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At this point, Iran’s leaders may just plan to run out the clock on the Trump administration

Iranian leaders have to take seriously the possibility that Trump will be out of office in less than two years.

Iranians burn U.S. flags during a ceremony
Iranians burning U.S. flags during a ceremony to mark the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution in Tehran on February 11, 2019.
Meghdad Madadi/Tasnim News Agency/via REUTERS

Iran marked the 40th anniversary of its revolution this past week in a manner we’ve come to expect: State-sponsored activities included ritual burning of American flags, chants of “Death to America” and defiant speeches.

Still, despite the tired stereotypes, this anniversary turned out to be far from routine. Iran’s multiple foes and its many conflicts kept popping up. As usual, the most important antagonist — though far from the only one — was the “Great Satan” itself.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told CBS News that Iran was ripe for an uprising. Iranians are living much worse than they did 40 years ago, he said, and “we’re convinced that will lead the Iranian people to rise up and change the behavior of the regime.”

So what are the chances? It’s true the economy is a mess, and getting worse because of President Trump’s decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear agreement and reimpose sanctions. The Trump administration also organized a conference in Warsaw last week meant to increase pressure by displaying a united front against Iran.

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But Iran still has important allies and trading partners. And its most determined foes have plenty of their own problems. So Iran is likely to keep muddling through, trying to maintain a lid on domestic unrest for the next couple of years without abrogating the nuclear treaty or making any other dramatic moves.

Just in the past week, Iranian officials announced the deadliest terror attack in several years, a suicide bombing in southeastern Iran that killed 27 members of the elite Revolutionary Guards. Although Iran — as a matter of course — blamed the United States, southeast Iran is home to several militant Sunni groups perfectly capable of acting on their own. New reports surfaced of U.S. efforts to sabotage Iran’s missile program. A former Air Force intelligence officer who defected to Iran was indicted on espionage charges in a case that also highlighted the work of Iranian hackers.

At the Warsaw conference, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a point of highlighting that Israel and Sunni Arab countries were united against Iran. Netanyahu created a stir by saying the meetings were aimed at advancing the “common interest of war with Iran.” Israeli officials later said the word “war” was a bad translation and changed it to “combatting Iran.”

At this point, Iran already has survived half of Trump’s term. Given his low popularity and mounting legal and political troubles, Iranian leaders have to take seriously the possibility that he’ll be out of office in less than two years — and that he’ll be a lame duck for some time before that. While no successor administration would be friendly, it’s unlikely to be as antagonistic.

Meanwhile, other aspects of Trump’s policies work to Iran’s benefit. Plans to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria are a win for Iran. Poor relations with European allies make it hard for the Trump administration to persuade them to drop out of the nuclear deal. Germany, France and the U.K. have come up with a mechanism for continuing some trade with Iran despite the sanctions. China and India, in particular, continue to buy Iranian oil.

A less confrontational U.S. in the future would affect Iran’s regional foes, as well. Right now, they also have troubles of their own.

The U.S. has in the past leaned on Netanyahu not to take military action against Iran. For now, the Israel prime minister has his hands full — he may have to run for re-election in April while under indictment. Police recommended in December that he face fraud and bribery charges, and the attorney general says he will decide on the case soon. Israel’s longest-serving prime minister has survived plenty of drama and scandal. Despite the whiff of corruption, he is favored to win re-election. But this time he also faces an opponent who can challenge him on questions of national security: Benny Gantz, a former general.

Then, there are Iran’s Sunni Arab foes, led by Saudi Arabia. They do appear to be close to Israel on the issue, and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman is eager to confront Iran. But it’s hard to see him making a move without strong U.S. support — and he’s hardly popular in Washington right now. The dismembering of a dissident in a foreign embassy and being party to the world’s worst humanitarian disaster will do that. Trump still stands behind Bin Salman, but many in Congress are eager to punish Saudi Arabia for the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and for the brutality of its war in neighboring Yemen. The House last week voted to end U.S. assistance to the Saudis for the war in Yemen.

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It makes sense to wait them out. There are many ways this could backfire on Iran. Trump, with or without Netanyahu or Bin Salman, could decide on confrontation. Perhaps Netanyahu, and then Trump, both win re-election, resetting the clock. Maybe there is a new war between Iranian ally Hezbollah and Israel, a big miscalculation in Syria, Lebanon or Yemen — or an uprising in Iran.

Probably not. The Islamic Republic is far from healthy, but it is not on the verge of collapse. Its leaders are smart enough to navigate the next couple years and see what happens after that