In this Aug. 29, 2019 file photo, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif attends a forum titled "Common Security in the Islamic World" in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

In this Aug. 29, 2019 file photo, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif attends a forum titled "Common Security in the Islamic World" in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. AP / Vincent Thian, File

US-Iranian Diplomacy Almost Worked. Let’s Try It Again

Direct talks may be too much to ask for at this stage, but tension-reduction measures promoted by third parties are still very plausible.

It seems hard to believe, but the United States and Iran were recently on the verge of a diplomatic breakthrough. Powered by the mediation of French President Emmanuel Macron on the sidelines of last year’s U.N. General Assembly, Presidents Donald Trump and Hassan Rouhani were reportedly a phone call away from signing a plan to prevent further escalation. In exchange for the suspension of U.S. sanctions, Iran would reenter the 2015 nuclear deal in full, stop provocations in the Persian Gulf, and agree to discuss a more comprehensive regional security accord.

However, the French proposal collapsed at the last minute. The dynamics between Washington and Tehran have only gotten more heated in the months since, with the continuation of the U.S. maximum pressure campaign clashing with Iran’s strategy of maximum resistance. U.S.-Iran relations were deteriorating months before a U.S. drone strike killed Qassem Soleimani, the powerful commander of Iran’s Quds Force. Today, Tehran is pledging retaliation, the U.S. embassies in Baghdad and Riyadh are warning Americans of a heightened risk of Iran-directed violence, and Tehran formally announced that it no longer feels compelled to abide by any technical limits in the nuclear deal, the situation is on the precipice. 

In the aftermath of Soleimani’s death, a question neglected by the commentariat is whether striking him helps or hurts the negotiations President Trump has claimed to want. 

The verdict in the days since the operation couldn’t be any clearer: while dropping a missile on Soleimani’s car may have been emotionally satisfying, the negative consequences have reverberated through Iran and Iraq like an earthquake. The 60,000 U.S. troops stationed across the Middle East now have targets on their backs. The prospects of a diplomatic opening between Washington and Tehran have practically collapsed, giving hardliners in both capitals greater influence to ratchet up tensions to an even more unmanageable level.

Related: The US Recently Made a Smart Move Toward Iran. Killing Soleimani Wasn’t It

At this time, President Trump’s stated desire for a bigger and better agreement with Iran is likely dead-on-arrival. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, already highly suspicious of American intentions, has no interest in negotiating face-to-face with an administration in Washington that unilaterally withdrew from a multilateral nuclear deal Tehran was complying with. The Iranian leadership is concerned that sitting in the same room as U.S. negotiators—while Washington is actively working to bankrupt the Iranian economy—projects weakness and will convince future U.S. administrations to use the same tactic. Iranian officials, including President Rouhani, remain consistent in their message. There will be no negotiation as long as the U.S. maximum pressure campaign is in effect.

Maximum pressure, consisting of one of the strongest U.S. sanctions regimes to date and the deployment of more than 18,000 additional U.S. troops to the Middle East since May, has resulted in the opposite of what the strategy’s proponents predicted. Tehran is not desperately begging for economic relief, suing for peace, or capitulating to American demands. Not one of the predictions made by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Iran envoy Brian Hook, or former national security adviser John Bolton has been right. Instead, the Iranians are investing in a strategy of resistance with asymmetric, by-proxy operations they’ve perfected over the last 40 years.

A bilateral U.S.-Iran negotiation is not in the cards for the foreseeable future. De-escalation, however, is still on the table—if only because neither country’s interests are served by stumbling into a conflict. Killing Iran’s senior military officer has made this job more difficult. But if both sides are willing to act with restraint and pull back, war can still be averted.

Washington should provide possible intermediaries with the space to work their magic. Direct U.S.-Iran diplomacy may be too much to ask for at this stage, but tension-reduction measures promoted by third parties are still very plausible. Josep Borrell, the European Union’s top foreign policy official, extended an invitation to Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif on January 5. Others, like French President Macron, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and Omani Sultan Qaboos bin Said have all sought to bridge the U.S.-Iran divide in the past. Rather than stubbornly spurning such efforts in favor of an Iranian surrender that will never come, the White House should use any opportunity to communicate a message of restraint going forward. 

Trump should also be far more restrained in his language and public messaging going forward. Warnings of additional military action are both dangerous and shortsighted, particularly when the U.S. and Iran are engaging in little substantive communication. The lack of dialogue means both are highly vulnerable to misinterpreting one another’s statements and predisposed to assuming the worst about each other’s behavior. Raising the temperature further does nothing to avoid a collision and will in fact make any deescalation initiative even less pliable. The Iranians, of course, have just as much of a responsibility and incentive to keep the rhetorical bombshells low.

And news that Washington has blocked Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s visa to prevent him from addressing the U.N. Security Council later this week sends precisely the wrong message. The administration should be grabbing at opportunities to promote a dialogue, however slim. Undermining them serves no purpose.

Iraqi President Barham Salih said it best to the New Yorker: “At the end of the day, we need all the key players to sit at a damn table and really discuss it.”  None of the issues dividing the U.S. and Iran can be resolved by military force. Addressing these disputes will require the time, will, interest, and stamina to explore reasonable diplomatic resolutions that prevent further violence. 

For the United States, the worst of all world’s would be another major war in the Middle East, one the American people rightly have no interest in fighting. Avoiding conflict is now the top priority.