Talking with a friend about a substantive disagreement is hard work. Negotiating with an enemy, however, is a harder thing to pull off. Striking an agreement with an adversary is harder still, something that is simply impossible if both sides are unable to leave their mutual antagonism at the door. In many cases, the lack of trust and the different bottom lines are irreconcilable. Both parties then have no choice but to walk away.
What the United States needs right now with Iran is a negotiation. Washington can no longer rely on third-parties to deliver messages to Iran; a direct line of communication must be established to help avert a tension-filled situation from potentially escalating into a disaster. While there is no guarantee whatsoever that a comprehensive accord between Washington and Tehran can be reached (the odds are somewhere between zero and negligible), Winston Churchill’s famous quip that jaw-jaw is better than war-war still very much applies. The world could use a little jaw-jawing between the United States and Iran outside of mutual threats and war-like language.
Donald Trump doesn’t want a war with Iran. He reportedly told former Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan exactly that in a meeting at the White House last month. The last thing Trump wants is to immerse the United States into the quicksand of the Middle East with another conflict, one that would make America’s eight-year conflict in Iraq look like child’s play. A violent conflict would also go down terribly with Trump’s political base. And as somebody who prides himself on fulfilling campaign promises—one of which was keeping the United States from plunging into a fourth major military intervention in the region—the politics don’t make any sense.
Trump has also signaled his affinity for talking to everyone and anyone. He proved that yet again last weekend, when the president tweeted an invite to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and met with him for about an hour at the Demilitarized Zone. It doesn’t matter if you have a special relationship with the United States or if you are a historic enemy: Trump has no problem picking up the phone or setting up a summit. Deep down, it’s likely the president dreams of penning a deal with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that makes him look like the master-class dealmaker he always claims to be. Khamenei has already rejected an overture from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on behalf of Trump, viewing it as an insincere ploy from someone who pulled the United States out of a multilateral nuclear agreement Tehran was complying with. Things may be happening behind the scenes through various intermediaries, but in terms of public perception, a round of U.S.-Iran talks is about as likely as Trump and Joe Biden becoming best friends.
Part of this dilemma is on the back of Khamenei, who as an old, hardline cleric regards the United States as a duplicitous snake ready to pounce the second Iran turns its back. But much of the fault also lies with Trump, who is confused about what he hopes to accomplish from a negotiation, befuddled about why the Iranians haven’t already cried uncle after seeing their oil exports tank to 300,000 barrels per day in June, and who is so obsessed with strength that he stubbornly refuses to water down his maximalist demands.
The president, goaded by his dogmatic national security advisers, has a curious theory of negotiation. Trump’s best-selling Art of the Deal aside, he believes that everything is a contest of wills. All you need to do to win is deploy all of your leverage, sit back, and wait for the other side to feel enough pain that it comes crawling to the table with a surrender document ready to be signed. Negotiations are therefore not exercises in compromise, but a way to extract complete capitulation from your opponent.
This has yet to work on Iran. It will never work on Iran. If anything, maximum pressure has only pushed the Iranians into a corner. Contrary to Trump’s expectations, Iran has been fighting back in multiple ways. In its latest act of defiance, Tehran breached the 300 kg cap on low-enriched uranium allowed under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Instead of cowering in fear, the Iranians are lashing out.
The longer Trump believes he can wait Tehran out, the more likely the world should anticipate more of the mysterious tanker attacks in the Gulf of Oman that happened last month—to which Iran is believed to be the mastermind. The alternative is obvious for anyone who cares to prevent a spiral of escalation—the Trump administration must stop searching for surrender and start wheeling-and-dealing.
Diplomacy is difficult. But war, either deliberate or unintended, is worse.
Daniel R. DePetris is a columnist for the Washington Examiner and the American Conservative and a frequent contributor to the National Interest.