(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE BROOKINGS BRIEF)
In July 2012, several senior U.S. government officials made a clandestine visit to Muscat, where they met with Iranian diplomats in the first of what would be a series of back-channel negotiations. Officially, nothing like this meeting in Oman was ever supposed to happen: The two countries had severed their formal diplomatic relations decades earlier, and intensifying U.S. economic pressure on Iran had made direct diplomacy more toxic than ever.
But this secret dialogue ended up providing the genesis for the historic 2015 nuclear agreement between Tehran, Washington, and five other world powers—the first time that the international community managed to slow the clerical regime’s steady progress toward nuclear weapons capability.
Seven years later, that agreement is on life support. The Trump administration pulled out in May 2018, and Iran has recently begun breaching the deal’s restrictions on its nuclear activities. Tensions are high in the Persian Gulf, with Iran seizing a British ship and announcing plans to execute a ring of supposed CIA spies. Fears are mounting that the two countries are on a collision course, headed toward a wider and far more destabilizing military conflict.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the breakdown: Iranian officials now appear to be negotiating—and rather than using back-channels, they’re doing it in plain sight.
Iranian officials now appear to be negotiating—and rather than using back-channels, they’re doing it in plain sight.
Iranian officials, most notably the foreign minister, have been angling for diplomacy with Washington. And Tehran’s provocations in the Gulf, if you look past the breathless headlines, can be seen as a crucial part of their good cop-bad cop negotiating strategy—one that reinforces persuasion with intimidation. Taken together, the signals suggest that Iranians are setting the table for talks, and if President Donald Trump is serious about wanting to “make Iran great again,” he should make the most of this opportunity before tensions spiral out of control.
Engagement between the Islamic Republic and the government still castigated in its official rhetoric as the “Great Satan” has come a long way lately. In 1979, after the revolution, media coverage of official contacts between Iran’s new leaders and senior U.S. officials sparked furious protests in Tehran that culminated with the seizure of the U.S. Embassy and the 444-day hostage crisis. After the Iran-Contra scandal—in which the U.S. and Iran were again revealed to be doing backdoor deals—even quiet diplomacy with American officials was seen as the kiss of death by the Iranian establishment. For decades, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, spurned any suggestion of official talks with Washington, and his grudging consent to Obama-era nuclear negotiations was vehemently rescinded after Trump’s breach of the deal.
However, even with its bitter outcome, the nuclear deal and the intense bilateral contacts throughout the final years of the Obama administration have left an imprint on Iran’s political landscape. Contact with Washington is now effectively normalized in the Islamic Republic—so much so that a meeting between Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, and a Republican senator who sought Trump’s endorsement for the encounter barely generates a second glance. Twenty years ago, an Iranian leader’s interview with an American cable news channel was seen as a shocking breakthrough; today, it’s just another Sunday morning, with Zarif deploying his silver tongue to send signals to an audience of one in White House.
Zarif, a polished chief diplomat with an outsized Washington Rolodex, has made two high-profile visits to New York in recent months, meeting with representatives from the media, academia, and Capitol Hill—a kind of public relations tour underscoring that the Islamic Republic is testing the waters with the Trump administration.
In typical Iranian fashion, this campaign is happening at the same time Iran’s leaders are sending strong signals against doing any such thing. The U.S. maximum pressure campaign has had catastrophic effects on the Iranian economy, and Iran’s official position, as articulated by Khamenei, is that Iran will not negotiate with a knife to its throat. He has categorically rejected the prospect of bargaining over what Tehran views as the country’s essential defensive capabilities, such as its missile program. When Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Tehran last month, apparently at Trump’s behest, he was sent back empty-handed, with a curt rebuff that coincided with a new round of proxy attacks on shipping in the Gulf. Just in case the message wasn’t clear, one of the tankers attacked was owned by a Japanese company.
