A Return to Diplomacy
On a European visit, United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave the first signal that the Trump’s Administration is willing to meet with Iranian leaders without pre-conditions. The announcement marks a departure from his previous stance that Iran must meet 12 conditions, many of which would be wholly unrealistic, such as a complete end to Tehran’s support of proxy groups spread across the region.
“We are prepared to engage in a conversation with no pre-conditions, we are ready to sit down,” Pompeo said while attending the four-day Bilderberg conference in Switzerland.
While the Bilderberg group holds meetings annually to discuss issues affecting Europe and North America, this year’s agenda included several global topics such as China, climate change, and even capitalism. Iranian sanctions and the threat of another war in the Middle East were a more pressing matter for Pompeo as he stopped in Berlin first for a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He will wrap up his European tour with a visit to London, joining U.S. President Donald Trump.
U.S. – Iran relations have spiraled out of control since Trump took office and withdrew the U.S. from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Commonly referred to as the Iran nuclear deal, this agreement removed sanctions from Iran in exchange for strong oversight of nuclear operations by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). For the two years in which the deal was in place, IAEA inspectors reported that Tehran was in full compliance with the plan to reduce its uranium enrichment activities.
Public perception of America and the West shifted drastically in Tehran after the deal was forged and the international community considered the positive change a success. As the deal was made by Trump’s predecessor, he was eager to scrap it, possibly in favor of making a deal of his own. A business magnate, Trump campaigned on his ability to make the best deals and he wasted no time in targeting U.S. adversaries and allies alike, including Iran, China, Canada, Mexico, and Japan. Generally, the president’s disputes with these nations are economically-oriented and therefore sanctions have been the go-to response when the Trump administration is at odds with another nation.
When it comes to Iran, however, the issue is more complicated as Iran is currently fighting a proxy war in Yemen against Saudi Arabia, a U.S. ally and strong trading partner. Riyadh and Tehran have historically always been at each other’s throats vying for regional supremacy. The war in Yemen presented Trump with the opportunity to rally against Iran both for economic and security reasons. Riyadh is one of the largest consumers of U.S. weapons and defense systems, as Trump proudly boasted during Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to Washington last year.
From the Trump Administration’s viewpoint, supplying arms to Saudi Arabia is of paramount importance, so much that the president declared Iran a national emergency to circumvent congressional funding procedures. In this way, weapons can continue to flow to Saudi Arabia in exchange for tens of billions of dollars.
Iran also represents the most immediate security threat to U.S. forces in the region who still fight insurgent groups across Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. Pompeo’s previous stance on a meeting with Iran included Tehran withdrawing all support and fighters from groups such as Hezbollah and Houthi rebels in Yemen. Realistically, this condition alone would cause Iran to refuse to even meet with U.S. diplomats to discuss a new deal.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has not ruled out discussions with the Trump Administration, but said that Tehran must be showed respect if any discussions are to take place. He has been on the record several times declaring that Iran does not seek war and even accused the U.S. of trying to provoke Iran into conflict so that Washington has a reason to put soldiers on the ground.
Rouhani may be correct in regards to some members of Trump’s cabinet seeking war. National Security Advisor John Bolton has threatened the use of “unrelenting force” should Iran attack the U.S. or its allies.
Despite the U.S. State Department declaring that Pompeo and Bolton are aligned on the issue of Iran, their messaging couldn’t be different. Pompeo’s more nuanced stance favors discussions, an idea that seems to be winning Trump over.
Following Trump’s recent visit with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Abe planned a visit with Iran scheduled for June 12 to 14. A meeting between the two leaders suggests that Japan might act as an intermediary in the peacekeeping process.
Thus far, no armed conflicts have broken out, but four oil tankers were attacked off the coast of the United Arab Emirates last month. Although Tehran vehemently denied involvement in the attacks, the U.S. deployed 1,500 more troops to the region as a deterrence against future incidents. King Salman convened a council of Islamic in Mecca last week to discuss how to contain Iran and its regional influence. While no action has been taken yet by Riyadh, it’s clear that all major international powers agree that the situation has reached a boiling point. As the sanctions continue to cripple the Iranian economy, the threat of Tehran-backed terrorist attacks across the region increases, a situation that Pompeo is actively trying to avert.