Both sides have set unreasonable demands for new talks, which means that these positions will have to be softened to avoid conflict. For that reason, any de-escalation is likely to be incremental, requiring all parties to step down from the maximalist stances they currently hold.
So they should start with the points of contention that are easiest to solve. There are two issues that come to mind.
The Islamic Republic should free American hostages, and in return, the United States should commit to exemptions and waivers on sanctions that impede Iran’s access to food and medicine. Both these issues will be the subject of discussion by multiple governments in New York this week.
Ending these two destructive policies would be the quintessential win-win. Although the Trump administration denies that its sanctions on Iran’s economy target food and medicine, reports from inside the country tell a starkly different story of shortages of lifesaving drugs and soaring prices for basic foodstuffs. The new U.S. sanctions on Iran’s central bank announced last week by the Trump administration threaten to plunge Iran into a humanitarian crisis.
In addition to preventing avoidable civilian deaths, implementing exceptions to the sanctions would also have the benefit of showing to average Iranians, for the first time during the current “maximum pressure” campaign, that U.S. policy can be adjusted to avoid hurting them needlessly. Opponents have criticized the sanctions for harming innocents, while the administration’s cheerleaders have failed to offer a convincing response.
If Iran’s leaders genuinely care about the people they govern, they would accept such a proposal. It wouldn’t signal weakness but rather a rare acknowledgment that the well-being of its people matter. That’s something they are increasingly failing to achieve under the weight of internal and external pressure.
At the same time, though, it would be a clear example of a carrot-and-stick approach that could be used as a building block for future negotiations by a U.S. administration desperate to be seen as not appeasing the Islamic Republic.
In his new national security adviser, Robert C. O’Brien, President Trump has someone who believes that — like O’Brien’s predecessor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — the United States must take a tough line on Iran.
The only difference is that O’Brien has shown a sincere willingness to engage Iran directly. He is also intimately aware of the problem of Iran’s state-sponsored hostage-taking. As Trump’s special envoy on hostage affairs, O’Brien had considerable success bringing wrongly detained Americans home from foreign custody — with the exception of Iran. But it wasn’t for lack of trying.
As hostage envoy, O’Brien made numerous overtures to Iranian leaders to kick-start a potential prisoner swap. The Iranians responded that they would only engage in negotiations with higher-level U.S. officials. Suddenly it would appear that O’Brien fits that description almost perfectly.
Iran has a severe image problem, and the uptick in hostage cases in recent months is making it worse. Families of current and former Iran hostages — including my own brother — will be at UNGA again this year to raise the issue.
Earlier this month, the news broke that three Australian citizens — two of them U.K. dual nationals — are being held in Iran on unfounded national security charges. The international community (especially governments that have tried to build productive ties with the Islamic Republic) are growing weary of a particularly toxic Iranian habit over the past four decades.
The countries of the West are becoming more inclined to consider concerted action to solve the problem of Iranian hostage-taking. It will be a topic of serious discussion this week in New York.
What Iran’s hostage-taking and the United States’ extreme sanctions regime have in common is that they both target the lives of innocents, who are being needlessly hurt by policies that have been built on lies.
Erasing these evil twins from the repertoires of Tehran and Washington will not solve the many problems that exist between the two states. What it will do, though, is incentivize both sides to be more responsible and less destructive at a time when the international community sorely needs that.
Iran’s abduction of foreign nationals to extract concessions, and the U.S. government’s use of economic sanctions that cause anguish among the Iranian people, are both policies that are impossible to justify.
Perhaps there was a time when a government could hide behind its own rhetoric. Today, though, the astoundingly unconvincing arguments offered by Iran and the United States on these two issues prove that era is over. We have too much insight into the thinking of the powers behind these moves and the human toll exacted by these policies to claim ignorance. Attempts to rationalize them are equally ridiculous.