To avoid war with Iran, US needs to deal — starting with a concession

To avoid war with Iran, US needs to deal — starting with a concession
© Getty Images

It is time to negotiate with Iran. There is no other way out, in the long term, to avoid either an “accidental” confrontation in Gulf waters or a return to the status quo on Iran’s nuclear program that existed before the deal was signed in 2015.

However, President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpConway defends herself against Hatch Act allegations amid threat of subpoena How to defuse Gulf tensions and avoid war with Iran Trump says 'stubborn child' Fed 'blew it' by not cutting rates MORE must offer a concession in order for Iran to reengage. This is the only way Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif can temporarily keep Tehran’s hardliners at bay and return to the negotiating table.

Unlike in the United States — where what Zarif calls the “B team” of U.S. Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoTrump calls on foreign countries to protect their own oil tankers Trump to travel to South Korea The Hill's Morning Report - Crunch time arrives for 2020 Dems with debates on deck MORE and national security adviser John BoltonJohn Robert BoltonThe Hill's Morning Report - Crunch time arrives for 2020 Dems with debates on deck Trump told confidant that national security advisers 'want to push us into war': report Pence: 'We're not convinced' downing of drone was 'authorized at the highest levels' MORE can encourage the march to war but not unilaterally begin a conflict — Zarif and Rouhani often are overruled by hardliners with far more power to make military decisions. In other words, Zarif and Rouhani are Iran’s “B team” while Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps are the “A team.”

ADVERTISEMENT

So how could such a plan play out?

Step one: A U.S. concession could involve reinstating the waivers that would allow some countries to continue buying oil from Iran without violating U.S. sanctions. Alternatively, the U.S. could lift all sanctions on oil temporarily, perhaps for 90 days, while negotiations are underway.

This would give Iran economic relief that it desperately needs. Due to sanctions, Iran’s oil exports have dipped from nearly 3 million barrels per day (bpd) to below 1 million bpd in April, according to Refinitiv Eikon data and other companies that track exports.

Step two: Iran would have to agree to negotiations broader than those that culminated in the nuclear deal, known as the JCPOA. Such issues would include its ballistic missile program and its funding for proxies in the Middle East.

Iran also would have to compromise on issues about the nuclear program that are of concern to the United States, such as the time frame allowed for Tehran to start enriching uranium again at high levels.

ADVERTISEMENT

The Trump administration’s immediate concerns about Iran are not only over its ability to build a nuclear bomb but over Tehran’s ballistic missile program and its funding and military supplies to its proxies and other allies in the Middle East.

Unlike in the past, Iran might be ready to negotiate over these issues. Tehran already has slashed funding to its main proxy, Hezbollah, according to reliable reports; it gives a scant amount to the Houthis to conduct war in Yemen, and the fight to keep Syrian President Bashar al Assad in power is effectively over. Thus, Iran might be willing to step back from being a major supporter for at least some of its proxies, if it means getting its economy out of the tank. There is continuous, rising civil unrest at home because many Iranians believe the billions that Tehran has spent to fund regional proxies should have been used to improve the national economy.

Step three: The negotiations should be held only between the United States and Iran. European leaders repeatedly have shown themselves to be naïve or misguided about Iran’s interventionist role in the Middle East, its human rights violations toward its own people, and its complex method of governing. The European leaders’ role is not helpful to U.S. goals; in effect, it acts only as the weaker-willed parent to which Iran appeals when it misbehaves. Removing this obstacle would allow for the direct, hard talk that is needed between Tehran and Washington.

If such a plan were carried out, Washington would not get everything on its wish list. Tehran’s hardliners likely would still control some Shi’a militias in Iraq with the ability to target U.S. bases and forces in the Middle East. Iran’s geopolitical interests in the region would not shift; its hostile relationship with archrival Saudi Arabia might be tempered but would unlikely change fundamentally.

If Tehran gives in on some issues regarding its nuclear program, it might insist on higher levels of uranium enrichment than what is allowed under the current JCPOA, which caps enrichment at 3.67 percent. Reactors generating power require uranium enriched from 3 to 5 percent. Reactors used for research typically require uranium enriched from 12 to less than 20 percent — 20 percent and above when working toward weapons grade. The United States does not want Iran to enrich at levels that could produce a nuclear weapon.

However, there are benefits for Washington: Negotiations that would include Iran’s nuclear program, its ballistic missile program and its proxies would make Trump appear to be a savvy leader. He would appear to be a strategic compromiser, and the talk of a march to war in the United States would be suspended. Washington might receive greater concessions from Iran on its nuclear program, too, if easing some sanctions is part of the deal.

It is important to understand that — despite Iran’s political culture based upon hyperbole, exaggeration and outdated revolutionary anti-American slogans that do not necessarily reflect government policy — Tehran takes seriously and literally all the war-mongering rhetoric coming out of the Trump administration, and it could act in response to it. Tehran is unlikely to understand that Washington’s “B team” does not call the shots alone.

Talks are desperately needed to halt the escalation underway over the last several weeks. Tehran is more constrained than it has been in decades due to U.S. sanctions and, instead of more bullying, the Trump administration should take a deep pause and offer a concession that enables Rouhani and Zarif to return to talks — a gesture that would meet Iran’s requirement of “showing respect.”

Otherwise, the July 4 deadline Iran set for Europe to bail Iran out of its monetary loss from sanctions — a non-starter, and something that European states which are signatories to the Iran deal are incapable of achieving — will come and go. And then Iran likely will reinvigorate its nuclear program with alarming speed, while its proxies target U.S. interests in the region.

Geneive Abdo is a resident scholar at the Arabia Foundation, a Washington-based think tank funded by Saudi interests and focused on Saudi issues, as well as the author of four books on the Middle East and on Muslims in America. From 1998 to 2001 she was a correspondent in Iran for Britain’s The Guardian newspaper and a contributor to The Economist and the International Herald Tribune — the first American journalist based there following Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution. She also worked for the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations, created under former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to mediate between Western and Islamic countries.