Why Won’t Back-Channel Diplomacy Between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Trump Aadministration Work?



On May 20, 2019, when tensions between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the United States were high, the Sultanate of Oman’s Minister Responsible for Foreign Affairs Yousuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah went to Tehran. One day later, the Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi said, “Iraq will send delegations to Washington and Tehran to help ‘end tensions’ amid concerns of a possible military conflict between the United States and Iran.” On June 12, 2019, the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made an official trip to Iran to mediate between the United States and Iran over Tehran’s nuclear program. These three countries have a good relationship with Iran and the United States. Could their goodwill prove successful in easing tensions first and then bringing both sides to a new round of negotiations? I highly doubt it. I am going to explain why by analyzing the fundamental positions of both sides.

The JCPOA is dead
Trump’s position during his presidential campaign was that the Iran deal was a disaster. When he got elected, despite pressures from the former Obama administration and Iran’s lobby, he annulled the agreement. European efforts to save this deal have failed in the last 14 months. Any negotiations that are going to lead to a new nuclear agreement will fail because the Trump administration wants Iran’s nuclear capacity to be dismantled and not controlled. On the other hand, the Islamic Republic has spent more than $100 billion on its nuclear program and does not want to give it up.

Change of behavior, not possible
The Trump administration’s general strategy vis-a-vis Tehran rests on imposing maximum pressure on the Iranian regime. They want the regime and its main guardian (the IRGC) to change their behavior in the Middle East. This cannot be done by just adding some amendments to the JCPOA. The US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s 12 demands cover much more than Iran’s nuclear program. On the other hand, the Islamic Republic is not going to change its behavior. Iranian officials believe that Iran’s behavior in the region has been key to the regime’s survival since the Iranian revolution.

Ideology or pragmatism
In the last 40 years, there have been two positions on the Iran-US relationship among Iranian officials: de-escalation stemming from the pragmatic camp (Rafsanjani, Khatami, and Rouhani), and eternal enmity arising from Khamenei and his loyalists in the religious and military establishments. Rouhani in his first term was able to make a deal with the West because of his social and political capital despite his disagreements with the opposing “hardline” faction. However, in his second term, he has lost all credibility and public support. The January 2018 uprisings in more than 130 cities across Iran showed that his administration’s slogan of “hope and prudence” had lost its mandate. There was a very successful online campaign in which people who voted for Rouhani declared that they had regretted their decision.
At this moment in time, even pragmatists are unable to make a case for negotiations. The waters between the United States and the Islamic Republic are poisonous: Iran is heading towards isolation and the United States is increasing its pressures on the Iranian regime. Khamenei has been talking positively about isolation, the North Korean model, although he has not mentioned the name. The Trump administration wants the Islamic Republic to be squeezed economically. Back-channel diplomacy and secret negotiations are not going to provide any help to any side of this conflict. Both sides may talk about negotiations in public to pretend to be interested in peace and prosperity, however, both sides know where they are heading.

Messengers and not mediators
The Trump administration is following the maximum pressure strategy on Iran; therefore before any negotiations begin, the responsibility of any third party involved in defusing the Iran-US crisis cannot be more than a means to lower the cost of US pressures such as military conflict. The Trump administration does not want a military conflict with Iran but it is committed to deprive the regime of easy money. Iranian officials are aware of this US strategy and are not optimistic about the outcome of diplomatic trips to their country.
Omani, Japanese and Iraqi efforts are aimed at minimizing the possibility of an accidental military confrontation. For Omanis and Iraqis, these efforts are also about their national security and economic interests. What these countries hope to do is to bring Iran and the United States farther away from the brink of war, not to the negotiating table.

Normalization, not possible
The Islamic Republic of Iran has always been proud of not being a normal state. Iranian officials call their regime “revolutionary” as it is against the status quo in the world. The Islamic Republic’s allies in the world and in the region are not normal players. There have been three rounds of collective efforts by Iranian “reformists”/“technocrats” and Western governments to launch a normalization process for Iran in the domestic and internal arenas in the last three decades and all of them have failed. The late Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s government, the Khatami and Rouhani administrations, as well as some Western governments and Arab states, have pushed for normalization efforts with almost no success.

A comprehensive or partial deal
There is a key issue in possible negotiations between Iran and the Trump administration. Iran does not want to talk about its terrorist activities, its intervention policies in the region and its ballistic missile program. On the other hand, the Trump administration wants to include all the belligerent behavior of the Iranian regime on the negotiating table. It is highly unlikely that Iran will accept this, even under the tough crippling sanctions that it is facing.

False hope
Even after a year, Europe has not been able to normalize economic transactions with Tehran. Despite this, some Iranian officials still hope that the European troika (France, UK, and Germany) will be able to provide Iran with the fruits of the JCPOA. They want to believe that Europe will take a 180-degree turn in the opposite direction from the United States. When Germany’s Foreign Minister, Heiko Maas said, “we cannot work miracles, but we will try to avert a failure” it means that their hands are tied. INSTEX, which was established to help ensure limited trade with Iran, is also on life support. Also, the United States is to target the mechanism called the Special Trade and Finance Institute, which Iran established as a counterpart to INSTEX.
On the same day that Japanese Prime Minister Abe was in Tehran, two oil tankers were attacked in the Gulf of Oman. Whoever is responsible for this incident, the attacks are not a good sign for any mediation. Iranian officials have always said that “if we are not going to export oil, no oil should be allowed to be exported from the Persian Gulf.” This strategy makes the prospects of mediation and negotiations gloomier by the day.

Editorial Team