The one-two punch from Tehran reflects the harsh reality of the regime’s current predicament. Iranian officials insist that they can cope under American pressure, but the concerted campaign to ramp up the threat level even as they flirt with diplomatic overtures betrays an awareness within the theocracy’s highest levels that the country cannot afford an indefinite American economic siege.
Zarif’s media appearances and private meetings here, accordingly, have conveyed a flexible, even cordial message. He offered careful compliments toward Trump with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, praising the president’s “very prudent decision” to call off a military strike initially ordered after Tehran shot down a U.S. drone last month. He dangled some minor overturesaround the nuclear deal in a conversation with print reporters, and in a virtuoso Fox News performance, he played to Trump’s narcissism and his mistrust of his hawkish advisers.
Shortly after Zarif touted to U.S. reporters the possibility of prisoner swaps, Iranian authorities unexpectedly released Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese man with permanent resident status in the United States, after more than three years’ detention on bogus espionage charges. None of this offers the makings of the comprehensive agreement that the Trump administration has advocated, but Iranian maneuvers are beginning to shape a preliminary framework for bilateral negotiations.
Zarif’s artful outreach is consistent with the broader contours of the debate within Iran’s political establishment, where there has been quiet speculation for months about the possibilities for devising a diplomatic pathway out of the country’s current predicament. Well-known dissidents and moderate politicians recently released an appeal for unconditional talks, and even former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, known for his hard-line vitriol but also an idiosyncratic tendency to reach out to Washington, has publicly embraced new diplomacy.
Longtime observers of Iran find it no surprise that Zarif was dispatched to New York even as tensions are rising in the Persian Gulf, with a string of attacks on oil tankers, an oil pipeline, and various U.S.-linked facilities in Iraq, the drone downing, and the latest provocation—Iran’s seizure of a British tanker as it transited the Gulf. The Islamic Republic has made an art form of pairing diplomacy with force, exploiting Zarif’s unctuous charm alongside a punch in the face from the Revolutionary Guard.
While some analysts, echoing Iranian officials, blame factional infighting, Zarif’s smiling warning on CNN that “in such a small body of water, if you have so many foreign vessels … accidents will happen” underscores that Iran’s dual-track approach is deliberate, a coordinated deployment of pressure and persuasion to advance its interests. With a feint and a jab, Tehran is deploying diplomacy and force in tandem in hopes of extricating the regime from an increasingly perilous quagmire.
This game plan offers greater efficacy than any other alternative available to Tehran today. The rest of the world has proven unwilling or unable to circumvent U.S. sanctions or cushion their economic fallout on Iran. At the very least, flexing its muscles in the world’s most important energy corridor can inflate oil prices, improving Tehran’s beleaguered bottom line and complicating Trump’s appeal to his domestic base as he begins his reelection campaign. Mounting tensions may galvanize diplomatic energy from Europe and the other stakeholders to the nuclear deal, and the images of burning tankers offer a powerful warning to Iran’s neighbors of the potential consequences of further escalation. The increasing frictions amplify the gravity of the crisis for the rest of the world, while Iran’s incremental breaches of the nuclear deal provide Tehran with something to trade should an opportunity for bargaining avail itself.
Although Tehran is currently dictating the tempo and intensity of escalation, what happens next depends largely on the Trump administration.
The president has long expressed disdain for costly, protracted U.S. military intervention in the Middle East and he has repeatedly appealed for direct dialogue with Iranian leaders. To achieve that, Washington will have to be ready to compromise on its “maximum pressure” strategy. Tehran is ready to talk, but will require some sanctions relief as the price of admission.
For his part, Trump proclaims to be detached, emphasizing that he is in “no hurry” and insisting that he is “just going to sit back and watch.” Tehran is unlikely to afford him that luxury. Iran is determined to change the status quo, since it is now so unfavorable to their interests. By ratcheting up tensions, the Iranians are hoping to expand the crisis, force a dialogue, and hopefully find their way out of an increasingly dire set of circumstances.