Last week, this column described US President Donald Trump’s offer of dialogue with Iran as “genuine” and a “potential offramp, even if a risky one, for both Washington and Tehran.”
It’s time for Iran to take up Trump’s offer. Although Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif says there is “no possibility” of dialogue with the Trump administration, he might reconsider. For the Trump administration, this is how high-stakes diplomacy is done, and is as good as it gets, for at least the next two years, maybe six. The pain of US sanctions on Iran will only get worse. And the moment for diplomacy might pass. Trump’s patience may be tested, and the slight cracks that we see in the US approach to Iran could close as quickly as they have been revealed.
Trump tweeted on Wednesday he's sure “Iran will want to talk soon,” amid signs he is irritated with the hawkish posture of national security adviser John Bolton. “As recently as last week,” CNN reports, “Trump was calling outside advisers to complain about Bolton, people familiar with the conversations said.” Trump told acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan during a White House briefing on Iran that he does not want war, according to the New York Times.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo took Trump’s charge to emphasize that the United States is not looking for war and is open to diplomacy. A sudden visit to Europe on May 13 nonetheless fell flat, as Laura Rozen reports.
Pompeo may instead be counting on trusted regional partners to defuse tensions with Iran. Makram Najmuddine writes: “Following Pompeo’s meeting [with Iraqi leaders in Baghdad], some Iraqi sources have indicated that the United States may consider Iraq as a bridge to an eventual dialogue with Iran — a role the Iraqis may be willing to play.” Al Jazeera reports that a recent visit to Tehran by Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Jassim Al Thani included discussions of how to defuse tensions in the Gulf, and on May 16 Pompeo spoke with Omani Sultan Qaboos about “Iranian threats to the Gulf region.”
Hunaina al-Mughairy, Oman’s ambassador to the United States, told Al-Monitor on May 8, before the recent escalation, that Oman had not yet been approached by the United States regarding Iran, adding that “but I’m sure that if we were approached we would be happy to assist.” Oman provided the venue for the early US-Iran negotiations, which eventually led to the nuclear deal.
Trump may also be taking diplomacy into his own hands, meeting on May 16 with Swiss Confederation President Ueli Maurer, whom he considers a potential intermediary with Iran. Maurer was circumspect on what role Switzerland might play, saying that his "mandate" is "open relations and protection of the US citizens in Iran," and that the content of that mandate, and what he conveyed to Trump about Iran, was "confidential." Asked directly what Switzerland can do to de-escalate tensions between the United States and Iran, Mauer said, “We have not the role to play. Switzerland is not a global political player.”
While the United States struggles with the frustration of its European allies over Trump’s Iran policy, it is still the Islamic Republic that is in dire straits. The US policy of maximum pressure has reduced Iranian oil exports by nearly half, and its economy will go from bad to worse, with no chance for a bailout from Europe, Russia or China, whatever their respective issues with the Trump administration. None of the above will choose Iran’s market over that of the United States, especially in the context of ongoing trade disputes.
Iranian leaders understand that the prospect of Europe stepping up are slim to none, as Rohollah Faghihi writes.
Zarif traveled to Asia this week, including China, to discuss ways to keep trade and commerce open despite US sanctions. Whatever small workarounds might be offered by China, India and Turkmenistan will be minimal and at the margins, given the extent of Iran’s economic crisis.
Mohsen Shariatinia writes that “Iran cannot simply lean toward China to avert US pressure. Tehran only makes up 1% of Beijing's total foreign trade, while the United States is China's leading business partner, dominates the global financial system and remains the world's biggest market.” He continues, "China is likely to ignore US punitive measures on trade with Iran, but at a minimum level, slightly below the threshold where it will be careful not to trigger any penalty.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin may be cold comfort as well, looking to exploit US-Iran tensions for leverage with Washington, especially if he perceives the possibility of a reset in US-Russia ties following the Mueller report. That’s not to say he will ditch Iran, of course, but he will position himself for leverage with both sides, as Max Suchkov writes. Putin warned Iran not to withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, saying, “Russia is not a firefighting rescue crew. … We have played our part, and we are ready to continue to play the same positive role, but it does not depend solely on us. It depends on all our partners and all the parties, including the United States, the European countries and Iran.”
If Iran is willing to take up Trump’s offer to talk, it can send credible messages through a number of trusted intermediaries — Switzerland, Russia, Qatar, Oman and Iraq, to name a few.
The State Department’s 12 conditions for a comprehensive agreement, according to our soundings, can be understood more as a framework for dialogue; these are all issues the United States and Iran should be discussing.
Trump’s offer is not new; one year ago he said he looked “forward to someday meeting with the leaders of Iran in order to work out an agreement and, very importantly, taking steps to give Iran the future it deserves.” There was also the flurry at the UN General Assembly last year over the prospects a meeting between Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, including a tweet by Trump that he was sure his Iranian counterpart was “an absolutely lovely man.”
There is no downside to testing a diplomatic flare, especially via trusted partners willing to play such a role, if not directly. There are, however, clear downsides to rhetorical and military escalation, absent diplomacy.
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