The nuclear option falls into the category of Iranian manipulation of regional and global powers, long a historic necessity for the Iranians. But another, and more significant event is under way in Syria.
Syria's Importance to Iran
As we have written, if the Syrian regime survives, this in part would be due to Iranian support. Isolated from the rest of the world, Syria would become dependent on Iran. If that were to happen, an Iranian sphere of influence would stretch from western Afghanistan to Beirut. This in turn would fundamentally shift the balance of power in the Middle East, fulfilling Iran's dream of becoming a dominant regional power in the Persian Gulf and beyond. This was the shah's and the ayatollah's dream. And this is why the United States is currently obsessing over Syria.
What would such a sphere of influence give the Iranians? Three things. First, it would force the global power, the United States, to abandon ideas of destroying Iran, as the breadth of its influence would produce dangerously unpredictable results. Second, it would legitimize the regime inside Iran and in the region beyond any legitimacy it currently has. Third, with proxies along Saudi Arabia's northern border in Iraq and Shia along the western coast of the Persian Gulf, Iran could force shifts in the financial distribution of revenues from oil. Faced with regime preservation, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states would have to be flexible on Iranian demands, to say the least. Diverting that money to Iran would strengthen it greatly.
Iran has applied its strategy under regimes of various ideologies. The shah, whom many considered psychologically unstable and megalomaniacal, pursued this strategy with restraint and care. The current regime, also considered ideologically and psychologically unstable, has been equally restrained in its actions. Rhetoric and ideology can mislead, and usually are intended to do just that.
This long-term strategy, pursued since the 16th century after Persia became Islamic, now sees a window of opportunity opening, engineered in some measure by Iran itself. Tehran's goal is to extend the American paralysis while it exploits the opportunities that the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq has created. Simultaneously, it wants to create a coherent sphere of influence that the United States will have to accommodate itself to in order to satisfy the demand of its coalition for a stable supply of oil and limited conflict in the region.
Iran is pursuing a two-pronged strategy toward this end. The first is to avoid any sudden moves, to allow processes to run their course. The second is to create a diversion through its nuclear program, causing the United States to replicate its North Korea policy in Iran. If its program causes an Israeli airstrike, Iran can turn that to its advantage as well. The Iranians understand that having nuclear weapons is dangerous but that having a weapons program is advantageous. But the key is not the nuclear program. That is merely a tool to divert attention from what is actually happening -- a shift in the balance of power in the Middle East.