by Kaveh L. Afrasiabi
As expected, Trump’s offer of talks with Iran on May 8 has generated a lively debate in Iran. As of this writing, neither Supreme Leader Khamenei nor President Hassan Rouhani has made any public comments, perhaps because they have not taken Trump’s offer as serious or warranting a response. But other government officials as well as members of parliament, foreign policy experts, and media commentators have reacted, reflecting divergent opinions in a faction-ridden polity.
Case in point, in his tweet on May 12, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif alluded to Trump’s Iran invite as an “empty offer for talks” previously scripted by John Bolton in a 2017 article in National Review titled “How to Get Out of the Iran Nuclear Deal.” Zarif’s deputy, Abbas Araghchi, went one step further. In response to a journalist’s question about Trump furnishing his telephone number to the Swiss government (which represents U.S. interests in Iran), he said, “there is no need for an intermediary or telephone number to exit the difficult and crisis situation that Trump has created for himself and America. The United States can exit the current conflictual circumstance by reconsidering its policies.” Araghchi then added, “if there is a need, they know our telephone number.”
Clearly, today in Iran there is a great deal of suspicions about Trump’s motives, given the current U.S. military buildup in the Middle East vis-à-vis perceived Iran threats. Kemal Kharazi, a former foreign minister and current chairman of the Strategic Council on Foreign Relations, which advises the supreme leader, has dismissed Trump’s overtures as motivated by “propaganda purposes and unworthy of attention,” echoing the sentiment of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, which have insisted that that “there will be no negotiations with America.” On the other hand, Alaedin Boroujerdi, an influential member of the Parliament’s Commission on National Security, has interpreted the offer of talks in terms of Trump’s quest for a second term.
Indeed, many Iranians are convinced that Trump does not want a war with Iran and his maximum-pressure strategy is to force Iran to negotiate on the terms articulated by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in his long laundry list of demands. But now Trump appears to have stepped away from Pompeo’s position by referring exclusively to the nuclear issue, though from Iran’s vantage point, it’s unclear whether this is just another example of psychological warfare. According to one interpretation, Trump is preparing for war with deception and propaganda, much like the run-up to the Iraq war, and therefore Iran ought not to lower its guard. Iranian leaders are openly concerned about “false flag” operations and “planted accidents” by the United States or one of its allies in the region in order to precipitate open warfare with Iran.
Thus, the news from UAE concerning acts of sabotage at one of its ports along with unidentified attacks on four of its ships raises alarm in Tehran that these might be anti-Iran maneuvers. Coinciding with a crucial European meeting on the Iran crisis and Pompeo’s attempt to thwart any pro-Iran European tilt, this alleged incident provides fresh ammunition for the anti-Iran crowd. Reports indicate no injuries or spillage from any of the ships despite initial Saudi claims of significant damage. Should the UAE accuse Iran, this could spell more tensions, in light of the U.S. warning about attacks on the United States or any of its allies in the region.
But for the most part the Iranian media has settled on the notion that a war with the United States is neither imminent nor likely, with some commentators describing the present situation as one of “neither war, nor peace.” The reformist weekly Seda has called for the “opening of U.S.-Iran rapport at the highest level” while another reformist daily, Sazandegi, has drawn attention to a recent letter of some prominent members of the Kargozaran political party urging a new round of negotiations with the Trump administration. By contrast, according to the conservative Kayhan, Trump has resorted to his “constant tactic, namely maximizing pressure in order to get the other side to the table to extract the greatest concessions.” The hardline website rajanews.com, on the other hand, has reported that Pompeo’s recent Iraq visit was a sign of American “retreat,” that the United States is not “prepared for war” due to Iran’s deterrence and counter-force capability, and that Pompeo has approached Iraqi officials to act as intermediaries between the two countries.
As things stand, Tehran and Washington are at a critical juncture. The situation could deteriorate or improve depending on many variables. Iran is concerned that Trump may have established a dangerous military momentum that Iran’s regional adversaries can exploit to put the United States into war with Iran regardless of Trump’s personal desire to avoid such a conflict.
Several regional and international actors—the governments of Iraq and Oman, the Europeans and the United Nations—can play a constructive role in diffusing the growing U.S.-Iran crisis. The Europeans, who have rejected Iran’s 60-day ultimatum to live up to their Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) obligations, are likely to redouble their efforts to preserving the nuclear deal. To do so, however, they will have to behave as a united bloc, to paraphrase German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is reportedly very unhappy with the confrontational U.S. approach. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres can also play an instrumental role comparable to his involvement in Afghanistan through his special envoy there. The threat of a regional conflagration that spreads to Iraq, Afghanistan, Bahrain, and Qatar looms large, which could spur new diplomatic efforts to de-escalate tensions.
One possible venue for a diplomatic breakthrough can come from a preliminary prisoners’ exchange, proposed by Iran, which can then become the springboard for broader talks between Washington and Tehran. The transactional Trump administration has so far refused to respond to Iran’s offer. Yet it’s precisely such modest steps that can lead to direct bilateral diplomacy between the two countries, which is indispensable for regional and global peace and security.
Kaveh Afrasiabi has taught at Tehran University and Boston University and is a former consultant to the UN Program on Dialogue Among Civilizations. He is the author of several books on Iran, Islam, and the Middle East, including After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran’s Foreign Policy (Westview Books, 1995) and most recently Iran Nuclear Accord and the Remaking of the Middle East (2018). He is the co-author of the forthcoming Trump and Iran: Containment to Confrontation.