Iran’s ‘Waiting Game’ For Trump – OpEd

With less than a month before Donald Trump’s assumption of power as US’s next president, Iran’s ‘waiting game’ is more than a passive observer of the changing guards at the White House and, indeed, reflects the proactive elements of an “active diplomacy” that draws on the contributions of public diplomacy as well as “indirect diplomacy” through third parties, such as Europe, Turkey, and the European Union.

There is, of course, a great deal of uncertainty about the Trump administration and its Iran policy, which is difficult to predict as a result of “mixed signals” garnered from both Trump’s own policy statements, such as on the priority of fighting ISIS terrorism, shared with Iran, as well as from Trump’s foreign policy team that, so far, reflects an uneasy combination of hawks and doves.  Thus, whereas Trump’s choice of pragmatic Rex Tillerson as the Secretary of State bodes well for the lofty objective of US-Iran dialogue and even rapprochement, unfortunately the same cannot be said about Trump’s national security team, headed by hawkish Mike Flynn, better known for his hawkish Iranophobic and Islamophobic positions that sow fear among some mainstream Republican politicians, who are nonetheless somewhat comforted by Trump’s pick of James Mattis, as the Secretary of Defense, in light of Mattis’s more nuanced foreign policy approach.  The big question is, of course, who will Trump listen to first and foremost when it comes to Iran, and whether or not Trump will have a coherent Iran policy, instead of an incoherent and ‘Janus-faced’ policy featuring a bifurcated approach that, perhaps simultaneously, pushes the arch of confrontation and cooperation with Iran?

Lest we forget, during the Obama administration the US’s Iran policy has evolved along the lines of “mixed motives” games of simultaneous cooperation and conflict, to use a popular jargon in international relations theory, as a result of which (a) the nuclear accord is implemented by both sides, albeit with some Iranian misgivings and complaints about the US’s scope of implementation, and (b) US and Iran fight pretty much the same fight against ISIS terrorism in Mosul, featuring both US and Iranian military advisers on the ground.

In Iran, there is a hopeful expectation that President Trump will deliver on his campaign promise of cleaning up Obama’s rather messy and convoluted, and some say half-hearted, war on ISIS, energizing it to new levels, based on mutual interests — that could bring US closer to the emerging anti-ISIS alliance featuring Russia, Iran, Turkey, and Syria.  Indeed, there is no reason why US should not join the trilateral dialogue on Syria, which recently took place in Moscow and showed Turkey’s new resolve to cooperate with the regional actors to tackle the menace of terrorism.  As a result, any new US Iran policy must be in tandem with a new US Turkish policy, which in turn requires a new Washington outreach to Ankara.

According to Abbas Maleki, a former Iranian deputy foreign minister (and co-author of books and articles with this author), Iran’s President Rouhani should consider sending a letter to Trump elucidating on Iran’s foreign policy objectives.  This is an apt suggestion and one that is tantamount to extending a small olive branch early on, with the intention of clarifying Iran’s intentions, which are geared toward regional peace and stability.  Mr. Trump, who must notify the US Congress of his position on the Iran nuclear deal within the first few months of his presidency, has also key decisions to make, e.g., with respect to the multi-billion dollar Boeing deal with Iran, which he tweeted in favor of last January.  That deal, as well as other similar commercial deals with Iran, are in the economic interests of both US and Iran and, indeed, can pave the way to improved diplomatic relations between the two countries, who at the moment lack the ties of economic ‘interdependence’. Cultivating those ties will certainly play a catalytic role in improving the troubled US-Iran relations.

Hypothetically speaking, in a letter to Trump Iran’s President can raise the possibility of a new security dialogue between US and Iran, similar to the two rounds that have inspired in the past on Iraq’s security, perhaps expanding its purview to include Afghanistan and Syria.  US and Iran are commonly bedeviled by the Afghan drug traffic and this too forms another area of potential bilateral and multilateral dialogue.  The situation in Yemen and the need to foster regional cooperation for the sake of ending the on-going and senseless slaughter in Yemen is also a crucial point of reference in such a hypothetical letter from Iran to Trump.

In conclusion,  Mr. Maleki has also wisely advised against any provocative Iranian action that would heighten Trump’s concerns about Iran, given Trump’s preoccupation with other issues, both domestic and foreign, and therefore it is incumbent on Iran not to somehow self-consciously transform its present ‘waiting game’ into a confrontation game one way or another — a more prudent approach would be none other than the game of amity and “open-minded” flexible response stemming from Iran’s own national security interests and priorities.

This article appeared at Iran Review.

Kaveh L. Afrasiabi

Kaveh L. Afrasiabi

Kaveh L. Afrasiabi, Ph.D. is an Iranian-American political scientist and author specializing in Iran’s foreign and nuclear affairs, and author of several books.

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