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Brighter US-Iran Prospects

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From Consortium News

Still from video released by Iran's Revolutionary Guards showing helicoptered troops taking over a British tanker.
Still from video released by Iran's Revolutionary Guards showing helicoptered troops taking over a British tanker.
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There was no shortage of alarming incidents in and around the Persian Gulf last week. But the risks of open conflict between Iran and the U.S. are easily misread. The prospects for substantive diplomacy between the two sides are steadily brightening, recent events notwithstanding. This represents an advance for President Donald Trump in his intramural battles with the assertive hawks among his foreign policy advisers. Still more significantly, Washington now appears to be discovering the limits of hard power in the 21st Century.

Trump announced last Thursday that a U.S. naval vessel patrolling the Persian Gulf had downed an Iranian drone over international waters, a claim Tehran has rebutted with persuasive evidence. On Friday the Iranian Revolutionary Guard's navy briefly detained one British-owned tanker and continues to hold another while investigating alleged infractions of lawful conduct at sea, this in apparent retaliation for Britain's earlier seizure of an Iranian tanker off Gibraltar.

It was a week of escalating tensions, as numerous press reports noted. Top British military officers warned Boris Johnson, who is likely to succeed Theresa May as prime minister on Tuesday, that he faces "a major international crisis" that could easily tip over into war.

There is always the possibility that a miscalculation on the ground or a commanding officer's bout of bravado could spark a military confrontation. But setting this aside, the week delivered strong new indications that Trump and the leadership in Tehran are both now given to negotiating differences. In the best of outcomes, any such talks will be extended and all-encompassing.

Iran Sends Diplomatic Signals

Hassan Rouhani and Mohammad Javad Zarif, respectively Iran's president and foreign minister, both signaled last week that Tehran is open to new talks under certain conditions. On the U.S. side, Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did roughly the same. "We are not looking for regime change. We are not looking for that at all," Trump said Tuesday. "We'll see what happens. But a lot of progress has been made."

Two days after those remarks, Politicoreported that Trump had accepted Sen. Rand Paul's proposal, advanced during a round of golf the previous weekend, to represent the White House in talks with Iranian officials. The Kentucky senator is noted for his vigorous opposition to military adventures a position in keeping with the president's ostensible views. It is not clear who Paul might meet, or where and when any such encounter could take place. But Trump's decision to accept Paul as his emissary is a savvy move to circumvent the hawks among his foreign policy advisers, chief among them National Security Adviser John Bolton, who has in the past called for regime change in Iran.

Bolton, often (but not always) with Pompeo's support, has pressed for a highly confrontational Iran policy since he joined the administration last year. It now emerges that he played a leading role in conjuring the Gibraltar incident out of thin air, effectively using Britain as an unwitting tool to advance his hyper-hawkish Iran agenda.

The marked drift toward diplomacy last week represents an important, potentially decisive setback for Bolton and the White House's hawkish factions. Washington's hawks sustained another blow Saturday, when The New York Times published the astonishing remarks of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran's former fire-breathing, often objectionable president who preceded Hassan Rouhani. "He is a businessman and therefore he is capable of calculating cost-benefits and making a decision," the hard-line Ahmadinejad said of Trump in an hour-long telephone interview with the Times. "We say to him, let's calculate the long-term cost-benefit of our two nations and not be shortsighted."

Hardliner Split

There are two remarkable things to note in this unexpected turn in the direction of the mahogany table. It reveals a split among Iran's conservative factions that was hitherto not apparent. If hard-liners are coming to favor negotiations with the U.S., it is plain which direction the wind blows in Tehran.

Second, it is notable that Ahmadinejad proposes a comprehensive settlement that advances bilateral relations beyond the 40 years of animosity that have followed the 1979 revolution deposing Iran's last shah, who enjoyed extravagant American support over nearly three decades. The signal here is not to be missed: Military solutions to long-term crises are less and less effective in an era of emerging powers such as China, Russia and Iran.

There are two other prominent cases demonstrating this point. One is Afghanistan. After 18 years of pointless war, American diplomats have been in direct talks with the Taliban since last October. The latest round, during which the two sides negotiated the withdrawal of U.S. troops, took place in Qatar last month.

The closer parallel is with North Korea. Kim Jong-un, the North's leader, articulated Ahmadinejad's point long before Iran's former president spoke to the Times: It is time to close the door on a protracted period of animosity. The thought suggests a long view of history rarely evident among American political figures.

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Patrick Lawrence is a columnist, author, editor, and educator. He has published five books and currently writes foreign affairs commentary for Consortium News and other publications. He served as a correspondent abroad for many years and is (more...)

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