There might still be a peaceful way out of the crisis with Iran—the leaders of Britain, France, Germany, and the United Nations, as well as such quite hawkish prominent Americans as retired Gen. David Petraeus and former Middle East envoy Dennis Ross, are urging diplomatic overtures from both sides—but President Donald Trump isn’t likely to go that route for two reasons. First, he isn’t keen on diplomacy. Second, even if he suddenly were, no one around him is very fit for the task.
Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have no desire to de-escalate the crisis, nor would anyone in Tehran trust them as emissaries, given their overt advocacy of Iranian regime change. Other senior officials lack the experience for this sort of thing. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper comes to the job as a former aerospace lobbyist, not as a policy denizen. National security adviser Robert O’Brien is a former hostage negotiator (though that could be a useful credential if this crisis escalates much further).
There are a few midlevel specialists who could play a role in either formulating or executing a diplomatic approach. Most notable is James Jeffrey, special envoy on engaging Syria and fighting ISIS; though Trump has diminished U.S. leverage on both issues, Jeffrey has also been deputy national security adviser as well as ambassador to Iraq and Turkey, in the Bush and Obama administrations. He is widely viewed as hawkish but pragmatic, and he knows the region.
What would a diplomatic solution look like? First, and perhaps above all, it would involve a reembracing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, also known as the Iran nuclear deal, including a gradual lifting of economic sanctions, perhaps in exchange for Iran’s cessation of attacks on U.S. targets in the region.
This may seem to be a nonstarter, given Trump’s frequent condemnation of that deal—signed by President Barack Obama and five other world leaders—as the worst accord in U.S. history. However, it is a safe bet that Trump has never read a single paragraph of this 159-page document. Clever insiders could change the title, and tell the president that it’s a revised accord with many new provisions in our favor.
They could also argue—and Trump could, in turn, proclaim to his “base”—that the context changes everything: They could say the Iranians know that this president, unlike the previous one, will take strong action if Iran cheats, so it was a bad deal under Obama, a good deal under Trump. If it’s true, as Trump once said, that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and his base would still vote for him, it might also be true that he could endorse the Iran nuclear deal with no drop-off of support. It’s good because Trump says it’s good.
The catch to all this, of course, is that no one in Trump’s entourage would play this sort of switcheroo on the boss. And, without such trickery, Trump would never succumb to any arrangement that involved endorsing Obama’s deal. When Trump pulled out of the deal in 2018, all of his senior officials at the time urged him not to. None of them trusted Iran, but they all thought the deal was better than no deal; his defense secretary, retired Gen. Jim Mattis, who particularly loathed the Iranian regime, called its verification provisions as airtight as those of any treaty he’d ever read. Trump’s hatred for the deal was entirely egotistical: Congress required the president to attest, every few months, that Iran was abiding by the deal, and though Iran continued to abide, Trump could not bear to keep endorsing Barack Obama’s signal diplomatic achievement. It really is that simple.
There might be other diplomatic approaches: a gradual lifting of sanctions—particularly sanctions against other countries doing business with Iran—in exchange for Iran’s cessation of violent activities, without any explicit mention of the nuclear deal. This would probably have to be done in secret, through a mutually trusted third party, as neither Trump nor Iran’s supreme leader can politically afford to be seen as displaying weakness at this moment of challenge. Are both leaders, equally stubborn, up to such a deal?
Less likely settlements have occurred. The 1962 Cuban missile crisis was resolved when President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev agreed on a secret trade: Khrushchev would pull Soviet missiles out of Cuba; then, six months later, without comment, Kennedy would pull U.S. missiles out of Turkey. The deal went through. It’s worth noting, though, that when Khrushchev proposed this deal on the last day of the crisis, all of Kennedy’s advisers—civilian and military—firmly opposed it, arguing that it would wreck NATO, alienate the Turks, send a signal of weakness. They all advocated the Joint Chiefs’ plan to start bombing the missiles in Cuba two days later—and then to launch a ground invasion of Cuba five days after that. No one knew, until decades later, that 40,000 Russian soldiers were hiding on the islands of Cuba to stave off a potential American invasion. If Kennedy’s advisers had had their way, the United States would have been at war with the Soviet Union.
We do not know what the Iranians are plotting as retaliation to Trump’s assassination of Gen. Qassem Soleimani. Neither do we know what Trump and his aides are plotting as a response to Iran’s next move. If part of that response really is an attack on Iranian “cultural targets,” as Trump warns, then we will have no active allies anywhere in the world. (We have few enough now.)
Many observers are saying that, surely, the Iranians won’t dare launch an attack on American interests—or, surely, Trump wouldn’t really hit cultural targets. But many unlikely things have happened in recent times, so many—some of them so outrageous—that it’s hard to gauge probabilities any longer.
One thing is certain: The tensions in the Middle East and elsewhere are far too stressful, and the main leaders in this faceoff are far too rigid and too prone to miscalculation, to let this crisis go on much longer. It’s time for a lot of players who don’t usually cooperate—in Congress, in the United Nations, in the Middle East, in whatever forums that might muster any influence whatsoever—to step up and say, stop.