Let’s Not Rule Out Diplomacy

Ayatollah Khamenei (Wikimedia Commons)

by Mahmood Monshipouri and Jonathon Whooley

The United States and Iran are unrelentingly caught in a strategic conundrum that is escalating toward conflict with no diplomatic solution in sight. Neither the “maximum pressure” strategy of the Trump administration nor the “no war, no negotiation” strategy of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is likely to lead to a diplomatic solution. If nothing else, these strategies pave the way toward a military confrontation—an eventuality that both countries wish to avoid. The events surrounding Iran’s June 20, 2019, shooting down of a U.S. RQ-4A Global Hawk drone that it claimed crossed into Iranian airspace sent a strong signal to Iran’s neighbors that the United States was reluctant to entangle itself in yet another complicated regional war and that Iran, when left with nothing to lose under the pressure of crippling and warlike sanctions, will become a destabilizing actor in the region.

Now, however, with the recent attacks on Saudi oil facilities, the risk for a war in the region is quickly becoming a reality. Although Iranian military forces cannot match Saudi, let alone U.S., firepower, their asymmetric tactics as well as their network of regional allies and/or proxies could make the war with Iran very complicated and difficult to contain. U.S. forces could in less than two months disrupt Iran’s air force and naval forces and inflict punishment of a massive magnitude on Iran’s military power. But in the meantime, Iran’s military and its regional network of armed allies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Afghanistan could inflict enormous damage on the nearly 70,000 troops that the United States has deployed throughout the Middle East. This state of affairs could potentially give Tehran a small window to bargain with the United States.

While the downing of the drone created a unique opportunity for Iran to enter a diplomatic phase to resolve the incident, in large part because both Washington and Tehran figured out how costly the military confrontation would prove to be, the attacks against Saudi Arabia could generate countervailing forces that render diplomatic business as usual immensely chaotic and dangerous. Ironically, these attacks, and the regional political uncertainty they’ve unleashed, may force a political settlement that could lead to broader negotiations between the United States and Iran.

For now, however, Tehran’s “no war, no negotiation” strategy could gradually lead to a deadlock over delicate and conflicting strategies bound to result in a military showdown of sorts down the road. Insofar as “no war, no negotiation” strategy is concerned, the danger lies in the possibility of stumbling into a broader conflict, either as a result of an accidental war—rooted in the pronounced miscalculation and misperceived intentions and capabilities of either party’s governing elites—or the spiraling mutual enmity built up over this period. Without a face-saving avenue that can provide Iran a way out, the U.S. “maximum pressure” strategy will ultimately lead to a military confrontation—either a short-term war or a massively destructive long campaign. Either way, this will prove to be a dicey and complex situation that begs for a diplomatic solution, the failure to resolve the situation could generate many proxy wars beyond the control of any single country in the region.

A U.S.-Iran confrontation will be anything but a limited war and will bring dire consequences. Most significantly, it will be a conflict without any definitive winners. For the Trump administration, the danger lies in the presumption that its strategy of “maximum pressure” will force Iran to make concessions. Thus far, this policy has failed even to bring Iran to the negotiating table, much less to force Tehran to change its foreign policy behavior. But likewise, Khamenei’s “no war, no negotiation” strategy has trapped both parties in a strategic dilemma. It has become increasingly clear that a diplomatic solution offers the only way out.

The likely result of a U.S.-Iranian conflict not only involves Iranian proxies (such as the Hezbollah militia or Hamas) but two other state parties, as well: Israel and Saudi Arabia, both of whom have been overtly posturing for escalation with Iran. While Israel continues to express an interest in possible military strikes, the Saudis seem more interested in a peaceful resolution of the situation, or at least of gaining international approval for any coming conflict. It needs to be stated, though, that current tensions did not emerge from nowhere. The continued conflict between Saudi forces and their proxies and Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in the Yemeni civil war is part of the context for this latest Iranian uptick in violence. Another factor has been the Trump administration’s repeated dismissiveness toward Iran, demonstrated by its decision to withdraw from the 2015 nuclear deal and its repeated imposition of punishing economic sanctions against Tehran.

Internationally, the stakes are too high for the EU, China, and Russia to allow this crisis to escalate into war in the coming months. Absent an exit strategy to de-escalate tensions between Iran and the United States, regional conflicts like this one can evolve into a much wider conflagrations unpredictably. Ultimately there is no substitute for diplomacy if war is to be avoided. Some experts have raised the possibility of placing a permanent ban on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for the permanent lifting of sanctions. Others have suggested partial lifting of sanctions, including giving Iran a $15 billion line of credit as a way of keeping it in the nuclear deal. Still others have underscored the importance of the mediation by regional actors.  Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi has apparently been mandated by President Trump to mediate between the United States and Iran—a welcoming sign amid these difficult moments.  These possibilities merit special consideration. Returning to the Iran nuclear deal and a ‘good faith’ reduction in unilateral U.S. sanctions are the right places to start.

