The United States stepped right up to the brink of striking Iran over a downed American drone—and then abruptly stepped back. Yet the conditions that have stoked weeks of tensions remain fully in place, as does the question of what exactly President Donald Trump plans to do in the face of Iranian threats against American assets and interests.
Now that the two countries have traveled so far down the road to war, is there any realistic off-ramp to the negotiations the U.S. president keeps saying he ultimately wants?
On the surface, that path is nowhere to be found. Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has repeatedly disavowed the idea of negotiating with the United States ever since the Trump administration withdrew last year from the Iran nuclear deal. Trump reimposed all sanctions against Iran that the Obama administration had lifted as part of the 2015 pact, recently taking the additional step of pressuring other countries to stop buying oil from Iran altogether.
Khamenei argues that there’s no use negotiating, particularly under duress, with a man who scrapped the product of previous talks and has thus demonstrated a lack of good faith. “Trump has said negotiations with the U.S. would lead to Iran’s progress,” he recently wrote on Twitter. “By the Grace of God, without negotiations & despite sanctions, we will progress.”
The supreme leader’s position is that he “will consider further negotiations” only when the United States resumes complying with the terms of the nuclear deal, Seyed Hossein Mousavian, a spokesman for Iranian nuclear negotiators in the mid-2000s, told us. “By destroying the deal, Trump destroyed confidence and any chance for future negotiations,” said Mousavian, now a Middle East security and nuclear-policy specialist at Princeton’s Program on Science and Global Security.
Trump, for his part, has flirted with replicating the model he followed with North Korea: ratcheting up military and economic pressure to force Iran into nuclear talks. He’s mused about meeting the possibly “lovely man” serving as Iran’s president and boasted of his abilities to broker a far better nuclear agreement than Barack Obama ever could. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a hard-liner on Iran, even floated the idea earlier this month of sitting down with the Iranians without preconditions (except the rather loaded precondition that they “prove that they want to behave like a normal nation”).
But for now the Trump administration appears wholly focused on squeezing Iran economically, deterring Iranian aggression, and preparing for a possible military conflict—not laying the groundwork for serious negotiations. If its pressure campaign is a means to an end of a negotiated solution, rather than the end itself, the administration hasn’t clearly articulated what that solution is or how it plans to arrive at it.
A classified briefing earlier this week to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee—attended by the State Department’s Iran special representative, Brian Hook, as well as defense and intelligence officials—“was about building the case for war [with Iran], not about discussing the strategy for diplomacy,” according to Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon, who attended the closed session. The officials spent their time presenting evidence for why Iran is a threat and why the government is confident that the Iranians were behind recent attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman, Merkley told us. (There is some diplomatic activity afoot; next week, National Security Adviser John Bolton will travel to the region to discuss the security situation with Russian and Israeli officials.)
It’s unlikely Iran’s leaders want a full-fledged military confrontation with the United States, but they do want to extract a cost from the United States for the sanctions it has reimposed, Elisa Catalano Ewers, who served in the Obama administration as a director for the Middle East and North Africa on the National Security Council, told us. “If the last 24 hours are any indication, the Iranians may perhaps falsely believe that as long as they stay behind a certain line, they won’t pay a price for their provocations.” If Iran miscalculates by, say, sinking an oil tanker instead of blowing a hole in it, the tensions could escalate quickly and more dangerously, said Ewers, now a senior adjunct fellow at the Center for a New American Security think tank.
Mousavian agreed that Iran doesn’t “want war” but added that Iran had abided by the nuclear deal for the past two years while only getting more sanctions and pressure in return, and “this trend can’t be continued.” He urged UN Secretary-General António Guterres to lead an effort to establish military-to-military communication channels between Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the United States so that the parties could at least avoid misunderstandings and stumbling into conflict, even if they never get as far as the negotiating table.
Efforts at mediation, however, have so far sputtered. Perhaps most notably, when Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe traveled to Tehran to appeal for calm and try to get talks going, Iran’s supreme leader rejected the overture, according to Pompeo—right before an explosion on a Japanese-owned oil tanker in the Gulf of Oman that the U.S. has blamed on Iran. (Iran denies involvement.) Khamenei, Pompeo told reporters in mid-June, told Abe “he has no response to President Trump and will not answer.” (The Iranians blame the Americans for the failure of Abe’s effort.)
Other countries have tried or at least positioned themselves to play mediator, Suzanne Maloney, an Iran expert at the Brookings Institution, told us. “Iranian diplomats will say privately that there is no mediation going on,” she said. Numerous parties—including the Swiss, the Omanis, the Kuwaitis, and the Qataris—would be willing to play such a role, but so far this is aspirational. “There have been episodic messages passed but there’s no official mediation,” she says. (U.S. and Iranian officials denied one report on Friday that the Omanis helped pass messages between the two countries ahead of the aborted U.S. strikes this week.)
Yet the attacks in the Gulf region, and Iranian threats to start abandoning the nuclear deal without some form of economic relief, also point to an Iranian effort to build up leverage, Jake Sullivan, a former Iran negotiator in the Obama administration, told us. Doing so “gives them a rationale for coming to the table in something other than a submissive way,” he said.
They might still insist on concessions as a condition for talks—possibly, Maloney said, a partial lifting of oil sanctions to bring them back to the levels they were trading in May. At the time, the administration had waivers in place to allow a handful of countries to continue importing Iranian oil, but it let them lapse in an effort to drive Iran’s oil exports to zero.
Given that Iran is now making reversible threats to restart its nuclear program, Maloney said a “freeze for freeze” arrangement like the interim nuclear deal the Obama administration struck in 2013 could help galvanize negotiations. The key question, she said, is: “What is a quid pro quo, that is nonpermanent, that is enough to incentivize each party to come back to the table but not so much to make negotiations on a full deal irrelevant?”
But Reuel Marc Gerecht, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies who advocates a hard line on Iran, thinks U.S. concessions would be unnecessary to drive Iran to the table, if the Iranians truly fear for the survival of their regime. The drop in oil exports since May will put “enormous strain on the system,” he told us, “but it is still probably far north of an economic meltdown. No meltdown, insufficient incentive for the regime to swallow its revolutionary pride and engage Trump.”
Whatever it takes to start talks, if that’s even possible, what the parties actually talk about is another matter. The administration has laid out 12 demands it says the Iranians must meet—including additional curbs on its nuclear program and a halt to its support for regional proxies—that would amount to a total overhaul of Iran’s foreign policy. Pompeo says the demands are totally reasonable. He’s also said the U.S. is ready to negotiate with no preconditions. “It’s one thing to get talks going just to de-escalate tensions,” Sullivan said, “but in terms of actually solving the problem … where is the Venn diagram that there’s anything remotely resembling the overlap?”
Still, he thinks it’s at least conceivable they could talk to each other. “We have a very wide distribution of possible outcomes—from actual war to sitting at the table soon.”