The U.S. Needs High-Level Diplomacy with Iran

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif meeting with then-US Secretary of State John Kerry in Vienna in 2016 (U.S. State Department via Wikimedia Commons)

by Shahed Ghoreishi

Last week, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei met with Houthi representatives in Tehran in what was a rare overt display of support. Since the Yemeni civil war began in 2015, Iran has kept the Houthis at arm’s length. However, recent divisions within the Saudi coalition and the success of the Houthis in establishing themselves in Yemen has changed Iran’s calculus. The public meeting was a clear display of confidence and strengthened ties between Iran and the Houthis in the face of a divided adversary.

Yemen isn’t the only unstable nation-state in the region where the Iranians have gained major leverage. From Beirut to Kabul, Iran has managed to become a player of increasing significance. This is why it is critical as ever for the United States and its regional allies to move beyond their enmity with Iran and move towards high-level diplomacy in order to stabilize the region enough for the U.S. to be able to end its forever wars. The 2015 nuclear deal (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA) and the immediate need to deescalate tensions in the Persian Gulf should just be the beginning, not the ultimate goal. At the end of the day, Iran’s role is critical if the U.S. wants to pivot away from the region and turn its attention to more pressing global matters better aligned with its actual interests.

Iran’s Growing Role

In Syria, dictator Bashar al-Assad remains comfortably in power with the continued support of Russia and Iran, despite an inability to secure the country with the presence of foreign troops and rebels. In fact, Iran has transitioned to exploring economic opportunities in Syria. Instead of negotiating with the major players involved, the Trump administration continues to work with a limited number of allies, which only extends its entrenchment in Syria. The latest example is its agreement with Turkey to create a safe zone in northeastern Syria. A continued stalemate, where the U.S. is working against the goals of Russia and Iran, is not only a problematic result for the Syrian people, but it leaves the U.S. stuck in a poorly-defined occupation with limited results and no end in sight.

In Afghanistan, the Trump administration is closing in on an agreement with the Taliban that would allow the U.S. to decrease its presence there after almost 18 years of war. However, Iran has also held its own talks with the Taliban, and became Afghanistan’s largest trading partner in 2018. The economic ties between the two countries were significant enough for the Trump administration to issue sanctions waivers for Iran’s Chabahar port because of its economic relevance for Afghanistan.

The story of Iran’s increasing leverage in conflict zones in the region is a consistent one. From its economic ties and relationships with Shia militias in Iraq, to Hezbollah in Lebanon, to cultural and historic ties in Afghanistan, Iran has pursued its regional interests effectively.

The key question remains how the Trump administration plans to continue trying to isolate Iran and to maneuver around it in each of these contexts.

Lost Opportunity

When the Obama administration signed the JCPOA in 2015, it resolved long-running international issues regarding Iran’s nuclear program. The diplomatic opening created by the JCPOA negotiations was unprecedented since the Iranian revolution of 1979. It was this opening, specifically between then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, which led to the safe release of U.S. sailors by Iran. However, instead of using the opening to move towards discussions on other issues with Tehran, the Obama administration felt the political costs in Washington, where the status quo was built on anti-Iranian hysteria, were too great to move forward. The nuclear deal became the end result, as the U.S. subsequently placed missile-related sanctions on Iran, sold weapons to Saudi Arabia for its disastrous war in Yemen, and extended the Iran Sanctions Act for another ten years. Clearly, diplomatic capital was burned for domestic purposes.

With the election of President Trump, the appointment of National Security Adviser John Bolton, and the subsequent “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, the dream of real détente between Tehran and Washington is now long gone. However, it remains true that the U.S. and Iran need high-level diplomacy in order deescalate tensions not only with one another, but to deescalate tensions across the Middle East.

Diplomacy

Currently, U.S.-Iran tensions are at an all-time high. The Trump administration is organizing a U.S.-led naval coalition in the Persian Gulf, both Iran and U.S. have shot down one another’s drones, and a diplomatic off-ramp has been closed now that the administration has imposed sanctions on Zarif—Iran’s top diplomat. If anything, this encourages Iran to acquire a stronger foothold in the region in order to prevent a war through the threat of region-wide retaliation. Meanwhile, the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign has backfired not only among European allies frustrated about pulling out of the Iran Deal, but in the Middle East as well. The UAE not only gave a tepid response to Iran’s alleged attack against oil tankers in the Persian Gulf in June, but it also recently sent officials for maritime security talks to Tehran—a first since 2013. U.S. allies do not want to be collateral damage in another voluntary war in the Middle East. Instead of shortsightedly prioritizing arms sales over avoiding another war, Washington should be encouraging regional diplomacy and even a Persian Gulf security framework in order to deescalate tensions.

Now, it’s important to be aware that Iran’s regional leverage does not mean everything is going smoothly. For example, the Iraqis are questioning the influence of the Iran-backed Shia militias, Assad remains at a relative stalemate as Iran’s allies in Syria—Turkey and Russia—pursue their own agendas, and sanctions are taking a toll on the Iranian economy.

However, the U.S. plan to isolate Iran only disempowers Iranian civil society and democratic movements while leaving Iran’s leverage in the region a reality. It’s simply counterproductive. The U.S. could continue to work with its limited supply of regional allies to maneuver around Iran, but at the end of the day it will be an agreement (or a series of agreements) with Iran that will actually move the U.S. closer to closing the book on multiple fronts. If the President or a future administration is serious about avoiding another war and giving room for the U.S. to get out of its current engagements in the region, it needs look beyond whether it is worth talking to Iran to simply get a nuclear deal. It needs to realize the positive ramifications that could only come through innovative, high-level diplomacy.

