In the aftermath of the recent prisoners’ swap between US and Iran, there is a growing speculation in the mainstream US media as to the possibility of an emerging new dialogue between the two hostile countries.
President Trump himself has thanked Iran for the release of US navy Michael White, who had contracted the Covid-19 while in Iran’s custody on spying charges, and Iran has acknowledged the role of Swiss embassy in Tehran, which represents the US interests in Iran, for its mediation role, this while the office of former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, has indicated his go-between-role involving meetings with Iran’s foreign minister and Iran’s envoy to UN in a “complicated process” that eventually led to the release of an Iranian prisoner in US in exchange for White’s release.
For Iran’s part, there is a uniform response that the swap did not entail any direct dialogue with US officials and nor is it a prelude to any such dialogue, despite Trump’s tweet expressing desire for a new Iran deal prior to the November presidential elections. As expected, in light of the on-going US hostilities against Iran, no one in Iran is taking Trump seriously and, therefore, it appears that the present diplomatic quagmire between Tehran and Washington will likely linger into the future.
But, in the chaotic universe of Trump administration, featuring numerous instances of flip flops and policy zigzags, indeed anything is possible, including an election-induced new push for a (mini) breakthrough with Iran.
With his hands full at home with the pandemic and race crisis and, at the same time, practically nothing to show in terms of any foreign policy success, Trump must be mulling his policy options vis-à-vis Iran, which has defied the US sanctions, which were hiked in the middle of the pandemic, thus reinforcing the hostile image of US inside Iran.
Instead of heeding the UN Secretary General’s call for a truce in global tensions during the pandemic, the Trump administration has tightened the sanctions on Iran, thus making it more difficult for Iran to access the needed medical supplies, per a recent interview of Iran’s ambassador to UN, Majid Takht Ravanchi, with this author published in Asia Times. Iran has lodged several complaints against the US’s anti-humanitarian efforts with the UN, so far falling on deaf ears.
Not only that, the Trump administration has recklessly terminated the sanctions waivers on the nuclear-related aspects of the Iran nuclear deal, which involve the heavy water reactor in Arak, foreign cooperation on nuclear safety, and the like, thus raising the ire of other signatories to the agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
As a result, Iran, which has stopped its cooperation with the JCPOA incrementally in response to the other side’s failure to live up to their obligation, is practically free to resume 20 percent uranium enrichment, in contrast to the low ceiling set by the JCPOA, in light of Iran’s need for medical isotopes for its research reactor in Tehran.
In turn, should Iran resume the 20 percent enrichment in the proximate future, this will undoubtedly raise the “proliferation concerns” in the West, tantamount to a Washington self-inflicted wound, stemming from the Trump administration’s callous disregard for its international obligations, given the JCPOA’s status as an international agreement backed by the UN Security Council (Resolution 2231).
Ironically, for a passing moment recently the Trump administration made a feeble attempt to prevent the lifting of international sanctions on Iran’s conventional arms come this Fall by claiming that it was still a participant in the JCPOA.
That did not fly with anyone at the Security Council, given Trump’s explicit withdrawal of the US from the agreement in May, 2018, followed by the re-imposition of lifted sanctions, thus reflecting the wild swings of US policy, except in the realm of blank check for Israeli expansionism.
Still, there is a tiny glimmer of hope that in the face of all the domestic and foreign setbacks, this administration may use the final months of Trump’s presidency prior to the elections for a rejuvenated Iran policy that gives a serious nod to meaningful diplomacy.
One reason we cannot rule this out is that the “maximum pressure strategy” has failed to bear any intended result and is doomed to be ignored by a greater and greater pool of nations in the international community as time goes on, in other words, time is not on the side of US.
Another reason is that realistically speaking in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan, US and Iran do have a set of shared and or parallel interests, i.e., backing the same political horses in Baghdad and Kabul, which in essence means that contrary to the appearances the two countries have a non-zero-sum game between them, warranting serious attention from the prism of their respective national interests.
As a result, hypothetically speaking, the ground is rather fertile for a new round of US-Iran diplomacy, covering both nuclear and non-nuclear subjects, requiring a new level of flexible pragmatism on the part of the Trump administration, which is populated by anti-Iran hawks such as the secretary of state Mike Pompeo as well as a number of White House advisers.
Whether or not Trump can muster the necessary focus and energy on a new Iran approach, and overcome the internal opposition, is the million dollar question that cannot be determined at the moment.
After all, Trump’s White House is heavily influenced by third countries, such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, that are opposed to any relaxation of tensions between Tehran and Washington and will surely use their influence to torpedo any new Iran diplomacy launched by the White House.
But, Trump must keep in mind first and foremost US’s national interests and the ruinous impact of his one-dimensional anti-Iran policy, which has alienated Europe, blaming him for jeopardizing their security.
In conclusion, from Tehran’s perspective, it is not too late for US to return to the JCPOA, and to use the agreement’s dispute resolution mechanism to engage in dialogue with Iran. That appears to be Trump’s best policy option, otherwise the continuation of the present quagmire is guaranteed.