Are the US and Iran on a negotiation track?
No one wants a war against Iran, not Washington or the capitals of the region or the capitals of the world or Tehran, of course.
Nothing in US official statements would suggest that Washington is pushing for a military campaign like previous ones in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Iraq.
No one in Tehran wants a direct war with the United States. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps generals can promise unspeakable defeat for the United States and the imminent demise of Israel but their words cannot hide the confusion at the top of the Iranian leadership, including its supreme leader, its president and its foreign minister.
This leadership’s actions and words show it thinks that a direct war with the United States is unlikely and is trying hard to reassure its citizenry that no catastrophe is going to hit Iran any time soon.
In Beirut, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah predicted that no war is coming Iran’s way and that the enemy is incapable of waging that war. However, he also warned that any war against Iran would ignite the whole region. This kind of war of fiery words will continue to unfold amid the ongoing crisis.
The three summits in Mecca — the Gulf, Arab and Islamic ones — showed unanimous support for the Saudi position and strong backing for the US position on Iran.
Tehran seems to be lacking a supportive international and regional environment. It appears to be sinking further into isolation. Even China and Russia cannot go against the international grain and adopt a supportive position towards Iran. The international mood cannot accommodate Iranian realities since the creation of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979. The European Union seems likely to side with the United States if Tehran withdraws from the nuclear agreement of 2015.
Nothing suggests an imminent outbreak of war. Even rocket fire at Israeli targets and Israeli retaliation strikes against sites inside Syria do not signal an all-out military confrontation. It is a mere calculated exchange of warning messages meant to maintain tensions at low levels.
An examination of the military aspect of the conflict would lead one to exclude the likelihood of the outbreak of war by chance or by mistake, the reason being that both sides of the conflict are careful not to be reckless and are in full control of the military details.
The overwhelming discourse is the language of negotiation. It seems that the word “negotiation” is flourishing these days, regardless of whether it is empty of content or whether it reflects backroom debates in preparation for inevitable negotiations.
US President Donald Trump has come down from his hawkish perch and flooded Iran with friendly messages, inviting it to talk and even anticipated close cooperation with a thriving Iran. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke of a willingness to negotiate with Iran without preconditions, a position that was considered a complete turnabout on the part of the father of the 12 nasty conditions.
Iranian President Hassan Rohani also spoke of Iran’s willingness to negotiate in a way that discarded previous positions espoused by Tehran, which stressed more than once that there would be no new negotiations of the nuclear agreement.
What we have now is that Pompeo has dropped his condition that Iran become a “normal state” while Rohani’s negotiations are conditional on Washington dealing with Tehran with “respect.” Still, the path of negotiations remains difficult and the path of war is still in motion.
Iran does not have enough agility to deal with its biggest crisis in four decades. Tehran addresses its adversaries in stiff language that does not consider that the world has changed and that changing its behaviour is part of expected transformations. And if, as the saying goes, victory requires “an hour of patience,” time is not working in its favour
Trump’s harsh sanctions against Iran are destroying Iran’s economic fabric and, despite US assurances that there are no plans to topple the Iranian regime, Tehran realises that the painful sanctions threaten the very survival of the regime.
Perhaps it is wise not to pay too much attention to fiery statements from either side or those who talk of peace and dialogue. The situation of no war and no peace requires noise engines to feed the crisis while back channels of communication convey the true intent of the stakeholders.
The Iranian Foreign Ministry was right when it saw Pompeo’s “negotiations without preconditions” as just word play. The US economic sanctions and naval presence in the Gulf are part of Washington’s strategy to drag Iran to Trump’s table.
What some observers have considered an American retreat and surprising flexibility is nothing more than one of the many facets of Washington’s approach to the crisis with Tehran.
The United States is talking to the world and is conducting an active diplomatic campaign on Iran in which it addresses each capital in its own language and discourse.
Pompeo is touring Europe, speaking a language understood by the Europeans and not necessarily addressing the Iranians. So, when he spoke of negotiating without preconditions, one must bear in mind he was speaking from Switzerland in the context of the famous Bilderberg Conference, an influential leadership forum whose proceedings and deliberations are kept secret.
Despite conspiracy theories that have long surrounded the Bilderberg community, Pompeo just needed to talk about peace and dialogue as he was joining Bilderberg’s forum.