by Robert Czulda
Recent actions against the safety of tankers in the Persian Gulf have once more destabilized this subregion and have heightened the anxiety of numerous commentators. Both attacks on infrastructure and the capture of tankers show that the situation has become extremely serious. Further escalation could unintentionally turn into an open confrontation. Another war in the Persian Gulf—especially with a large and important country like Iran—would have global consequences, since the Strait of Hormuz is the world’s vital oil artery. According to available data, roughly 21 million barrels of oil left this narrow chokepoint every day in 2018.
Both the United States and Iran are well aware of the stakes of any direct confrontation. Donald Trump and his aides surely know that an open war with Iran would be a disaster that would bury his chances of re-election next year. Iran also cannot afford a war or any disruptions in the Persian Gulf. According to official data, 93% of Iran’s trade goes through the Strait of Hormuz. Decision-makers in Tehran must also be aware that continuing their confrontational approach will not produce desirable results. Logic suggests that for both parties, it is time to consider a change in strategy.
The recent rhetoric from both Iran and the U.S. shows a desire to demonstrate strength and determination, as well as reluctance to surrender in the face of pressure. President Donald Trump wanted to demonstrate his power and domination over a rival in order to strengthen his position for future interactions. This is a negotiation strategy that is typical of aggressive and risky businessmen, and Trump is undoubtedly one of them. At the same time, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is aware of his domestic opposition. Were he to show any weakness in the face of U.S. pressure, it would undoubtedly strengthen Iranian conservatives, who favor a strong stance against the United States and in general are against direct talks with Washington. Moreover, resistance is part of Iran’s strategic culture, and Rouhani’s strong approach was in keeping with that principle. In other words, what we have seen in recent weeks was mainly theatre meant for the public—not only the international community, but also the Iranian and U.S. publics.
Although according to press reports, the arrival of Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to the G7 Summit in France was a surprise, it is difficult to imagine that the United States was entirely unaware of French President Emmanuel Macron’s intention to invite him. Trump himself has suggested that he knew Zarif was coming. It is significant that President Trump seemed to change his approach toward Iran during the G7, announcing that he is ready to meet with Rouhani and even suggesting that he would not oppose a European proposal to offer Iran a short-term credit line.
Such a sudden change in his attitude toward Iran may seem surprising, but this variability is part of Trump’s presidency. Before he met with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, he had threatened North Korea several times with a war and even deployed U.S. aircraft carriers near the Korean Peninsula. This is a typical bad cop/good cop strategy, but in this version Trump interchangeably plays both roles. That he’s applied the same strategy to Iran should therefore not be surprising at all. Most likely, Tehran is aware of Trump’s intentions. Otherwise it would not have recently withdrawn its S-300 long-range air-defense system from the Persian Gulf to Central Iran.
After the recent phase of tension in the Persian Gulf, there will now hopefully be a phase of relaxation. This is the moment to start diplomatic efforts and try to organize a meeting between Trump and Rouhani. The window of opportunity is shrinking. President Trump cannot afford a war with Iran while a new agreement with Tehran—even if basic and interim—would be welcomed by the U.S. public, which will choose a new president in November 2020. If there is any moment when Trump would be ready to make some concessions, from a position of strength, it is right now. Iran’s strategy of waiting to see whether a new, Democratic administration would be willing to re-enter the 2015 nuclear deal is a risky one, as Trump has a high chance of being re-elected. Moreover, the Iranian economy cannot wait that long. Tehran seems desperate and is reportedly ready to accept permission to export 700,000 bpd of oil and receive payment in cash, with hopes of reaching 1.5 million bpd. However, this will not happen without a green light from the United States, so if Iran wants to sell oil, it will have to make an agreement with Washington.
Rouhani and Zarif also cannot wait, because next year Iran will hold new parliamentary elections. Without any deal, so-called reformists are very likely to lose some of their power. This is the last good moment for Rouhani and his camp to start negotiations. A new, interim deal, which would give Iran a chance to sell some oil, would be very helpful if the reformists want to remain in power or at least limit their losses in 2020. Iranian hardliners are more assertive and anti-Western, and they are not keen to have any new agreement with the West.
Is a meeting between Rouhani and Trump likely in the near future? Probably not. But as long as it is possible, everything should be done to make it a reality. Both Rouhani and Trump have signaled their willingness to attend such meeting. France could serve as a broker. Of course, there are some serious challenges that cannot be easily ignored. Rouhani said that the United States must first lift the sanctions it has imposed on Iran. Keeping in mind Trump’s often erratic behavior, we cannot rule out the possibility that, in order to make the Iranians more eager to attend such a meeting, he might agree to temporarily suspend some sanctions and provisionally allow the Iranians to sell some of their oil. It is a possibility worth exploring. If Iranian conservatives win next year’s elections and if Trump is re-elected, the window of opportunity for talks will close. It is now or never.
Robert Czulda is an assistant professor at the University of Lodz, Poland and a former visiting professor at Islamic Azad University in Iran, the University of Maryland (Fulbright Senior Award) and National Cheng-chi University in Taiwan. He is the author of Iran 1925 – 2014: From Reza Shah to Rouhani. Twitter: @RobertCzulda.