The US-Iranian confrontation sees an opening. Something is happening under-the-radar, relieving tension and encouraging dialogue: gestures well worth reporting.
First and foremost were recent events, dominated by two pieces of news consistent with the ongoing conflict: an oil tanker seized by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and a Tehran drone shot down by US forces.
The first announcement could have caused escalation but nothing happened. Nobody spoke out to criticise the incident or claim ownership of the ship and request its release. This is a sign that the oil, which Iran considers contraband, is an embarrassment and that Tehran is holding cards it can either hide or play.
The ship’s nationality is unknown, but it looks to be British. Tehran most likely wants to do an exchange with the Iranian oil tanker stopped in Gibraltar, where there seems to be an underground fight between London and its Overseas Territory.
After the breakthrough by British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, hinting that the ship would be released, Prime Minister Theresa May had to meet Gibraltar’s Chief Minister, Fabian Picardo. This was clearly inconsistent with Hunt: it is most likely that May expressly asked Picardo to let the ship go. Unfortunately, the day after the summit, came the ruling by Gibraltar’s Supreme Court to extend the blockade for another month, cutting Picardo out of the decision: harmful circumstances stalling the path to a possible détente.
On the same day, breaking news of an Iranian drone being shot down by the US Navy: an event that should have triggered escalation and yet …
Authorities in Tehran have denied it, which should put a lid on any renewed tension.
The dispute doesn’t solve anything. Far more important is the way in which Trump broke the news, in a tweet: “I want to apprise everyone of an incident in the Strait of Hormuz …”, the USS Boxer, in a “defensive” action, “shot down an Iranian drone.” An act of war relegated to an “incident”… A clear reluctance to stir up emotions.
These are the latest headlines, but what is transpiring beneath the surface is far more interesting. Iran has indicated its willingness to accept enhanced inspections of its nuclear programme in return for sanctions being lifted.
The proposal has aroused skepticism on the other side, but at least it is a start. The telephone conversation between Emmanuel Macron and Vladimir Putin on the Iran crisis is significant. The French President has just returned from a meeting with Trump on the subject, hence the greater importance of the private conversion (1).
It is not only the French President. The influential website Politico revealed last week that Senator Rand Paul requested and obtained Trump’s blessing to seek a compromise with Tehran. This initiative indicates just how much Trump is opposed to an intervention against Iran. In fact, Paul has long been critical of US foreign intervention. In this respect, Politico recalled the praise they gave Trump when the president called off a strike against Iran, in response to the downing of a US drone.
On this occasion, in an interview with Fox News, Paul said: “It really takes a statesman to show restraint amidst a chorus of voices for war.” It is not only the US though. Signs are emerging that Tehran are opening up. The State news agency Irna released a statement Javad Zarif’s recent mission to the UN, examining reactions to his journey from Iranian, reformist and hard-line media sources.
It ends with the Iranian Foreign Minister’s tweet about the interview he has granted, on this occasion, to British national television: “My interview with Zeinab Badawi for BBCs ‘s HardTalk. Filmed at the Iranian Ambassador’s residence during my trip to NY for the United Nations Economic and Social Council. (And more to come…)”
(1) Incidentally, after his conversation with Putin, Macron announced that he would travel to Moscow for the 75th anniversary celebration of victory over the Nazis. Putin had also invited Trump, who has yet to respond. The presence of the French President might encourage attendance …