The Iranian regime believes it prevented a U.S. president’s reelection in 1980 and likely assesses that it can do so again. The consequences of such an attempt in 2020 are unpredictable and dangerous, as political considerations might preclude a sober assessment of interests.
An Iranian October surprise could take several forms. Even without killing more Americans, Iran could take Americans hostage, renew its attacks against energy shipments and infrastructure across the Gulf, attempt to force an embarrassing U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, provoke Israel into a wider conflict, or declare a nuclear breakout capability and withdraw from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Any of these efforts would likely return the United States and Iran to a path toward escalation and military conflict.
We hope the administration is developing contingency plans for each of these scenarios — and seeking to prevent them. Direct talks are unlikely, however, because neither Tehran nor Washington wants to risk being the first to make a concession.
Given this impasse, U.S. partners in the Gulf must step forward and lead the region toward de-escalation. There is precedent for such efforts: A 2001 security agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran helped prevent active conflict for 10 years despite deep mutual mistrust. Back-channel talks between them took place last year, reportedly without U.S. support, and likely still continue. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi should launch formal negotiations with Tehran immediately. The Trump administration should then offer full public support.
The immediate, achievable objective should be a time-limited nonaggression agreement between Iran and its Arab neighbors, narrowly focused on the geography around the Persian Gulf. Such a commitment might rule out strikes on shipping, coastal facilities and energy infrastructure; restrict cyber-strikes on similar targets; halt unprofessional high-speed approaches against naval vessels in the gulfs bordering the Strait of Hormuz; and reaffirm the requirement for ships in the area to turn on their automatic identification systems.
Our Arab allies would then propose a more substantive series of confidence-building measures between the United States and Iran and offer to serve as intermediaries. Such measures might include Iranian restrictions on its missile and drone deployments in the Gulf region, reductions in U.S. and Iranian naval operations and combat air patrols, and a withdrawal of some of the additional U.S. forces recently deployed to help defend Saudi Arabia.
This mutual tactical de-escalation would give President Trump a justification to test Iran’s willingness to dial back more strategically, even before the U.S. election. This could mean rolling back a carefully selected tranche of sanctions. In a prearranged act of soft reciprocity, Iran should then have the public justification it needs to suspend any further movement out of the 2015 nuclear agreement and to constrain its proxies in Yemen from firing missiles into its neighbors’ territory.
This limited outcome wouldn’t solve all problems, but it would get everyone through the year. Washington would avoid further escalation with Iran and bring some U.S. troops home from the region, two repeatedly stated Trump goals. It would also largely preserve the administration’s strategic approach of “maximum pressure,” which it believes will only strengthen its hand over time.
This outcome should meanwhile appeal to Iran because it would prevent a potentially catastrophic crisis for the regime. Moreover, critical decisions would be pushed until after the U.S. election, when the circumstances Tehran faces may have fundamentally changed. Or, if Trump is starting his second term, Iran will be in a position to negotiate, having already established the precedent of rolling back some U.S. sanctions while also having strengthened its links with U.S. partners in the region.
The Saudis and Emiratis should find this especially appealing, since they would avoid being caught in the crossfire of a U.S.-Iran war, which could have disastrous human and economic costs. Moreover, their leadership here would help improve their international reputations, which have been battered by the war in Yemen.
A limited agreement on Gulf security would not automatically lead to a wider deal, but it could get the parties to the table in 2021. At that point, Arab allies could call upon the United States and Iran to join a negotiating framework made up of a broader set of relevant nations to more comprehensively address the regional security situation, including Iranian nuclear, missile and other malign activities. To prime the pump for those negotiations, the United States could grant limited waivers to permit some Iranian oil exports to selected countries.
None of this will be possible, however, if current trends continue and Iran unveils the kind of October surprise that risks escalation and war. All parties have an interest in avoiding that path. First steps in the other direction need to be taken by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.