Predictably, rather than bringing Iran’s leaders to their knees, America’s belligerence has caused them to stiffen their spines. Even Mr Rouhani, who championed the nuclear deal, has begun to sound like a hawk. Having long hoped that Europe, at least, would honour the promise of the deal, he is exasperated. On the anniversary of America’s exit from the agreement, on May 8th, he said that Iran would begin stockpiling low-enriched uranium and heavy water, which would in sufficient quantities breach its terms. Without economic progress in 60 days, he said, Iran “will not consider any limit” on enrichment. All this suggests that Iran will start moving closer to being able to build a nuclear bomb.
As he walks his country towards the brink, Mr Rouhani has three audiences in mind. The first is his own hardliners, who detest the nuclear deal and have been pressing him to act. He appears to have appeased them, for now. On May 7th the front page of an ultraconservative newspaper declared: “Iran lighting match to set fire to the JCPOA.” He is also trying to get European companies to break with America. He will not succeed. Despite European Union attempts to design mechanisms that allow European businesses to skirt American sanctions, most of them have decided that the American market is too valuable.
Iran’s most important audience is America, with which it seems to be playing an old game. Iranian leaders have long seen the nuclear programme as their best bargaining chip with the West. Though they have claimed that it is peaceful, un inspectors have found enough evidence to suggest otherwise. The technology is the same whether power or a weapon is the ultimate goal. Iran’s centrifuges can produce a bomb faster than sanctions can topple the regime, goes the logic of hardliners. But they are wielding a double-edged sword. The threat of obtaining a nuclear weapon is useless if it does not seem credible. And if it is credible, it risks provoking military action by America or Israel.