Donald Trump has signaled what he wants from Iran: a new nuclear deal rather than war.
But the U.S.’s so-called maximum pressure campaign of sanctions — alongside a carrier group and bombers being deployed near the Persian Gulf — means the chances for formal negotiations anytime soon are slim. Instead the focus, particularly for nations watching with alarm the intensifying barbs between Tehran and Washington, is on opening a basic communication line.
An official at Iran’s foreign ministry said on Wednesday there was no back channel operating with the U.S. But after the U.S. president said he ordered and then called off military strikes at the last minute, there were renewed efforts to find a way for two countries without formal diplomatic ties to speak to each other.
Trump has called previously for talks with Tehran. And on Friday the door opened a crack: The Iranian foreign ministry said it had called in the Swiss ambassador, the traditional pathway for messages to the U.S. The Swiss embassy in Tehran didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Mediation is not something anyone is talking about as a realistic short-term prospect. But with navies in close proximity in the Gulf — a region through which one third of the world’s oil passes — a pick up in attacks on oil installations and tankers in the region, which the U.S. blames on Tehran, and the shooting down by Iran of a U.S. drone, the fear among European nations is that a miscalculation could set off a conflict no one really wants.
To mitigate that risk, which a senior U.K. official described as a “tinderbox moment,” the focus is on a communication mechanism. The past 10 days has seen a flurry of visits to Tehran — from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to Germany’s foreign minister, Russia’s energy minister and a senior French diplomat. British foreign office minister Andrew Murrison will make a “short visit” to Iran on Sunday, the government said.
“Some sort of third-party channel probably is essential for exploring possibilities for de-escalation,” said Paul Pillar, a former Central Intelligence Agency officer who’s now a professor at Georgetown University. “More specifically, the Trump administration is going to have to offer some positive incentive for the Iranians to engage. The current U.S. policy of all sticks and no carrots isn’t working and will never work.”
The difficulty is getting Tehran to see that with mediation off the table (the latest feud is anchored in Trump’s move a year ago to withdraw from the 2015 nuclear accord), there is still value in having some contact. So the European push may be two pronged: Cautioning the U.S. against military action, and coaxing Tehran to interact.
“In the current situation the issue of mediation is irrelevant,” Ali Shamkhani, secretary-general for Iran’s Supreme National Security Council and an aide to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said on Thursday, according to state-run media. “The Americans are not looking for a mediator. The Americans withdrew from the nuclear deal and they abandoned their own obligations and started illegal sanctions against Iran.”
The U.S. special representative for Iran, Brian Hook, confirmed on Friday that diplomatic overtures had been rejected, specifically citing Abe’s recent visit to Tehran.
“President Trump and Secretary Pompeo have made it very clear over the last year that we are open to dialogue, and Iran responded to that by rejecting the diplomacy of Prime Minister Abe and then attacking a ship that’s Japanese-owned,” Hook told reporters in Kharj, Saudi Arabia. “We have done our part to try to expand the space for diplomacy.”
Iran’s supreme leader seemingly rejected a role for Japan as a channel, calling Trump “not a party worth exchanging a message with” after meeting with Abe.
Making matters worse, a Japanese tanker near the Strait of Hormuz was attacked and disabled while Abe was in Tehran. The U.S. blamed Iran and has released videos it says prove the Islamic Republic Guards Corps was behind the attack. Iran has denied involvement.
“The situation is serious,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said in a briefing Wednesday after visiting Tehran. “The risk of a war isn’t ruled out and we must do everything not to reach that point.”
Iran has now said it would breach a cap agreed to as part of the 2015 deal it reached with the U.S. and other countries on stockpiles of low-grade uranium by June 27. It also threatened to raise enrichment purity beyond a 3.67% limit meant to prevent it from making weapons-grade material.
Those moves would be designed to come to any future talks with a strengthened hand, according to a western diplomat and Middle Eastern diplomat who both asked not to be identified talking about such matters.
One German official said the grouping known as the P5+1 — the countries involved in the 2015 nuclear deal — had provided a framework for direct talks, but that was no longer available.
The recent visit by Maas was not designed to play a mediating role or serve as a back channel, the official said, adding Germany sees no practical prospect of a negotiation right now as it’s unclear what such talks would be based on. Another European official said the priority right now was simply to avoid an escalation and to try and avoid the nuclear deal collapsing completely.
“If the purpose of the U.S. exercise is to pressure Iran to come to the negotiating table, there has to be a parallel channel that allows the parties to work their way back,” said James Dorsey, senior fellow at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and its Middle East Institute. Events so far “raise the question if either party truly wants one.”
(Motevalli reported from Tehran, Wainer reported from New York, Cary reported from New York. Vivian Nereim, Tim Ross, Gregory Viscusi, Benjamin Harvey, John Follain and Patrick Donahue contributed to this report.)
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