While tensions between Iran and the US reached new heights in the aftermath of recent explosions, shooting down of an American drone and the seizure of a British tanker in the Strait of Hormuz and the waters of the Persian Gulf, both parties are well aware that war cannot settle the outcome of their disputes.
For its part, the Iranian leadership understands only too well that it can never defeat the US in any military conflict. But, it is also fairly confident that the US will never resort to deploying the kind of military options that is needed to force regime change in Iran. In the absence of such a will on the part of the US, any aerial bombardment, no matter how damaging, will only result in a situation whereby the dominance of elements more hostile to the US inside the country is enhanced.
For the US, given the effectiveness of its sanctions policy, any incremental gain from military action that does not lead to regime change is simply disproportionate to the potential costs involved in deterring or preventing possible asymmetric Iranian retaliations against the US or its allies around the world.
Hence, nothing other than direct talks can offer a prospect whereby Iran may overcome its economic woes and the US can reach a more comprehensive agreement with Iran that includes issues not covered in the JCPOA. Although the current standoff between Iran and the US may deteriorate even further, both parties are acutely aware that ultimately, talks are unavoidable even in the aftermath of any escalation that might entail needless destruction and loss of life.
The challenges ahead
For Iran, the priority at this time is to try and revive the country’s sagging economy by dealing with crucial issues such as economic growth, unemployment, runaway inflation as well as the protection of its national currency. None of these issues can be addressed until such time that US economic sanctions are removed, allowing Iran to freely export its oil while striving to attract unimpeded flows of much needed foreign investment and new technology.
Thus, contrary to assertions made by some hard-line quarters in Iran, what remains to be worked out is not whether Iran will ever engage with the US, but rather when and under what circumstances will direct talks be convened. One downside in any such calculation which must be guarded against, is the dangerous prospect being contemplated by some self serving radicals whose gut reaction in face of inevitable negotiations, is to precipitate some form of limited military exchange with the US at this time, believing that Iran’s bargaining power is bound to wane with time due to the damaging effects of the sanctions.
What must follow
While President Trump, having pulled out of the JCPOA, has repeatedly indicated his willingness to “make a new deal” with Iran, it is becoming gradually more clear that a beleaguered Iranian leadership is also reconciled to engage in a dialogue, which would then evolve into some form of a face-saving mechanism for meaningful negotiations. However, they are adamant not to replicate the US-North Korea format, which has produced nothing more tangible than a ‘photo-op’.
Although the Iranians would ideally prefer the unlikely prospect of knowing the exact contours of a final deal prior to any engagement, it would be incumbent on the US to amend or suspend some of its maximalist demands as well as lifting the gratuitous restrictions it has placed on the person of the Iranian Foreign Minister.
In the recent past, mediation efforts to broker direct talks on the part of countries like Oman or the Japanese Prime Minister who visited Iran in June have failed to obtain the approval of the Iranian Supreme Leader. Because of increasing tensions in the Persian Gulf region, it may now be possible that another ‘honest broker’, perhaps this time in the shape of the French President, Emmanuel Macron, who is expected to visit Iran before long might succeed in breaking the current deadlock.
Ultimately, Iran will need to display signs of flexibility that could potentially lead to a situation whereby some of the arrangements arrived at in the JCPOA are expanded to include other key issues such a mutually acceptable range for Iran’s missile forces as well as certain compromises that might help put an end to the humanitarian disaster in Yemen while in reciprocity recognition is given to some of Iran’s legitimate interests in places like Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
Unlike times when the US administration may have been influenced by persistent lobbying from the ranks of regional states like Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the reality is that at this point, their role is likely to be hugely diminished as the US will need to make its own calculations in light of the costly set backs some of its recent policies have suffered in the region.
Since 1979, militant anti-Americanism has played a pivotal role in preserving power for the highly unpopular fundamentalist faction in Iran. Confronted with unprecedented economic pressures applied by an equally hostile American administration that threatens not just their ‘raison d’être’ but their very survival, there is an emerging realization that nothing short of a ‘grand bargain’ with those they have consistently demonized in the past 40 years – regardless of all its possibly huge domestic ramifications - can reverse the current economic ‘nose dive’ which is the most immediate priority for containing public unrest and preventing social instability inside the country.