It’s Time to Talk to Iran

With tensions rising in the Middle East and Iran suffering under sanctions, this may be the last best opportunity to walk back from the brink.

This month, six years ago, we were in the midst of secret talks with Iran that led to the comprehensive nuclear agreement. It was a moment when diplomacy carried considerable risk, and considerable promise. Today, the promise has faded, and the risk is accelerating.

The consequences of the Trump administration’s foolish decision to abandon that nuclear deal last year, with no evidence of Iranian noncompliance, were predictable — and predicted.

We are now at a very dangerous point. The story of how we got here is one of faulty expectations on both sides.

Iran thought it could wait out President Trump, and the United States would simply return to the deal under a new president in 2021. But the pressure of economic sanctions, unilaterally reimposed by the United States, has been more formidable than Iran anticipated. Inflation is at 50 percent, and oil exports, the lifeblood of Iran’s economy, have declined from 2.5 million barrels per day to as little as a couple of hundred thousand this past summer. The European signatories to the nuclear deal proved incapable of offering much relief.

The Trump administration, for its part, believed unrealistically that its “maximum pressure” campaign and saber rattling would cause Iran to fold and accept America’s terms. But it failed to see that Iran has its own cards to play. Rather than capitulate, the Iranians have conducted increasingly provocative actions in the gulf, and started advancing their nuclear program. Rather than joining the United States in a united front to isolate Iran, America’s allies and partners are trying to act as mediators between what they see as two rogue actors: Washington and Tehran.

In Tehran, the hard-liners are ascendant, their skepticism about engaging with the West validated. Their temptation to overreach is rising, fed by the perception that President Trump (in his political supporters’ parlance) is a “snowflake” — talking a big game but more interested in self-absorbed summitry than military strikes.

Our gulf partners, meanwhile, are torn. On the one hand, they are worried about military collisions and are trying to slow the drift to conflict, with the Saudi crown prince a born-again believer in the value of thorough United Nations investigations. On the other hand, they are anxious that American nonreaction to Iran’s recent provocations will only feed Iran’s appetite for risk-taking, with Saudi Arabia the most convenient target.

If we stay on this trajectory, we will soon go off the cliff. The policy questions debated in Washington are too often about whether or not to wear a seatbelt. Instead, we ought to put our hands back on the wheel of diplomacy and steer toward an off-ramp before it is too late.

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