The hysteria of war is once more gripping Washington. President Donald Trump reportedly ordered and later canceled airstrikes against Iran for its latest provocations. The litany of Iranian mischief is certainly a long one: Tehran has declared its intention to violate the Iran nuclear deal—the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action—by exceeding limits on enrichment stockpiles; it has, according to the Trump administration, assaulted oil tankers in the Persian Gulf, thus interfering with commercial traffic in an international waterway; and on Thursday it shot down a U.S. drone.
Having studied the Iranian regime for decades, I believe the purpose of all this, however, is not to start a war with America. More likely, it’s to enter talks with Washington claiming to be the empowered party that has withstood America’s strategy of maximum pressure. Before negotiating with the United States, Iran needs a narrative of success. And the events of the past few days, in which the Trump administration threatened and then backed off a military confrontation, have finally provided Tehran with a justification to enter talks with, in Iran’s telling, a chastened Washington.
You could see this narrative develop on Friday, when—hours after Trump reportedly called off airstrikes—the podiums of the Islamic Republic proclaimed victory. Tehran’s influential Friday Prayer leader Ali Akbari insisted, “The enemies also know that if they start a war, they will not end it.” General Amir Hajizadeh of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps boasted that it could have easily shot down a U.S. spy plan, “but we did not do it.” (Trump on Saturday nodded to the same event: “There was a plane with 38 people yesterday, did you see that? … They had it in their sights and they didn’t shoot it down. I think they were very wise not to do that. And we appreciate that they didn’t do that. I think that was a very wise decision.”)
The reality is more complicated than Iran’s assertions of success. First, the White House abrogated the JCPOA without being isolated internationally. Then, it managed to gain multilateral support for its economic sanctions, as European businesses complied with U.S. demands over the objections of Europe’s diplomats and politicians. By the International Monetary Fund’s estimate, due to the sanctions, Iran’s GDP will contract by 6 percent while inflation hovers around 50 percent. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo then announced 12 demands for a new nuclear treaty with Iran, sensibly suggesting that the U.S. has to address not just Iran’s nuclear weapons aspirations but also its penchant toward terrorism and regional subversion. And finally, the administration has made much progress in reducing Iran’s exports to zero.
In other words, Iran has much more to gain by negotiating with the U.S. than by continuing the confrontation. Iranian diplomats, who believe they came out of talks with the Obama administration with the longer end of the stick, think that if they enter any negotiating room they can easily beset their interlocutors. Stalemated talks will inevitably generate pressure on the Trump team by European allies and Democrats who will insist that the Pompeo parameters are unrealistic and must be abandoned. Many within the professional bureaucracy led by State Department diplomats, intelligence analysts and Pentagon generals are likely to echo these themes. The Iranians have seen these pressures and fears of another war in the Middle East drive both the Obama and the George W. Bush administrations to the negotiating table, and they hope the same factors will finally cause Trump and Pompeo to narrow their gaze to some modest changes in the JCPOA, rather than a total overhaul. But Iran’s leadership, which has insisted to its populace for two years that it will not enter talks with a truculent Trump, requires a narrative of success justifying its turnabout. The regime cannot enter negotiations as a supplicant battered by American sanctions.
I believe this is why Tehran in May opted for a riskier strategy of incrementally increasing pressure on America while whittling down its demands for resumption of nuclear talks. President Hassan Rouhani announced Iran would gradually reconsider its obligations under the JCPOA starting with retaining enriched uranium at home as opposed to sending it abroad. Then, the Trump administration accused Iran of attacking oil tankers around the Strait of Hormuz. Iran has denied the attacks, but Iran has often threatened Gulf shipping whenever it has faced sanctions and threats from America—a signal to the international community that the Islamic Republic is capable of obstructing oil commerce through one of the most strategically vital waterways. And then for good measure, Iran shot down an American drone. Tehran, I think, hoped that its incremental escalation would not lead to war, but generate a diplomatic process. It was a risky move, but one that may yet pay off.
Look closely, and you’ll see that in the past weeks, Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif have also offered their own subtle olive branch. Rouhani stopped insisting that America rejoin the JCPOA as a precondition to talks while stressing, “We are for logic and talks if [the other side] sits respectfully at the negotiating table and follows international regulations, not if it issues an order to negotiate.” Zarif has cautioned Trump, “You campaigned against costly stupid interventions,” but a “conniving cabal of warmongers and butchers, the infamous B-Team, is plotting for way more than what you bargained for.” By separating Trump from his so-called belligerent advisers, Zarif intimated that Trump can be a statesmen if only he dispenses with the reckless aides who are, in Zarif‘s words, tricking him into war.
Some in the foreign policy community at times suggest that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is opposed to any talks and will not permit his diplomats to reengage with the United States. But this is a misreading of Khamenei, who has routinely denounced talks in public while supporting them in private. After all, the talks with the Obama administration would not have taken place without his consent. In a recent speech, Khamenei claimed he had opposed the JCPOA and had warned Rouhani and Zarif not to trust the Americans. But he added that the executive branch, led by Rouhani, is responsible for diplomacy and that he himself rarely intervenes in such matters unless they threaten the revolution itself.
This tells us that if Rouhani in his role as the head of the executive branch wants to embark on talks with America, Khamenei will publicly express his skepticism while essentially allowing the negotiations to proceed. This is a convenient way for the supreme leader to disown controversial talks with the U.S. so that Rouhani will have to deal with any political blowback.
It’s clear to me that the talks between United States and Iran are coming. And the challenge for the Trump administration is to hold fast to the Pompeo parameters. Ultimately, the legacy of Trump’s Iran policy will be whether the adminisration can sustain its hawkish policy and move forward with successful negotiations or whether it will join its predecessor in abandoning its own sensible red lines for sake of an agreement at any cost.