U.S.-Iran Negotiations

With the departure of National Security Adviser John Bolton, analysts are looking at the potential for a resumption of U.S.-Iran talks, perhaps around the UN General Assembly meetings in New York later this month.

Q1: What is the U.S. government’s current approach to Iran?

A1: When I speak to people in the Trump administration, they all assure me that their goal is to make a deal. What they’re waiting for is the moment when the Iranian government will be at its most flexible and willing to make the greatest concessions. The Trump administration is not trying to do something small; they’re trying to do something big. They don’t see the path forward to be incremental agreements on small things. I believe they see the path forward as dramatic tension that creates a breakthrough and a radically different environment.

Q2: What is Iran’s strategy?

A2: It’s a mistake to assume that the Iranian government is all singing from the same sheet of music. The Iranians love constructive ambiguity. They sometimes seem uncertain themselves what the government's position is and who's responsible for what, and they try to take advantage of this confusion. The Iranians also believe that the United States has a malign influence in the world that is hostile to Iran. There is broad agreement in Iran that the country is under siege by more powerful states, and that requires building leverage and creating options. Their necessity is, in their minds, to create disorder so people reward them for diminishing the disorder they create. In the current period, the Iranian government concluded that they have to find a way to create a crisis without creating a war. When the Iranian government has talked about purposefully violating the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) at regular intervals unless sanctions are lifted, that is a part of this strategy.

Overall, they seem to be choosing actions that are quickly reversible. They’re also very careful not to show any eagerness to negotiate for fear of reducing their already limited leverage. As I see it, they don't want to negotiate from a position of weakness, but ultimately, the Iranians are looking to deal.

Q3: What do the Iranians seem to fear?

A3: In my judgment, the Iranians don’t fear a U.S. invasion, but they do fear being ignored while they suffer under debilitating sanctions. I see a whole series of Iranian actions that are trying to avoid that scenario, partly by increasing a sense of risk, partly by showing a willingness to negotiate, partly by creating a sense of tension along with a sense of possibility. They are trying to create a sense of urgency and need for the world to negotiate with them, because for them the worst-case scenario is being left alone to suffer because Donald Trump wants to punish Iranians. They have no intention of just taking it; I see them doing the opposite.

Q4: French president Emmanuel Macron recently spearheaded an effort to offer Iran a bailout package in exchange for its full compliance with the nuclear agreement. What role do you see France playing in the negotiation process?

A4: First, I think the French are serious about non-proliferation. Second, I think the French see an opportunity to seize a role for global leadership in the absence of a U.S. hunger to lead. I don't think French mediation is going to solve the tensions between Iran and the United States, but I could see French mediation postponing things, framing things, and creating opportunities for things. As for France’s strategy to bring Iran back into compliance with the JCPOA, they’re not looking to persuade the U.S. government; they just need the U.S. government not to oppose their efforts.

Q5: Iranian brinkmanship in and around the Persian Gulf contributed to the recent spike in tensions between the United States and Iran. The United States launched Operation Sentinel to promote maritime stability, ensure safe passage, and deescalate tensions in international waters throughout those waters. How effective is it?

A5: The problem with Operation Sentinel is that countries neither know what they're signing up for nor what they're going to get in exchange. There is a fear that President Trump could take hostile action against Iran without coordinating with allies, and they would somehow get dragged into a conflict that they had no say in. There's also the fact that the U.S. government made clear they will give other governments intelligence, but they’re not going to protect other people's boats—that's their responsibility. Potential members say: “Well, if you're making us more vulnerable to attack because we're associated with the United States, but we're not getting any greater protection from attack, that's easy to read and it all looks bad.” In previous administrations, countries would have a better sense of what they're signing up for, and a previous administration would be extending protections that provide confidence. That’s just not the way this has been structured.

Jon B. Alterman is a senior vice president, holds the Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and is director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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Jon B. Alterman
Senior Vice President, Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and Director, Middle East Program