Tensions continue to rise between Iran and the US. Last week, John Bolton, the US national security adviser, warned that Donald Trump’s administration planned to impose “maximum pressure” on Iran. Even the Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, who is known to favour engagement with the west, has emphasised that his country would increase its military readiness, unveiling a new fighter jet.
Tehran is understandably furious with the US president for withdrawing from the 2015 nuclear deal despite any evidence of Iranian cheating. Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has said he regrets negotiating with the US. But threats and escalation will not serve Iran well. A better approach would be to consider Mr Trump’s offer (via tweet) to meet Mr Rouhani, any time and without conditions. The Iranians should put aside their distrust — they have nothing to lose and it is possible that a new “pause-for-pause” agreement could benefit both sides.
Why is Mr Trump dangling the prospect of talks without any conditions after trashing the nuclear agreement and surrounding himself with hardliners such as Mr Bolton, who have long advocated regime change in Iran? Perhaps the president wants to compensate for his lack of progress with North Korea, which continues to develop a nuclear weapons programme despite Mr Trump’s claims of diplomatic success there. Perhaps Mr Trump simply wants to be unpredictable. Or maybe he believes he can negotiate a better deal with Iran than former president Barack Obama did — a highly unlikely scenario. Whatever Mr Trump’s reasons, Iran should agree to talk. Its economy is in tatters. Its currency is at record lows and there are rolling protests throughout the country, as international companies leave following the imposition of US sanctions.
Iran continues to look to Europe to save the nuclear deal and, with it, the economy. But the EU has not taken the necessary steps to keep international businesses in Iran. Tehran may not like it, but a new understanding with the US would shore up the economy. There is almost no chance that Mr Trump will reverse his decision to withdraw from the 2015 agreement, or that a comprehensive new deal is on the cards. But there is a possible arrangement that would leave both sides better off and allow everyone to save face.
Mr Trump could instruct his Treasury department to issue individual waivers to international companies, allowing them to do business in Iran without running foul of US law. But, in exchange, Iran would need to give him something he could claim as a win. Tehran has already shut down its nuclear programme so there is not much more to give there. But Iran has not launched a medium nor long-range ballistic missile in more than a year. This is significant, given how much Iran values its missile programme — Tehran refused to discuss ballistic missiles in negotiations with the Obama administration and, after the 2015 deal was signed, it conducted at least 23 provocative missile tests.
Then they quietly stopped. It may be that Iran halted testing to keep international tension from escalating while the nuclear deal hung in the balance. Now it is beginning to resume the programme, reportedly with a short-range missile test this month. Pausing the launching of its medium and long-range missiles could be a natural exchange for a pause in sanctions enforcement. Such an understanding would allow Iran and other countries to uphold the nuclear deal, even without US participation.
It would also allow Mr Trump to declare a victory in curbing one of Iran’s more provocative regional irritants. And it would give Iranian leaders some breathing room. They may prefer to ignore Mr Trump’s offer, but it is in their interest to come to the table.