For two governments who claim they aren’t talking, the United States and Iran sure seem to have a lot to say to each other these days.
Both sides remain adamant that the prospects of formal negotiations are slim. And yet, officials from the two countries have exchanged a flurry of messages over social media in recent weeks. Those doing the talking include President Trump and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, as well as a variety of ministers and other officials.
Trump has vacillated between suggesting that he could become Iran’s “best friend” to threatening “overwhelming force” and “total obliteration” to parts of Iran. The president has said that he’s open to engaging in negotiations with Iran — but his advisers and his Iranian counterparts have shown little interest in meeting face to face.
Meanwhile, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has said that new sanctions — implemented last month against his country’s leaders — were a sign that the current White House is “mentally retarded.”
And just Wednesday, there was an unexpected Twitter exchange between national security adviser John Bolton, who responded to a typically snarky tweet from Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif with an uncharacteristically restrained reply.
Yet these mini-dialogues are hit-and-miss affairs, still notably far removed from a genuine airing of viewpoints. And this entails plenty of risks, given that tensions between the longtime adversaries are currently as high as they have ever been; indeed, quite recently, the two countries seem to have narrowly skirted the possibility of military confrontation. This increases the potential for a disastrous miscommunication.
Meanwhile, the nuclear deal struck by Iran and world powers in 2015 is at risk of being abandoned altogether.
Following the United States' withdrawal from that agreement last year — which effectively cut all channels of communication between Washington and Tehran — the Islamic republic has begun to enrich uranium beyond the limits set by the deal, once again raising concerns that Iran is aiming to pursue the development of nuclear weapons, which would likely result in a Middle East nuclear arms race.
It would seem natural and even desirable, then, for the two sides to seek each other out wherever possible. Iraq, a strategic ally to both, offers a natural venue for an initial meeting.
On Tuesday, i24 News, an Israel-based news network, reported that U.S. and Iranian officials met in the city of Erbil in northern Iraq last week for secret negotiations. The report claimed that the Iranian delegation included high-level officials and members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps who oppose current policies, implying growing fissures inside the regime.
Brian Hook, the State Department’s special envoy for Iran, denied that speculation during an interview with Al-Arabiya, a Dubai-based news outlet, on Tuesday. “Right now,” Hook said, “there are no back-channel talks between the U.S. and Iran.” Hook claimed that Iran has been rejecting U.S. diplomatic overtures.
Some U.S. officials, though, say that the absence of direct talks means that important signals could be missed. Reuters reported on Wednesday that Iran’s June release of Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese citizen and permanent resident of the United States, and who had been held in Tehran’s Evin prison for four years on unsubstantiated espionage charges, was meant to be a goodwill gesture by the Islamic republic, designed to pave the way for fresh talks with the Trump administration.
That’s entirely plausible. The Iranian regime is notorious for its habit of taking foreign nationals hostage for purposes of political leverage, so it may well have been trying to send a message with Zakka’s release. But in the current climate, we have no way of knowing for sure. There is no channel in place for conveying such a message directly and away from the public spotlight. That leaves the two sides ill-equipped to decipher each other’s intentions.
“We should have explored whether there was something there,” one U.S. official said, calling Zakka’s release a “missed opportunity.” It certainly isn’t the first in the four-decade history of severed ties between Tehran and Washington, and it’s unlikely to be the last.
Whether that opportunity could have entailed freedom for other Americans being illegally held in Iran, or a major opening on important geopolitical issues (such as the continuing wars in Syria and Yemen, or Iran’s nuclear program), we won’t really know until the two sides are in a position to talk like adults, rather than just jerks on the Internet.
But if they’re already exchanging so many messages, why not get off the smartphones and give up the mini-rants — the rest of us have that covered — and start some actual negotiations?