US, Iran tiptoeing toward engagement

(Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif arriving in New York on April 19, 2019 on what is turning out to be a fateful diplomatic mission.)

Winston Churchill has been often quoted as saying that Russian politics is comparable to a bulldog fight under a rug. “An outsider only hears the growling, and when he sees the bones fly out from beneath it is obvious who won.” The metaphor comes handy while fathoming the vicissitudes of the US-Iranian temper tantrums.

The only difference is that the bones never fly out and the growling keeps going on and on. It’s four decades already. Succinctly put, while the detail might be hard to unravel, the general pattern is not so difficult to understand.  

On the face of it, the Trump administration is growling ominously. The US has taken two major steps within the recent weeks to advance the “maximum pressure” strategy against Iran — first, by designating Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards as a “foreign terrorist organisation” and, second, by deciding to end the so-called sanctions waivers for 8 countries that import Iranian oil. 

Iran growled back. Tehran retaliated by declaring the US Central Command, headquartered in Doha, as a terrorist organisation. As for US sanctions on Iran’s oil exports, Tehran simply shrugged it off, with Ayatollah Khamenei saying that Iran will export “as much crude as it needs and wishes” in defiance of American sanctions. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said Iran will be resilient in the face of US sanctions. As he put it, “there are always ways of going around the sanctions. We have a PhD in that area.”  

Meanwhile, the Trump administration is already backtracking  on the issue of IRGC designation. The US state department issued two notices on Wednesday in the nature of making exemptions to the earlier designation. According to these waivers, foreign governments and businesses that have dealings with the IRGC and its affiliates will not be subject to a ban on US travel. State Secretary Mike Pompeo clarified that he decided to waive the travel bans in the US foreign policy and national security interests. 

The fact of the matter is that the US sees the folly of embargoing contacts with the IRGC in countries such as Iraq, Lebanon (or Afghanistan) where Iran has a compelling presence in the security sphere. Arguably, the US policies in these countries will suffer grievously if there are to be no dealings with the IRGC under American law. Washington is well aware that the IRGC played a pivotal role in the defeat of the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria. 

However, what is even more stunning is the report that the US might, after all, change its mind and grant waivers to those countries that import Iranian oil beyond May 2. A report by Associated Press quoting congressional aides and outside advisers familiar with the matter said Washington might still reconsider the decision to do away with waivers. 

According to the AP report, one scenario being considered by the Trump administration is that “buyers of Iranian oil could be allowed to place and pay for future orders before May 2, essentially front-loading continued imports. Washington could then grant waivers from sanctions to transport and refine the oil under a 2012 law.” The US State Department declined to comment on the possibility that Iranian oil imports might continue without sanctions. 

Increasingly, it seems that the growling sounds from Washington and Tehran may be deceptive. Zarif who is currently visiting the US ostensibly to attend a UN conference, made a proposal at the Asia Society on Wednesday that Iran is willing to have a “serious dialogue” with the US on a possible swap of prisoners held by both countries. 

Trump is known to be exercised over the imprisonment of American citizens in Iranian jails who have been convicted of espionage charges. But Washington is insisting on the unilateral release of American prisoners by Iran. 

Zarif has since disclosed that his proposal is that Tehran is “ready to take action on the exchange of individuals convicted and imprisoned in Iran by the country’s Judiciary on specific charges” reciprocally for the release the release of all Iranians jailed in the US and the granting of “nolle prosequis” (dropping prosecution) to all those detained in different countries on charges of violating American sanctions against Iran, often under pressure from Washington.

Interestingly, Zarif acknowledged today that he had received a letter from Robert C. O’Brien, US special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, asking for the release of detained US citizens. Zarif divulged in this connection that he had had his deputy write a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, apparently proposing a prisoner exchange, or raising the issue of Iranians arrested for alleged violations of US sanctions laws. Zarif’s comments about the limited correspondence between his office and the Trump administration comes after he publicly proposed a prisoner swap on Wednesday

Any longtime observer of US-Iran relations would know that a “serious dialogue” between Washington and Tehran on the swap of prisoners means a constructive engagement that would hold the potential to reduce the tensions in the overall relationship and might even open channels of communication leading to a better understanding of each other’s intentions on a host of other issues as well. 

Significantly, Zarif has since used an exclusive interview with Reuters on Friday to convey some meaningful signals to the Trump administration. The interview was recorded in Iran’s Permanent Mission to the UN in New York. Zarif signalled that: 

  • In Iran’s assessment, Trump has no intentions to wage a war against Iran. But then, there is the ‘B Team’ — Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu and  National Security Security Advisor John Bolton who are determined to scuttle peaceful resolution of US-Iran differences. These 2 hawks might precipitate some incident that may escalate into a crisis in which Trump may get entangled. 
  • Iran does not seek confrontation with the US but make no mistake that it will defend itself. 
  • Iran has been acting with great restraint as is evident from the fact that US Navy continues to operate in the Strait of Hormuz. The signal from the Pentagon commanders to Iran too is that the IRGC’s designation does not mean any change in the “rules of  behaviour” involving the US and Iranian militaries. Tehran is satisfied with that understanding. However, Tehran will react to any change in the “rules of behaviour, or rules of engagement” (involving the two militaries). 
  • Put differently, Iran expects Washington to stick to the “rules of engagement (which have been) guiding how it interacts with Iran’s forces.”

Of course, Zarif is a seasoned diplomat who was educated in the US, assigned for long years to work in the Iranian mission in New York as a career diplomat and has extensive networking at personal level with the American elite. To be sure, his measured words in the Reuters interview are meant for Trump. Evidently, he is tamping down tensions, while testing the waters to commence a constructive engagement. 

Iran has always been pragmatic. And it is entirely conceivable that back channels exist. As for Trump, most certainly, he’d know that the “maximum pressure” strategy has not resulted in any shift in the Iranian policies — in Syria, Iraq or Yemen. On the contrary, this week Zarif for the first time openly criticised the US-Taliban talks and voiced support for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s grievance that Washington bypasses him. It is a subtle hint that if push comes to shove, Tehran can make things very difficult for the US. But then, equally, it is a stark reminder that Tehran has been a responsible power through the period of the 18-year “endless war” and stakeholder in regional security and stability.