Mahmood Monshipouri, PhD, teaches Middle Eastern Politics at San Francisco State University and the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author, most recently, of Middle East Politics: Changing Dynamics (NY: Routledge, 2019).

Jonathon Whooley, PhD, is a Lecturer at the Department of International Relations at San Francisco State University. He is the author, most recently, of Imagining Iran: Orientalism and the Construction of Security Development in American Foreign Policy (NY: Peter Lang, 2018).

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  1. Diplomacy is preferable–people keep parroting one another. I used to believe that communication was, is and should be the fundamental step in resolving conflicts and misunderstandings. However, after witnessing Trump’s erratic and lunatic behavior, now I do not mind a war breaking up between US and Iran. Iran will surely suffer the most, but maybe Trump, Saudi Arabia, Israel and all Iran’s enemies in the gulf should suffer enormously also; that’s how everyone will eventually sign peace treaties, like almost always happened after World Wars and major battles. Just imagine if in the outset of military confrontation, the Iranians kidnap several hundred American soldiers and spread them out throughout their military installations as human shields…Just imagine the Iranians just kidnap hundreds of American personnel and use them as human shield even before a military confrontation begins and demand permanent lifting of sanctions as bargaining tool. If they were brazen and fearless enough to attack Saudi oil infrastructures, they may have already prepared many other attack tactics.
    Bullies like Trump, Netanyahu, Bin Salman need to suffer bloody noses and broken limbs in order to learn to respect the legitimate rights of the bullied–Iranians and Palestinian Arabs.

  2. Khosrow

    “Why?” you ask?

    Because Iran is weak and cannot retaliate and US is strong and can escalate.

    800 years of wondering about the zakat of a 3-year old female camel gets you here.


    “Just imagine if in the outset of military confrontation, the Iranians kidnap several hundred American soldiers and spread them out throughout their military installations as human shields”

    For sure shia flowers of Hossain wouldn’t do such thing ,a war crime as you presumed. Your suggestion is very much, and many time s,has been done by the US’ military which never is shy of doing war crimes an actualy is proud of of bombing weddings, family funerals. hospitals and civilian airliner with 290 civilians. US regime in DC is the proven largest current state sponsor of terrorism. They have publicly created and supported terrorist organisations like Al Qaeda and ISIS/Daesh. Never mind the torture of war prisoners in Gitmo, Abu ghraib etc.

    By using supposed presumption please don’t try to naminaly attribute a war crime on Iran. In case of war crimes by US military around world one wouldn’t need to presume.

  4. Thus far Iranians rationality, planning for “escalatory” steps, responses and actions have been and still are well thought out with pride but with no emotions. Iranians DO NOT need to commit any international crimes in order to achieve their goals. There’re already plenty of war criminals around the world and there’s no need for the Iranians to go there.

  5. Mahmood Monshipouri and Jonathon Whooley:

    A careful review of the Iran- and the region-related developments in the past four decades (since the 1979 “Islamic” Revolution) of the American foreign policy toward Iran, reveals the following three (basically “colonial”) policies, often poorly implemented, in confusion, and in conflict with one another:
    a) Regime Change Policy (with crippling sanctions–apparently hoping to create yet another “failed state” in West Asia/North Africa?), pursued by right-wing republicans, neocons, and their regional “allies.”
    b) Containment Policy (with moderate to severe sanctions), pursued by centrist/corporate democrats and moderate republicans. And
    c) Critical Engagement Policy (still with “light” sanctions), pursued by the Obama Administration, finally producing (despite all challenges) the Iran Nuclear Deal, which has now been abrogated by Trump and company–hence the acute crisis that is currently festering.

    A genuine movement toward a non-colonial (genuinely respectful dialogue and) active peace-seeking JUST ENGAGEMENT POLICY (returning the U.S. to the Iran Nuclear Deal and removing all sanctions, as soon as possible), thus recognizing that (socially and economically fair) democracy and peace–in the U.S., Iran, and the region–are two sides of the same coin (of justice and sustainability), especially now that our Grandmother Earth’s ever worsening human-caused climate crisis is compelling those of us who are awake to work together ever more urgently.

    Bernie Sanders (and possibly Elizabeth Warren) would be the kind of “visionary leader” to make such a policy change–despite the fact that it will be resisted by Israel, Saudi rulers, and their counterpart mutually interdependent right-wing (especially “religious”) forces inside Iran; all of whom mortally fear peace and (socially and economically fair) democracy, because they need a perpetual “enemy” to “justify” their oppression, corruption, and tyranny.

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