but to internally-generated widespread discontent. Plunging oil prices are adding to domestic woes as the state faces decreasing revenues for much-needed development projects. Those handicaps notwithstanding, the Islamic Republic has astutely leveraged its nuclear program, regional maneuverings, and diplomatic settings to generate an aura of importance and influence far beyond its actual capabilities -- with even the American superpower seemingly desperate to gain its assent.

Recently another regional factor has enhanced Tehran's negotiating leverage. Both the U.S. and Iran face an unexpected foe, the Islamic State (IS, aka Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), whose rapid rise and rabid anti-western and anti-Shiite stances have drastically changed the status quo. They know the U.S. has learned its Arab partners in the Persian Gulf region are unreliable when it comes to fighting religious terrorism. They have witnessed the American public's aversion to its soldiers serving as arbiters between different Muslim sects and nations. And President Barack Obama has even written to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei about taking on the two nations' common enemy. As a result, despite the danger being at their western border, Iran's leaders are very clear they believe the US needs them more than they need the U.S. to thwart those Sunni terrorists.

So Tehran holds out the bait that, beyond merely removing a threat of mass destruction, the continued thawing of relations between Washington and Tehran could increase regional stability -- not only by taking down IS but by stabilizing Iraq and resolving Syria. The Iranian side has the U.S. already cooperating tacitly in Iraq and Syria as confirmed publically by President Obama's words "We let them know, don't mess with us; we're not here to mess with you." And unlike the UN's special rapporteur, the White House has even been careful to steer clear of Iran's domestic authoritarianism and human rights violations.

Sure, Tehran needs the nuclear deal too. Iranian citizens are putting pressure on President Hassan Rouhani and Supreme Leader Khamenei to accept an agreement in order to jump-start their country's economy through further reduction and possible complete elimination of sanctions. Iranian politicians acknowledge that eventually "at least some sort of a result (i.e., nuclear deal)" will have to be agreed to by them. But Iran's officials also have cleverly turned their fiscal and economic needs into bilateral selling points -- offering the possibility that U.S. corporations could gain first access in refurbishing outdated industries and catering to voracious consumer appetites. Accordingly, with implicit support from the White House, American companies have increased trade with the Islamic Republic by 35 percent since 2011 to $315 million by 2013 -- still a minuscule amount at 0.032 percent even for Iran's economy, but likely to take off as more sanctions are lifted or bypassed.

Iran's leadership senses that shared enemies and greater profits outweigh strategic risks for the Obama administration. The White House has negotiated covertly in the past with the Rouhani regime, even keeping those meetings hidden from closest allies. Reports swirled lately in British, American, Israeli, Iranian, Emirati, and Azerbaijani news media about renewed secret negotiations between emissaries from Washington and Tehran. Both governments deny fresh hush-hush talks have occurred or will happen about enhancing trade and reopening embassies. But those disavowals are seen as coming from low-level officials -- most recently from the head of the World Trade Center in Tehran and the staff of the American Embassy in Baku. After all, denials of contacts have proved untrue in the past. And, as they nixed reports of meeting with American officials in Baku, the Iranians acknowledged having previously sent a delegation to the U.S. for trade negotiations.

All this reconciliation and cooperation is making not only Republicans in the U.S. unhappy but raising the anxiety levels of leaders in Israel, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates. They fear that Washington and Tehran will become pals once more and let Iran return to dominating the Middle East. They all, like Iranian elites, overestimate Tehran's capabilities. But perceptions of strength, even overblown ones, do shape not only reactions but actions. So even though oil exports are down 40 percent since 2007, its currency has lost 65 percent of value during the same period, and Gross Domestic Product has declined by 20 percent since 2011, the Islamic Republic is still regarded as an important player on regional and global stages when in reality it falls within the bottom 25 percent of nations.

Ultimately, therefore, whether a nuclear deal is reached shortly or not, whether American and Iranian officials are meeting clandestinely in global capitals or not, there will certainly be more dialogue in the months to come on a range of issues. Tehran's powerbrokers, like many of their friends and foes, believe they are firmly in the driver's seat, convinced the U.S. is led by a weak president who will let them get their way. Supreme Leader Khamenei continues making regular threats against the U.S. and its allies, seeing his words have not stopped the Obama administration from seeking both a nuclear agreement and comprehensive relations. Despite repeated reassurances from the White House, the history of these negotiations suggests Iran will end up retaining nuclear breakout capability -- because the U.S. goal is only to require final weaponization take at least one year, systematically shedding the economic sanctions that compelled it to negotiate, and extending its negative influence globally by demonstrating attainment of dangerous goals.

Given its geopolitical location and cultural significance there is no doubt that Iran should be a full participant in the world system. So the U.S. strives for a realistic nuclear agreement. The essential problem, however, is that through protracted negotiations and concomitant unfettering of the American leash it has felt since 1979 the Islamic Republic of Iran is roaring back into the international arena not as a responsible player. It is returning as a maverick whose words foster fear and actions ferment instability.