How to defuse Gulf tensions and avoid war with Iran

How to defuse Gulf tensions and avoid war with Iran
© ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images

The Trump administration has spent over a year attempting to pressure Iran back to the negotiating table to get a “better deal” than the 2015 nuclear agreement known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). That strategy has failed. Iran has demonstrated that it is willing to risk war rather than endure the humiliation of negotiating “with somebody who has a knife in his hand.” And President TrumpDonald John TrumpGOP congressman slams Trump over report that U.S. bombed former anti-ISIS coalition headquarters US to restore 'targeted assistance' to Central American countries after migration deal Trump says lawmakers should censure Schiff MORE has indicated he doesn’t want to go to war in the Middle East.

Nevertheless, the United States and Iran are locked in a cycle of brinkmanship where each escalation could lead over a cliff to a wider war in the Middle East.

At such a moment, it is important for policymakers to remember what they are trying to achieve. The Trump administration’s pressure campaign was never aimed primarily at Iran’s nuclear program. The JCPOA placed strict limits on Iran’s nuclear progress, and Iran continued to abide by the agreement despite the withdrawal of the United States from the deal and the reapplication of sanctions. It is true that Iran recently threatened to begin building up stocks of low enriched uranium and heavy water. But, for now, Iran’s output of these materials is easily reversed and a minor concern.

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The Trump administration’s principal complaints were with what the nuclear deal left out. There was no commitment on Iran’s part to dial back its interference in the military and political conflicts across the region, from Syria to Iraq to Yemen. And Iran refused to accept constraints on ballistic missile development.

Iran’s position on these issues has been, and remains, that they can’t be resolved without negotiations with other states in the region — first and foremost, Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia and the other Arab Gulf states, bolstered by massive and unconditional support from the Trump administration, have refused to engage.

The U.S. protection of its Gulf Arab friends has carried a significant price in the past couple of years. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have clumsily pursued an aggressive regional agenda with little to no concern for U.S. interests and sensitivities. The continued isolation of Qatar, which hosts some 10,000 U.S. troops, is but one example. The continuing war in Yemen, despite Congress’ disapproval of U.S. support, is another. The murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi is a third example where the Trump administration appears to be defending the indefensible, all in the name of maintaining a united front against Iran, and promoting future arms sales.

That policy is no longer tenable. U.S. national security interests now require a reduction of tensions and strengthening security arrangements in the Gulf region. We need both Iran and our Arab allies at the table.

President Trump should continue exercising military restraint in the Persian Gulf region and call for a meeting of Gulf foreign ministers, including Iran, to discuss an end to the crisis and a way forward. The United States can compel the Gulf Arab states to join the meeting by quietly making participation in the president’s diplomatic initiative a condition of further weapons sales.

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Such a meeting should have the immediate goal of gaining agreement on the safe passage of all commercial shipping in and out of the Persian Gulf. The meeting also should generate additional confidence-building measures, such as an “incidents at sea” agreement, to end dangerous provocations and establish protocols for mitigating tensions should such incidents occur.

Lowering tensions will allow all sides to enter into more sensitive discussions. A continuing dialogue, if the United States maintains pressure on both sides, could be used to bring the Yemen conflict to a close. Subsequent meetings could be the way to begin a discussion on missiles constraints, at least within a Gulf context.

A Gulf diplomatic initiative would have the kind of optics that suit President Trump’s style. If successful, the initiative could be explained as exactly the kind of “better deal” that Trump has said he wants.

The key is to focus on stopping the cycle of escalation in the Persian Gulf region. Iran’s nuclear program doesn’t now constitute a meaningful threat. The real achievement would be flipping the current crisis with Iran into a breakthrough on Gulf security. The president has the leverage. He just needs to use it.

Martin B. Malin is executive director of the Project on Managing the Atom at Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.Follow him on Twitter @ManagingtheAtom.