Nearly two years have elapsed since President Donald Trump decided to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal and implement a policy of “maximum pressure” on Tehran. Yet so far the long stalemate in U.S.-Iran relations characterized by a state of no full war, no peace, has not been broken, although several times Tehran and Washington have engaged in military confrontation, the latest being after Trump ordered the assassination of General Qassem Soleimani on January 3 and Iran retaliated by attacking an American military base in Iraq.
But there is no guarantee that in future the two sides will be able to avoid a full-scale military confrontation, whether by intention, miscalculation, or miscommunication. Developments inside Iran could create conditions that could provide excuses for the U.S. and even some European countries to intervene militarily in Iran under the guise of humanitarian intervention to prevent mass killings by the government as, for example, happened in Libya in 2011. Developments in Iraq, potentially leading to a resumption of civil war, could also cause a U.S.-Iran confrontation.
In short, although thus far Tehran and Washington have avoided an all-out war, there is no guarantee that they will be able to do so in future. Given the tremendous material and human costs that such a confrontation would entail for both sides and its negative fallout for the future stability of the entire Middle East, well-meaning experts, analysts, and political personalities have been advocating for diplomacy to end the current stalemate. This process would require two steps, first to engage in efforts to ease the current tensions, and second to resolve at least some of their outstanding disagreements.
What Is Needed for Diplomacy to Succeed?
Certain conditions should be present for diplomacy to succeed. The reason that previous efforts have failed was that either Iran was not willing to accept U.S. terms or the U.S. felt that it did not need to deal with Iran except entirely on its own terms. The 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) has thus far been the only successful U.S.-Iran diplomatic exercise. But even its success was limited because the expectations of the two sides from it were not congruent. Iran basically saw it as a onetime effort dealing with a specific issues — the nuclear file — in exchange for lifting of crippling economic sanctions. The U.S., by contrast, saw it as the first step towards a much wider bargain within which Iran would make other concessions regarding a wide range of issues, from Tehran’s missile program to its support for groups such as Hizbollah.
Historically and in other contexts, diplomacy has succeeded when the following conditions have been present: First, both sides to a conflict must be convinced that there is no better alternative to a diplomatic solution and that their gains from even a partial bargain would exceed the perpetuation of a stalemate, or worse, military confrontation. Currently, neither Iran nor the United States is convinced that they will benefit from a partial bargain. Washington seems to believe that a little more pressure will bring Tehran to its knees and thus sees no benefit in making any concessions. The leadership in Tehran also seemingly believes that if it can wait out Trump, it might be able to get a better deal from his successor. Moreover, Iran’s leadership fears that by dealing with the U.S., it could alienate its most solid base of support
Second, the success of any diplomatic exercise depends on the willingness of both sides to make concessions, which, at the moment, the U.S. is not willing to do. In practice, Iran might be willing to make concessions, including the curbing of its regional allies or limiting the range of its missiles. There is also room for mutual concessions and compromises regarding issues related to Iraq and the Persian Gulf. But on the most thorny issues such as the Palestinian problem, Tehran is unlikely to make a priori concessions. Over time, and if there is a thaw in U.S.-Iran relations, Tehran’s positions on that issue, too, could change. But making any improvement in U.S.-Iran ties dependent on prior changes in Iran’s position regarding this particular problem would lead nowhere.
Third, for diplomacy to succeed, both parties should be able to declare victory, or at least to avoid appearing as the vanquished. Sadly, in the current stalemate, pride, especially of the wounded kind, has played an inordinate role. As a great power, the U.S. wants to show Iran and others in the region and beyond that it cannot get away with its defiance. Meanwhile, the Iranian regime has linked its national pride to its ability to defy the U.S. This issue being emotional and not rational, might prove even more difficult to overcome. But other countries with long histories of animosity, such as Germany and France, and England and Ireland, have not allowed the past to stand in the way of better relations.
Fourth, diplomacy is generally more successful when the two parties are more or less equal in power. Washington is more willing to treat China or even India as an equal than Iran. One reason the U.S. has treated Iran the way it has is because Tehran is weak. Meanwhile, as a weak state, Tehran worries that talking to and dealing with the U.S. could mean domination by Washington.
What is the Way Out?
If currently the odds against successful diplomacy with Iran are not favorable and are unlikely to improve, at least before the forthcoming U.S. presidential elections in November, does it mean that the path of diplomacy should be abandoned? The answer is an emphatic no. What the current situation requires is to limit expectations of what could be achieved through diplomacy. But at the very least, diplomacy, even if covert, can help prevent mistakes and accidents which might lead to a bigger confrontation. It could also lead to minor achievements that can help restore faith in the value of talk and compromise, and possibly even increase the chances of a potential future breakthrough.