Trump to Iran: 'So call me maybe'

If you’re feeling confused by President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump's top adviser on Asia to serve as deputy national security adviser United Auto Workers strike against GM poised to head into eighth day Trump doubles down on call to investigate Biden after whistleblower complaint: 'That's the real story' MORE’s approach to Iran right now, don’t worry, you’re not alone. A core tenet of his foreign policy over the last year is that he will isolate Iran and ratchet up sanctions to encourage its capitulation. But now, Trump says he wants to talk to Iran — and he left a phone number at the Swiss Embassy in Teheran where he can be reached. If Iran’s mullahs allowed American pop music, they’d be reminded of a lyric: “Here’s my number, so call me maybe.”

What would Trump actually say to Iran, if it did call? There is no evidence that Iran is ready to back down or has even modulated its behavior in response to the increasingly harsh sanctions and rhetoric by Trump. If anything, Iran has been defiant and its leaders have said over and over they will not bend to U.S. sanctions. 

For instance, Qasem Soleimani, the leader of the Al Quds force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, which the U.S. just designated as a terrorist organization, said Iran will never engage in talks with the U.S. because of economic pressure.

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If the U.S. pushes too hard for talks now, it might seem to Iran that Trump is the one capitulating on his forceful approach. Neither Trump nor his foreign policy team have identified the specific minimum demands they have in advance of talks with Iran. Talking for the sake of talking, without a clear agenda, hasn’t worked for this administration, as we’ve seen with North Korea.

To that end, when Trump unilaterally pulled the U.S. out of the nuclear deal with Iran, without first trying to reopen negotiations, didn’t he foreclose the door to talks for a while, at least talks initiated by the U.S.? If he thought there was a deal to be made, he should have made a proposal to Iran then on amending the nuclear deal. But he consciously chose not to do that — he pulled out a year ago because in his view, it was a “horrible, one-sided” deal.

That goes to the crux of the problem with the policy now. The administration was so opposed to the Iran deal President Obama struck, that it made little effort to fix it, and pulled out without laying out other alternatives. Because Trump has not effectively articulated what would be a good deal, and has made only limited effort to push for some other deal, groundwork is not in place for any real talks.

That does not mean the Trump administration’s approach is all wrong. Trump is right to characterize Iran as a malign actor — because it continuously uses its power and resources to foment instability, encroach upon its neighbors and fund terrorist groups.

Yet, the administration has done little to communicate to Iran — and the rest of the world — the specific behavior it wants Iran to change. It also has given Iran no timeline for doing so and no clear incentive and benefit if it does, which probably leaves Iran with reason to doubt the intentions of the Trump administration. 

Moreover, the administration sends mixed messages by doing many things that make it easier for Iran to continue to meddle in the affairs of other countries. For instance, Trump has pulled back from Syria, ceding power and influence there to Iran. Trump has made no effort to try to persuade one of Iran’s biggest backers, Russia, from continuing to support it.

The administration also has looked the other way in Iraq, as Iran has built up Iranian-backed militias and convinced the Iraqi government to incorporate them into Iraq’s official military structure. This has hurt Iraq’s ability to be a multi-sectarian democracy, a key goal for the U.S. in the Middle East. It is part of the reason it will be easy for Iran to cause harm to U.S. personnel in Iraq and explains why the State Department felt it had to evacuate non-essential personnel from Iraq this week.

How did we get to a point where we have such a strong stance against Iran, but so little of what we are doing is likely to result in a change in its behavior? Part of the problem seems to be Trump and his administration have been influenced by Sunni Gulf states that fear and hate Iran, like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. 

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These states are U.S. allies with legitimate complaints about Iran’s conduct and the threat it poses to peace in the region. But by convincing the Trump administration to do their bidding, they could prevent the U.S. from creating the space it needs to lay the groundwork for a compromise with Iran. They may be persuading the U.S. to act in their interests, rather than our own.

This is why it feels as if we are drifting toward war with Iran, without any clear objective — or a clear face-saving way out for Iran.

The Trump administration should consider an immediate review of its policy on Iran. It needs to look forward. It should put aside grievances over the Obama-Iran nuclear deal and consider what it wants the U.S. relationship with Iran to be in the future.

This review can be led by Trump’s foreign policy team, but it should include outsiders with expertise on Iran. If media reports are true, Trump is unhappy with the approach of national security adviser John BoltonJohn BoltonTrump's top adviser on Asia to serve as deputy national security adviser Bolton replacement inherits tough challenges — including Trump The John Boltons of Iran are on the rise MORE toward Iran. Drawing in outside voices to contribute to the policy review would add balance to the very persuasive maneuvering by Bolton.

The policy review should include figuring how to ensure that Iran does not restart its nuclear weapons program and that Iran takes real steps toward withdrawing its support for the proxy forces around the Middle East that engage in terrorism.

The U.S. then needs to communicate exactly what it wants Iran to do and what incentives there are for Iran to do it. This will require more than a friendly phone call between Iran and Trump. Reopening of communications should begin with dialogue at levels below the two countries’ leaders. It requires sustained discussions, the kind of conversation the Obama administration began years in advance of finalizing the Iran nuclear deal in 2015.

Most importantly, as part of the policy review, this administration must agree on where it plans to draw the line which, if crossed, will cause it to use military force against Iran. It does not have to publicize where that line is, but there needs to be agreement within the administration. This will help ensure rash acts of defiance by Iran do not result in disproportionate responses by the U.S. that lead to war. 

The Trump administration is right to leave all military options against Iran on the table. However, it would be a grave mistake to get dragged into a war, at the urging of our Gulf state allies, without trying other options first, or without building a U.S. consensus that only military force can accomplish our objectives.

David Tafuri is an international lawyer who served as the U.S. Department of State’s Rule of Law Coordinator for Iraq at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad during the height of the war in Iraq. He was an outside foreign policy advisor to President Obama’s 2008 campaign. He appears frequently on CNN, FOX News, BBC and other networks. Follow him on Twitter @DavidTafuri.