With each passing week, the tally of Iranian provocations that feed fears that the Middle East is on the brink of war continues to grow. Iran’s firing of a middle-range missile in violation of a United Nations Security Council resolution and its seizure of a British-flagged oil tanker came after a series of other incidents, including the shooting down of an American drone and sabotage of other shipping in the Strait of Hormuz.
President Donald Trump’s critics have depicted these actions as the inevitable result of his policies. Trump’s withdrawal of the United States from the Iran nuclear deal and the imposition of crippling sanctions on the Islamist regime has, according to his critics in the foreign policy establishment and the media, left Tehran no choice but to strike back in the hope that Western European nations and some of Trump’s more isolationist-minded supporters will persuade him to step back from the brink.
These incidents have made headlines and increased worries that the United States and its allies may be forced at some point to respond with force that could escalate the conflict in a way that neither side anticipates. But the more important storyline involving Iran may be happening in plain sight without getting the same attention. Iran’s hostile actions in the Persian Gulf are hardly surprising for the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism. But while Tehran flexes its muscles, it has also been sending strong signals of a very different character to the West.
Negotiations Are Inevitable
Recent meetings between Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and a number of Western figures, including Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), are unmistakable signs that Tehran is looking for a way out of the current impasse with the United States. Far from demonstrating confidence that it can intimidate the Trump administration or force its European trading partners to undermine the American sanctions campaign aimed at forcing Iran to renegotiate the nuclear pact, the opposite is true.
Both Iran’s campaign of provocations and its attempts at diplomatic outreach provide ample evidence it knows that, sooner or later, it must negotiate with Trump. Even more to the point, Tehran’s attempts to bluff the Europeans into defying the United States and Zarif’s charm offensive aimed at the administration show that Trump’s mix of tough sanctions and refusal to be goaded into the use of force against Iran are working.
The turning point in this episode was Trump’s decision not to order military strikes after a U.S. drone was shot down last month. His critics blasted him for being feckless, and his restraint betrayed the administration’s lack of a strategy in dealing with Iran.
But Trump’s critics have missed that, for all of Iran’s desire to appear tough throughout this period of tension, it has also acted as if well aware of just how limited its options really are. What they would have liked is if both many Americans’ fears about the prospect of another Middle Eastern war and the desire of Western European governments to preserve the nuclear deal persuaded Trump to back down on both his withdrawal from the pact and the U.S. economic sanctions that have been imposed on commerce with Iran.
Stick to the Sanctions
But while Trump is clearly unenthusiastic about a military confrontation, he is equally convinced that it is vital to renegotiate the nuclear deal and that the only way to achieve that end is to stick to the sanctions. Although his critics have claimed that unilateral U.S. sanctions can’t work, the events of the last few months prove the opposite. As early as March of this year, The New York Times was reporting that Syrian and Lebanese terrorists were complaining that Iran’s economic difficulties caused by the sanctions were causing funding cuts for Tehran’s auxiliaries.
Just as important, European efforts to evade the American sanctions are failing. The Franco-German-British effort to create a barter system by which European companies could continue to do business with Iran without being penalized by hindered access to the U.S. financial system is dead in the water. Faced with the choice of commerce with the United States or an increasingly impoverished Iran, the Europeans have no choice but to swallow their pride and follow Trump’s lead in isolating Tehran.
Incidents affecting oil shipping in the Strait of Hormuz have frightened the Europeans, who remain advocates for the nuclear pact. But Trump’s resolve to stick with sanctions while not being trapped into a military conflict has created a nightmare scenario for Iran. It can’t afford a war with the United States that it can’t win, which is why its provocations are transparent bluffs, and sanctions are causing the kind of economic pain neither the theocratic regime nor the restive population it oppresses can endure indefinitely.
Some in the West, including former secretary of state John Kerry, have advised the Iranians simply to wait out Trump in the hope that a Democrat committed to preserving the nuclear deal will replace him in January 2021. But Iran’s diplomatic feelers to Trump are a recognition that it both can’t wait that long and that it may be in their interest to negotiate with the United States while the president is seeking reelection.
This is a dramatic turnaround from previous Iranian declarations that it would never renegotiate the nuclear pact it obtained from an Obama administration so desperate for a deal at any price.
What Would Talks Look Like?
The outreach via Paul raises questions about what Trump will do in talks with the Iranians. Iran has illustrated the basic contradiction between Trump’s neo-isolationist instincts and abhorrence of foreign wars — a tendency reinforced by the advice he gets from people such as Paul and Fox News host Tucker Carlson — and his correct analysis that the nuclear deal was a disaster for the United States.
The pact’s sunset provisions ensured that Iran would, within several years, be able to pursue a nuclear weapon without restrictions. Its failure to dismantle Iran’s advanced nuclear research capabilities and its omission of any mention of Iranian backing for terrorism and illegal missile-building illustrated Obama and Kerry’s lack of negotiating skill and unwillingness to walk away from a bargain that betrayed the West’s goals in the talks.
But if Iran does return to the table — in much the same manner that international sanctions forced them to negotiate in 2013 before Obama began making concession after concession — it will be a test of whether Trump’s desire for diplomatic triumph will be greater than his willingness to risk failure in the talks in order to get a deal that would accomplish his objectives.
It remains to be seen if Iran hawks such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton will continue to influence Trump’s decisions or if Carlson and Paul will prevail once the Iranians begin negotiating, as is now likely inevitable. That is why Zarif, who charmed Kerry into giving away the store, was willing to talk with the Kentucky senator. In the months to come, this process will not only test Iran’s desperation as its economy is brought to its knees by Trump’s sanctions but also whether he will be, as he always claims, a far tougher negotiator than Obama.