by Navid Hassibi
A link needs to be urgently established between Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and newly sworn-in Secretary of State Rex Tillerson amid the needless escalation in tension between the Trump administration and Iran. This week alone, the Trump White House imposed a blanket travel ban on Iranian nationals. Iran launched a provocative missile test and reciprocated with its own travel ban (since rescinded, at least for the U.S. wrestling team), which in turn led to Trump putting Iran “on notice” and imposing additional non-nuclear sanctions. The president has also been tweeting impulsively against Iran, possibly in response to remarks made by Iranian officials dismissing his bellicosity. At this rate, the president is on track to ignite a needless and catastrophic conflict against a country that had a functional rapport with the previous U.S. administration thanks to the historic nuclear deal. A line of communication between the Trump administration and Iran’s leadership is desperately needed.
It would be a shame for the United States to throw away the channel that was developed between the Obama administration and Iran via former Secretary John Kerry and Foreign Minister Zarif. This channel was leveraged to secure a historic nuclear deal that peacefully removed the threat of war in an already volatile region of the world. It was also valuable for non-nuclear matters such as last year’s prisoner swap, the release of U.S. naval detainees by Iran, the settlement of a longstanding financial dispute, and some limited cooperation through the International Syria Support Group.
Thus far in the early stages of the Trump administration, Secretary Tillerson appears to be the most level-headed official on the issue of Iran. During his Senate confirmation hearing, he told the Foreign Affairs Committee that he did not reject the Iran nuclear deal outright but, rather, supported a full review as well as possibly renegotiating it or negotiating a follow-up agreement. Unlike Defense Secretary James Mattis, National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, and CIA Director Mike Pompeo, who are all ardent Iran hawks, Tillerson’s willingness to maintain the Iran deal and negotiate a follow-up arrangement reflects his openness to talk to Iran. Last year, while still CEO of ExxonMobil, he indicated that he would consider doing business in Iran. He said in a television interview that ExxonMobil would certainly take a look at investing in Iran “because it’s a huge resource-owning country.”
A call between Tillerson and Zarif is urgently advised as a tit-for-tat escalation in rhetoric and action can head only in one direction, confrontation. In this light, the deputy chief of staff of Iran’s president tweeted that the United States should de-escalate tensions and interact with Iran rather than challenge it. An introductory call would allow both foreign ministers to build a rapport. For the United States, this could add a voice of reason on U.S.-Iran relations within the White House. The risk exists that this may backfire as Trump marginalizes Tillerson in favor of the Iran hawks in the administration. There is also the risk that Tillerson will side with the Iran hawks. But, still, it is worth the effort.
On matters of war and peace, diplomacy is worth every bit of effort, even if that means picking up the phone and making a call.
Navid Hassibi is with the Council on International Policy. He tweets @navidhassibi. The opinions here represent his own.