Possible mediators for crisis between Iran and US line up, but prospects in doubt

A softening of the US position towards Iran could irritate Washington’s allies Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Sunday 02/06/2019
Iranian President Hassan Rohani (R) greets Omani Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah at the presidency office in Tehran, March 18. (AP)
A port in a storm. Iranian President Hassan Rohani (R) greets Omani Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah at the presidency office in Tehran, March 18. (AP)

ISTANBUL - Regional and international powers are lining up as possible mediators in the crisis between Iran and the United States to pull the region back from the brink of war but prospects of any initiative to cool tensions remain in doubt.

Assurances by US President Donald Trump that his aim was not to topple the Iranian leadership but to make a new “deal” with Tehran on the nuclear issue and a statement by Iranian President Hassan Rohani, who said the “road is not closed” for negotiations, set a new tone but convincing both sides to take concrete steps of de-escalation will be hard.

The United States has strengthened its military presence in the Gulf region to counter what officials in Washington said were credible reports of impending Iranian aggressive actions. Critics in the United States accuse Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo of provoking Tehran to unleash a war.

Iran and its proxies stand accused of attacks on oil tankers in waters of the United Arab Emirates, on an oil pipeline in Saudi Arabia and on the diplomatic district in Baghdad not far from the US Embassy.

During a visit to the United Arab Emirates, Bolton blamed Tehran for the incidents, at one point saying it was “almost certainly” Iran that planted explosives on the four oil tankers off the UAE coast.

The military build-up alarmed countries in the region and beyond and several governments said they were ready to act as mediators. Iran’s neighbours Iraq and Oman, countries that have good relations with both Tehran and Washington, took the lead.

Oman’s top diplomat, Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah, hosted Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi on May 26 for talks about “regional developments,” as state media put it. Bin Alawi said earlier that Oman was trying “with other parties” to calm tensions between the United States and Iran.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohammed Alhakim used a meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Baghdad on the same day to stress the need for mediation. “We are trying to help and to be mediators,” said Alhakim, adding that Baghdad “will work to reach a satisfactory solution.” He also said Iraq opposed unilateral US action.

The governments of Japan and Germany, the world’s third and fourth biggest economies, respectively, also stepped in. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was considering a trip to Iran in the coming weeks, Japanese broadcaster NHK reported. Iran said a visit by Abe was unlikely in the near future.

Trump, in Tokyo for a state visit, welcomed Abe’s help.

“I really believe that Iran would like to make a deal and I think that’s very smart of them and I think that’s a possibility to happen,” Trump said during a news conference with Abe.

“It has a chance to be a great country with the same leadership,” Trump added. “We aren’t looking for regime change. I just want to make that clear. We are looking for no nuclear weapons.”

Germany sent a top Foreign Ministry official, Jens Ploetner, to Tehran for talks and hosted Pompeo in Berlin on May 31. Pompeo said Washington would not stand in the way of a system the Europeans are developing to shield companies dealing with Iran from US sanctions, aso long as the focus is on providing humanitarian and other permitted goods.

German Minister of Foreign Affairs Heiko Maas said both countries agreed that Iran must be prevented from obtaining nuclear weapons. “It’s no secret that we differ on how to achieve that,” he said.

Switzerland, which represents US diplomatic interests in Tehran because Iran and the United States have not had diplomatic relations for 40 years, also offered to help, reports said.

Willingness by international players to organise indirect talks is a good first step but will not be enough to solve the problem, said Ali Vaez, director of the Iran Project at the International Crisis Group.

Efforts of mediators “are valuable but would never replace the utility of a direct communication or at least a hotline between Iran and the US,” Vaez said in an e-mail in response to questions.

“What is needed at this stage is for President Trump to set aside his rhetoric and maximalist demands and appoint an envoy for negotiating with Iran who has a record of constructive engagement with the Iranians,” Vaez added. “That is the only option that would prove to the leadership in Tehran that Trump can go around the regime-change proponents in his entourage.”

It was unclear whether Trump’s disclaimer on regime change and his call for a new deal to limit Iran’s nuclear ambitions defined a new US policy. The 72-year-old president is known for abrupt changes of direction.

Following Trump’s statement in Tokyo, Zarif hinted that Tehran’s first priority was to relieve some of the pressure of sanctions. US sanctions were “hurting the Iranian people” and causing regional tensions, he said on Twitter. “Actions — not words — will show whether or not that’s [Trump’s] intent.”

A softening of the US position towards Iran could irritate Washington’s allies Saudi Arabia and Israel, both of which regard Tehran as a threat that has to be dealt with decisively.

In Iran, efforts to find a compromise with the United States could be controversial. Hardliners in Tehran denounced the 2015 nuclear deal and criticised Rohani for failing to deliver on promises of economic improvements following the agreement.

Analysts said some groups in Iran are not interested in lowering tensions because a sense of crisis improved their position in Tehran.

Ali Fathollah-Nejad, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Centre, said the recent oil tanker attacks could have been the work of groups linked to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps that wanted to escalate the situation for their own gains.

“They could be provocations by elements close to [the] Revolutionary Guards to get a war going with the aim of cementing their own power in Iran and secure access to financial means for years,” Fathollah-Nejad said via e-mail.