The final word in Tehran belongs to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who said on May 29 that Iran “will not negotiate with US officials.”
So does that mean US President Donald Trump’s offer to talk with Iran is dead?
Probably not. Khamenei has the knack for being both definitive and opaque on US-Iran contacts. He has never trusted the United States but has permitted, groaningly, diplomacy on numerous occasions, including between 2006-2014, as a result of the pressure of UN Security Council sanctions on Iran, eventually leading to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
Khamenei added Wednesday that “Iran welcomes negotiating with any other governments,” including “Europeans.”
So expect the back channels between Washington and Tehran to pick up in the coming weeks.
Trump enlists Abe to avoid ‘terrible things’ with Iran
The latest addition to the backchannel is Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan. Asked in Tokyo on Monday if he would welcome Abe’s mediation with Iran, Trump said, “I know that the prime minister and Japan have a very good relationship with Iran. … And I do believe that Iran would like to talk. And if they’d like to talk, we’d like to talk also. We’ll see what happens. … That would be fine. Nobody wants to see terrible things happen, especially me.”
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif met Abe in Tokyo on May 16, 10 days before Trump arrived. On May 30, Russia backed Japan playing such a role at a meeting in Tokyo of both countries’ defense and foreign ministers.
There will be lots of other channels and cross talk in Europe and the region. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo travels next week to Germany and Switzerland for meetings with European leaders.
US national security adviser John Bolton, in Abu Dhabi, pinned the blame on Iran for an attack on four UAE tankers while announcing that a US-UAE Defense Cooperation Agreement signed last year was now in force.
There has been a blizzard of diplomacy in the Middle East, where Iraq, Oman, Kuwait and Qatar, all of whom have sought to cool down regional tensions, have met with Iranian officials in the past week. These various bilaterals with Iran came just days ahead of a summit on May 31 of Arab and Gulf leaders convened by King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia to discuss Iran and security in the region. The summit guest list includes Prime Minister Abdullah bin Nasser Al Thani of Qatar, the first such high-level engagement since the Saudi-UAE-Bahrain-Egypt blockade in 2017.
Cold comfort from Russia and China
Russian President Vladimir Putin is using the crisis to boost his own bona fides with Trump as a mediator and partner, while showing some scratchiness with Iran. The Russian president dispatched Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov to Tehran this week for some “square talk” about Iran’s threats to leave the Non-Proliferation Treaty or stay in the nuclear deal, as Maxim Suchkov reports.
On Syria, Suchkov writes that at an upcoming summit in Jerusalem among Bolton and his Israeli and Russian counterparts, “Russia may once again raise a proposal Putin first shared with Trump in Helsinki last year to separate Israeli and Syrian forces along the Golan Heights and offer Israel security guarantees against Iranian proxy forces in Syria. Trump’s recognition of the Golan Heights almost nixed the proposal, but as the Americans, Israelis and Russians sit together to try to defuse tensions, it may make a comeback in the absence of other alternatives.”
We reported two weeks ago that Iran would find "cold comfort" from Russia, noting Putin’s statement that his country “is not a firefighting rescue crew” with regard to Iran’s troubles and Putin’s seizing the chance to gain leverage with both Washington and Tehran.
Iran can’t count on China to bail it out. Beijing is in a trade war with the United States that has economic stakes that dwarf Iran-China trade. The Chinese purchase of Iranian oil and other transactions will, therefore, be “symbolic,” as Esfandyar Batmanghelidj writes, and calibrated to not trigger trouble with Washington. Batmangheli cites a recent article by a scholar at the Chinese Academy of Sciences advocating that Iran pursue a policy of "strategic retreat" to cede influence in Syria and Yemen to earn some respite from US policies. That may not be official Chinese policy, but its publication deserves attention.
Trump’s Art of the Deal in Play
Dennis Ross, who served four US presidents in senior national security positions and is now with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, writes in Bloomberg that US-Iran talks, if they happened, could include extending the sunset in the original nuclear deal from 2030 to 2045 in exchange for sanctions relief for Iran.
That means rolling back the new sanctions and extending the timeline of the Iran deal. If Trump could get the extension, he can justifiably claim he got a better deal than Obama. Indeed, the prep work on that score could be well handled by European or Russian intermediaries, the co-signatories of the JCPOA.
As we have been saying for weeks, Trump’s art of the deal is very much in play, and the burden is on Iran to make the next move. The Trump administration is holding off for now on new sanctions on Iran’s petrochemical sector. And in case anyone missed it, Trump made clear that he is not seeking regime change in Iran, saying that “Iran has tremendous economic potential, and I look forward to letting them get back to the stage where they can show that. I think Iran — I know so many people from Iran. These are great people. It has a chance to be a great country, with the same leadership. We’re not looking for regime change. I just want to make that clear. We’re looking for no nuclear weapons.”
High praise for Iran’s potential and people, and no regime change. Trump wants to talk, without conditions, about moving forward on an updated nuclear deal. There are regional issues too, and they need to be addressed. But the nukes have his priority. Given the stakes, revisiting Trump’s decision to leave the JCPOA does not advance the ball. Iran’s leaders may be skittish about direct talks, but the backchannels are buzzing. Tehran should seize the initiative before Trump’s patience runs out or events in the region again take a turn toward escalation.