- By Ilan GoldenbergIlan Goldenberg is a senior fellow and director of the Middle East Security program at the Center for a New American Security. Previously, he served as chief of staff to the special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, supporting Secretary of State John Kerry’s initiative to conduct peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. From 2012 to 2013, he served as a senior professional staff member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. From 2009 to 2012, he was first a special advisor on the Middle East and then Iran team chief in the office of the undersecretary of defense for policy.
The Trump administration has put Iran “on notice” for its destabilizing behavior in the Middle East and violation of international norms. While I have some significant concerns about how this was done, it is perfectly reasonable and indeed advisable to take a harder line with regards to Iranian behavior that is counter to the interests of the United States and its Middle Eastern partners.
But the Trump administration should also maintain the communications channels the Obama administration opened with Iran. In life and diplomacy it is almost always better to communicate directly than not communicate, even if you disagree. After 35 years with rare sporadic communication between the United States and the Islamic Republic, establishing a direct line between the Secretary of State and the Iranian Foreign Minister was an important achievement of the Obama administration and one that should be maintained. Moreover, if the United States keeps channels open and is seen as reasonable and open to negotiation, it can isolate Iran and build international consensus when Iran violates international norms. But if the Trump administration closes the door to dialogue than it will allow Iran to portray itself as the victim of an irresponsible Trump administration and make it harder to generate international pressure .
There is Nothing Wrong with Communication
There are a number of issues where the Trump administration would benefit from direct talks with Iran. First there is explaining what putting Iran “on notice” means. Public statements and tweets are certainly one form of communication and using interlocutors like the Omanis is also helpful. But a direct explanation by the Trump administration to Iran of the types of actions that are truly unacceptable to the United States and will provoke an American response is valuable. Iran wants no part of a direct confrontation with the United States and this type of firm talk by the Trump team can play a useful deterrent role. However, it comes with a real risk of miscalculation and unintended escalation if the United States is too vague. The best way to clearly communicate American views is face-to-face – not through an intermediary.
Communication channels are essential for preventing an incident in the crowded waters of the Persian Gulf from spinning out of control. In January 2016 an American naval vessel wandered into Iranian territorial waters and was detained by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy. Direct phone calls between Secretary Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif quickly defused the crisis and got the American sailors released. If such an incident were to occur today could it be peacefully resolved or under the Trump administration would it escalate?
Iran is also a major player in Iraq and Syria and its actions have been harmful and counter to American interests. The Trump administration has talked about negotiating an agreement in Syria with Russia. But the Russians aren’t alone in supporting Assad. While they provide Assad with air power, the Iranians have tremendous leverage and investments as they provide the ground force of IRGC Qods Force operatives and Shia militias from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. If Iranian interests are not addressed as part of a settlement they will play the role of spoiler and so they will need to a party to any negotiation.
Engagement Increases Pressure on Iran
Beyond the direct benefit of engagement, there is also a secondary benefit that the Obama administration utilized as part of a dual strategy of engagement and pressure. Being seen as reasonable and open to engagement puts the onus on the Iranian government. It helps build support for international pressure when Iran behaves in ways that are contrary to global norms and conflict with the interests of the United States and its allies.
At the start of the Obama administration, many of our partners across the globe recognized the danger posed by Iran’s nuclear program, but also felt the United States was at least partially at fault because of its unwillingness to negotiate directly. President Obama’s early conciliatory statements combined with the Tehran Research Reactor arrangement that the United States jointly offered Iran with the other P5+1 powers both helped shift the narrative. When Iran rejected the confidence building measures on offer in the TRR agreement, the United States was able to bring China and Russia on board to pursue tougher sanctions through UN Security Council Resolution 1929. This resolution then became the starting point for tough follow-on sanctions enacted by the Obama administration and its likeminded partners with a strong assist from Congress. Over the next few years as the Obama administration squeezed Iran economically it continued to periodically meet with the Iranian negotiating team and the P5+1 both to explore the prospects of an agreement but also to continue to demonstrate to the international community that we were negotiating in good faith and the problem was in Tehran. Without this approach, we would have never gotten the biting sanctions that ultimately lead Iran to reconsider and come to the table.
But the Trump team is doing the opposite and isolating itself internationally. The public criticism of the nuclear agreement by both President Trump and Mike Flynn isolates the United States from its P5+1 partners who all believe in the deal. And even though the Trump team has continued to maintain that it will abide by the deal, the narrative is already being set that it is the unreasonable actor and if the deal collapses Iran will not be at fault. This will make it easier for Iran to cheat on the agreement or walk away without blame. It will also give it greater wiggle room to take other provocative steps such as testing ballistic missiles or supporting surrogates and proxies throughout the Middle East without facing international approbation.
A Tillerson-Zarif Meeting
An early opportunity to begin to bring engagement back into the equation will be next week at the Munich Security Conference. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has not yet confirmed his attendance, but it seems quite likely he will attend as will Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. Tillerson and Zarif should meet and ensure the channel established by John Kerry and Zarif remains open. Before this meeting Tillerson should consult closely with Gulf and Israeli partners to clarify the purpose of the meeting and make clear that the Trump administration is going into its engagement with Iran with eyes wide open.
In his meeting with Zarif he should clarify that even though the Trump administration may not like the existing Iran deal, it will plan to abide by it as long as Iran does and America will keep its word. He should reiterate that the Trump administration will be more committed to the security of its Gulf partners and less tolerant of Iran’s actions, especially its support for Bashar al-Assad, Iraqi Shia militias, Hezbollah, and the Houthis in Yemen, but that the United States will not close the door to negotiations with Iran on these matters.
Such a meeting would generate big news across the globe reassuring many who are concerned that the Trump team is itching for a war with Iran. It would not only be useful to keep communication channels open, but is essential to start shifting the narrative and ensuring that when it comes to dealing with Iran the United States does not find itself isolated from its P5+1 partners.
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