A year after the United States unilaterally withdrew from the nuclear agreement with Iran (known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA) and instituted its “maximum pressure” campaign against the country in May 2018, Iran countered with its own escalations. It reduced its compliance with the JCPOA, shot down a U.S. drone it claimed has entered its territory, seized a British tanker (in response to Britain earlier seizing an Iranian one), and may have been behind other attacks on oil tankers traversing the Persian Gulf. Following these actions, Iran’s foreign minister Javad Zarif was invitedby the French President Emmanuel Macron to the sidelines of the G7 meeting in Biarritz, France, to discuss ways to defuse tensions. And U.S. President Donald Trump expressed interest in negotiating directly with his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani.
This sequence of events shows that, thus far, the Iranian strategy of calculated counter-escalation is working.
Iran did not collapse under the “maximum pressure” campaign, although economic sanctions admittedly are taking its toll on the civilian population. Nor is it showing any signs of being desperate to negotiate with the United States—in fact, it has rebuffed several American entreaties to that effect.
Instead, by escalating on its own, Iran forced a number of key players to change their cost-benefit calculus. Europe has been unable, so far, to deliver economic dividends to Iran to keep it in the JCPOA. Yet Iran’s moves to lower its compliance with the JCPOA and seize a British tanker sounded alarm bells in Europe. They showed that Tehran was not bluffing when it threatened to reduce its nuclear commitments and prevent others from shipping oil through the Persian Gulf as long as it was prevented from doing the same. The fear of further destabilization of the region and associated costs for Europe was a major factor behind Macron’s proactive Iran diplomacy. At the same time, Iran’s escalation was limited and reversible. It did not involve major violations of the JCPOA, so as not to push Europe over to the U.S. position.
Meanwhile, Iran’s perceived actions against the oil tankers in the Persian Gulf sharply raised the stakes of the potential conflict for its regional opponents. Sheikh Mohammad bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and de-facto ruler of the United Arab Emirates, concluded that the damage a war with Iran would cause was intolerable, and chose, wisely, to de-escalate tensions.
Saudi Arabia, Iran’s other regional rival, may not yet have arrived at the same conclusion, but a war would have truly devastating consequences for it as well. Saudi fears about the Yemeni Houthis’ alliance with Iran may become a self-fulfilling prophecy, and given the Houthis’ demonstrated ability to strike targets in Saudi territory, this portends massive trouble for Riyadh. Iran could also reach out to the Shiites of the eastern Saudi province of Qatif. These destabilizing conditions would provide a fertile ground for a resurgence of the Islamic State (IS or ISIS) and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), mortal enemies of the Saudi monarchy who count on a great number of sympathizers in the kingdom. Without exaggeration, a war with Iran would pose an existential threat to both the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
Finally, Iran’s decision to strike down a U.S. drone sent a message to Washington that, even from a position of conventional inferiority, Iran is able to impose costs on the U.S. in the event of a military confrontation. Trump’s decision to back off from striking Iran was likely based on a sober assessment by his military advisers of what such a confrontation would entail. The Iranian bet that—facing reelection—Trump would rather negotiate with them than get sucked into another Middle Eastern quagmire was a risky one, but turned out to be correct.
This is the background of Zarif’s visit to Biarritz. Although some media outlets insisted on calling it “surprising”, it was anything but. The French certainly coordinated it with the Americans. The fact that Zarif traveled to France suggests that Trump may be ready to consider some concrete steps to suspend his economic siege of Iran. It is difficult to imagine that Zarif would have travelled to France were this not the case: Iran’s diplomacy is not known for seeking mere photo opportunities. The prospect of talks is also what explains the nervous reaction of those who contributed to this crisis in the first place, such as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Indeed, according to Abbas Araqchi, Iran’s deputy foreign minister, the United States is showing “some flexibility” in easing sanctions on Iranian oil sales. This could potentially open the way for direct talks between Washington and Tehran. It also belies the notion that Tehran would back away from such talks over Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei´s ideological hostility towards the United States. In fact, Iran’s position has been consistent: it is ready to talk, but only if there is what Iranians call a “ceasefire in the U.S. economic war” against them.
This is not an unreasonable position. Trump’s desire to get a meeting with Rouhani is understandable. It would burnish his credentials as a highly unorthodox and effective deal-maker. However, Rouhani has no reason whatsoever to help him absent any real deliverables for Iran. There is naturally zero interest in Iran in being taken for a ride by an American president in need. And just as Trump, Rouhani has to think about the domestic implications of such a meeting: there are parliamentary elections in Iran in 2020, and presidential ones in 2021. Winning Kim Jong-un-esque praise from Trump won’t do Rouhani and the moderates any political favors—quite the opposite. But winning a tangible, even if imperfect, improvement in Iran’s economic situation definitely would.
So, Iran’s strategy, adroitly executed by Zarif and his team of diplomats, is responsible for getting the country to the threshold of direct talks with the United States, and on relatively even terms at that. For talks to take place and succeed, it is now up to the U.S. side to play ball. Trump needs to keep spoilers, both in Washington and the Middle East, at bay, and offer Iran some sort of economic relief before the talks can commence.