Shahed Ghoreishi is a U.S. foreign policy analyst and graduate of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, where he concentrated in U.S. foreign policy and Middle East Studies. You can follow him on Twitter @shahedghoreishi.

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  1. This alien in Iran, can only meet Houthi leaders. His FM was totally ignored in France yesterday. He is now desperately trying to get Chinese sympathy today. They can’t sell their oil openly, as no one will dare to say they did any business with these criminals. The world knows that Iran has been held at gunpoint by the Ayatollahs. The secular non-violent Iranians do not want to have war. The Ayatollahs’ IRGC does. The US politicians like Obama made huge political capital from the Ayatollahs. No more. The people who hate US have learnt to also say they hate Ayatollahs now. They used to not say that. So we don’t need high level contacts with the Ayatollahs. We need high level contacts with the non-violent secular Iranians in the world for a new Iran.

  2. ALI MOSTOFI,

    Anyone who reads your comments soon recognizes that you are a elderly Iranian monarchist; and hereditary kings, including Iran’s current “supreme leader” (who systemically hate the people’s right to vote–especially in Iran in the past 3,000 years) have always based their brutal absolute dictatorships on many forms of violence, including economic hegemony of their loyal servants.

    It is in this context that your constant claim of “nonviolence” sounds outright funny, given that your other words drip with the blood of dictatorial violence, which is antithetical to “secularism.”

    Mr. Mostofi, I have a simple “mathematical” formula for you:

    Imposed “religious” rule = imposed secular governance.

    You CANNOT forcibly take people to “paradise,” including a “secular” one.

  3. “[Javad Zarif] was totally ignored in France yesterday” writes Ali Mostofi. That is exactly the ‘fake news’ that Bolton and Pompeo would love to have in the headlines today. To the contrary, there is full coverage of President Macron’s dramatic move in bringing Zarif to the G-7 meeting. It worked. Congratulations to the French. What needs to be emphasized is that the Europeans are demonstrating through their meetings with Zarif that the OFAC Sanctions against him, intended to remove him from office and end his career by forbidding anyone anywhere to have dealings with him, have failed. The Europeans are saying, OFAC, you are not the ruler of the world! And did you see that the FDD Head has threatened that the US may forbid Zarif from attending UN meetings in New York! It also needs to be said, FDD also you are not the ruler of the world.

  4. I agree with James Larrimore comment. The French’s President Macron move inviting directly Mr Zarif to Biarritz during the G7 meeting was a bold one. Of course he counted with the approval of the other European leaders and likely also from Japan and Canada. This is very significant because the high-level Diplomacy with Iran by the U.S. under Trump is impossible, there’s no high-level in anything with him. My own belief is that the « high-level » Diplomacy with Iran from U.S. has been in fact shown by Israel bombing Syria and Iraq. Let’s not forget that Pompeo scrambled a visit to Baghdad recently because of Iran and ask the Embassy personnel to leave immediately; why? He was clearly in connivence with Israel preparing the attack… Tell me about « high-level Diplomacy ».

  5. Foreign Minister Zarif, President Macron and President Trump made a significant step forward at Biarritz towards negotiations to end the Iran crisis. Thank you President Macron!!

    The central recommendation from this article is “Washington should be encouraging regional diplomacy and even a Persian Gulf security framework in order to deescalate tensions.” Unless Iran’s security needs are addressed as well as the concerns of Saudi Arabia, Israel and other states in the region no progress can be made towards lessening Iran’s support for Assad or the Houthi or Hezbollah.

    The overriding concern of Iran in Syria is ISIS and other Sunni jihadist terrorist groups. ISIS overran much of Iraq and Syria and even threatened Damascus, even the whole country. ISIS had to be defeated. While the U.S. has not acknowledged Iran’s role in the defeat of ISIS a Persian Gulf security framework that helps to guarantee the security of all states in the region would lessen the need for missiles and other military technologies. If Iran’s security cannot be guaranteed, then what would be Iran’s deterrence against attack?

    In 2017 president Rouhani won a decisive reelection victory in a competitive election. The people voted for Rouhani because they wanted to see the benefits from JCPOA. Rouhani was positioned to drive reforms that would have strengthen the relative position of civilian government vs the IRGC. But the Trump decision to exit JCPOA and to impose unilateral sanctions considerably weakened the possibility of reforms in Iran. We can only hope that those setting the framework for possible negotiations bear in mind the internal politics in Iran as well as the regional power dynamics in the Middle East.

    Regime change in Iran appears to be the primary purpose of Bolton’s plan to exit JCPOA without the consent of Congress. It needs to be recognized that even the Republican Congress of Trump’s first 2 years would nevel have approved exiting JCPOA and imposing unilateral sanctions against Iran unless Iran had violated JCPOA and was developing nuclear weapons. At the time that Trump exited JCPOA the CIA and other intelligence agencies had confirmed Iran’s full compliance with JCPOA and that Iran was not developing nuclear weapons.

    The “Maximum Pressure” presently imposed on Iran, including the sanctioning of Zarif, appears to be to remove the possibility of reforms in Iran leaving revolution as the only path to relieve the suffering of the people of Iran. Concern with Iran possessing nuclear weapons appears to be a secondary concern, an excuse for an attempt at regime change rather than an attempt to bring Iran to the negotiating table to discuss nuclear weapons.

    At Biarritz President Trump said: “, “We are looking for no nuclear weapons, no ballistic missiles, and a longer period of time. Very simple.”

    It is implausible that a more intensive inspection regime could be instituted by the IAEA than was accepted by Iran as part of JCPOA. Cutbacks in missiles can occur if Iran’s security could be addressed within a regional security framework. The extensions to the timeframe of the treaty would not be a significant barrier to Iran and other parties committed to achieving the results expected from JCPOA.

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