News Analysis: Back-channel efforts to ease U.S.-Iran tensions are underway but face long odds

 President Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani
President Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
(Nicholas Kamm / AFP/Getty Images; office of the president of Iran)

The United States and Iran have quietly exchanged a handful of official messages in recent weeks through third parties. But a diplomatic exit for the perilous escalation of hostilities between the two adversaries remains distant, officials and analysts here and abroad say.

Both President Trump and his Iranian counterparts seem to have backed down, for now, from the cycle of military attack and retaliation. Trump on Wednesday said he was willing to talk to Tehran — but at the same time announced plans for additional economic sanctions, a move that probably prevents Iranian leaders from sitting down with U.S. officials.

Several back-channel efforts to ease the crisis and push Iran and the U.S. to talk to each other hit a flurried pace this week, with an emergency meeting of the European Union called for Friday in Brussels. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif will attend, but there will be no U.S. presence.

The administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign, which it launched after withdrawing unilaterally from the landmark 2015 Iran nuclear deal, consists of bruising sanctions that have crippled the Iranian economy and strangled its oil industry, a key lifeline. European signatories to the deal, along with Russia and China, have been trying to salvage the agreement, which by most accounts successfully curbed the Islamic Republic’s capacity to pursue nuclear weapons.


But maximum pressure from the U.S. has been met with maximum resistance from the Iranians. The tighter Washington has turned the screws, the more Iran has stepped up its tempo of guerrilla attacks on Saudi oil installations and on cargo ships in the Strait of Hormuz, among other operations.

Iran sees a sharp contradiction between the United States’ saying it wants to talk and Trump’s calling for sanctions and for other world powers to abandon the nuclear deal — positions he reiterated Wednesday. Trump supporters say that’s just his way of negotiating: carrot and stick within the same utterance.

The administration accuses Iran of being unwilling to accept its overtures. Iran insists it needs some show of goodwill, namely a commitment to the easing of some sanctions, according to diplomats who deal directly with the government in Tehran.

“Given the level of tension, mistrust, the level of anger in Iran, the distance, still, of the United States from its European allies, we are not anywhere near a breakthrough,” said Seth Jones, a former U.S. special operations officer in the Middle East and now a security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Switzerland, which has represented U.S. interests with Iran since shortly after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, has been the primary go-between. The Swiss government delivered a message to Iran from the U.S. about the killing of Gen. Qassem Suleimani on Jan. 3. While the contents were not made public, it is telling that it came hours after the American drone strike that took Suleimani’s life. Also through the Swiss, Iran responded to condemn the attack.

Since then, “several” messages have been exchanged, Swiss government spokesman Pierre-Alain Eltschinger told reporters, including some on Tuesday, when Iran launched retaliatory strikes against U.S. targets in Iraq, and on the following day.

Most communications so far are believed to have been aimed at deescalation, urging both sides to hold fire and preventing events from spiraling out of control, rather than opening talks.

Unusually, Iran has also asked fellow Muslim nation Pakistan to represent it to the Trump administration. This is a smart move, diplomatically, because Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Kahn, the former cricket star, has a surprisingly good relationship with Trump.

Earlier this week, Oman’s foreign minister, Yousuf bin Alawi, met with Iranian officials in Tehran. Although Oman has previously served as an intermediary between Tehran and Washington, Alawi came away this time saying there was currently “no room” for mediation.

And French President Emmanuel Macron, who came close to persuading Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to sit at a negotiating table during meetings at the United Nations last fall, spoke at length with Rouhani following the Iranian missile strikes.

In addition to urging calm, Macron called on Iran to return to full compliance with the nuclear accord. As Washington ignored and disparaged the deal, Tehran also began to step away from full compliance, finally announcing after Suleimani’s killing that it would no longer abide by caps on uranium enrichment and stockpiling. Though in violation of the agreement, Iran is still far from weapons-grade production.

The meeting that Macron attempted to broker between Trump and Rouhani fell apart, diplomats said, because Iran demanded a commitment from the U.S. to consider easing sanctions. Trump is also notoriously contemptuous of multilateral efforts and prefers to be the star of any show rather than share billing.

The next opportunity for the two leaders to meet face to face may be the Davos, Switzerland, economic forum Jan. 21-22. Trump has said he will attend, and Iran promises to send a senior-level delegation.

European leaders, meanwhile, reject Trump’s discussion of crafting a new nuclear deal, although some, like Macron, have agreed to adjustments of the current one.

Iran will be the only topic on the agenda Friday when the 28 members of the European bloc convene for an emergency meeting.

“We are called upon to do everything possible to rekindle talks,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said ahead of the session. “There cannot be enough of that.”

Further complicating a diplomatic path ahead is the participation of Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo. As the United States’ top diplomat, he would presumably lead any negotiation, but he is also the administration’s leading hawk on Iran. In 2014, as the Obama administration was hashing out the details of the nuclear deal, Pompeo, then a congressman from Kansas, demanded the talks be broken off and called for airstrikes, saying he was confident that fewer than 2,000 bombing sorties could take out Iran’s nuclear capabilities.

“Previous administrations ... chose to underwrite and appease. We have chosen to confront and contain,” Pompeo said this week. “Those are different strategies. We believe ours is successful, and we ultimately believe it will be successful at making Iran behave like a normal nation.”

The State Department refused to give Zarif a visa to attend a U.N. session this month to discuss the crisis. State Department officials said the Iranians applied too late.

Pompeo and other senior administration officials briefed members of the House and Senate on Wednesday, and many lawmakers expressed dissatisfaction with the information provided. Rep. Ami Bera (D-Elk Grove) said he heard no signs of active diplomacy with Tehran.

“I think the administration and Secretary of State Pompeo first have to work on their diplomacy with Congress,” he said.

Administration officials say they have offered Iranians an “offramp” that they have repeatedly rejected.

“Publicly and privately over the last few years, we have made many communications ... and it’s all the same message of: meet our diplomacy with diplomacy, and not with military force; let’s resolve our bilateral differences diplomatically,” a senior State Department official said, briefing reporters anonymously in keeping with administration protocol. “The regime is not interested in that, and they’re paying the price for it.”

Michele Dunne, a former U.S. diplomat in the Middle East now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, noted that the U.S. refused to negotiate with the Taliban more than two decades ago. Today, thousands of lives and billions of dollars later, the two sides are negotiating — but the U.S. from a weaker position and the Taliban from a stronger one. Similarly, the Saudis’ decision to fight Houthi rebels in Yemen rather than negotiate with them spelled disaster for the desert kingdom. Both Washington and Riyadh passed up on a chance to negotiate, thinking they could fight to victory.

With Iran, Dunne said, “that moment is now.”

“It’s late for diplomacy,” she said, “but not too late.”