DUBAI                      -             Anti-Western hardliners are set to sweep Iran’s parliamentary elections and appear favorites to clinch the presidency next year, but an economic crisis could force them to engage with the United States despite their tightening grip on power.

Tehran has ruled out any talks with Washington unless it lifts crippling sanctions reimposed on Iran after U.S. President Donald Trump exited a 2015 multinational nuclear pact with Iran and demanded a broader deal.

But growing discontent over economic hardship, which led many Iranians to abstain from Friday’s vote, could force the Islamic Republic’s clerical rulers to choose diplomacy over the kind of confrontation that almost led to all-out war in January.

Some insiders said Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei may have to drink “the cup of poison”, citing a phrase used by his predecessor Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini when he agreed to a U.N.-mediated truce that ended the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war.

Iran’s fragile economy, weakened by a U.S. “maximum pressure” campaign that has choked vital oil exports and by corruption and mismanagement alienating many Iranians, leaves the Iranian authorities with few options. The killing of Iran’s most prominent commander Qassem Soleimani in a U.S. drone attack in Baghdad and Tehran’s retaliation by launching missile attacks on U.S. targets in Iraq brought the arch foes to the brink of war in January.

“Iran is just one systemic crisis away from the breaking point,” Michael Tanchum, senior fellow at the Austrian Institute for European and Security Policy (AIES), told Reuters. “To avoiding this breaking point, Iran’s hardliners may offer the U.S. concessions for the sake of the regime’s survival.”

A host of disputes divide the two old foes. Iran decries the U.S. military role in the Gulf. Washington objects to Iran’s regional paramilitary alliances, its missile program and its nuclear work, which Tehran says is peaceful but Washington worries may be aimed at building a bomb.