July 27, 2019
Surprising new signs are emerging that President Trump’s controversial “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran could set the table for new negotiations toward a better agreement.  
 
To get there, however, President Trump will have to navigate the greatest perils in US-Iranian relations in recent memory, something he has done so far with a military restraint that has confounded his critics and gained him praise for “prudence” even from Iran’s foreign minister. 
 
Since late April, when the Trump administration ended waivers for eight countries that allowed them to continue to buy Iranian oil, Tehran’s exports have nosedived to some 300,000 barrels a day from more than a million previously. Its economy has shrunk by 6%, and its currency has lost 60% of its value over the past year. 
 
The immediate impact of that escalated US economic pressure has been the most dangerous ratcheting up of Iran’s threatening activities in memory, which one senior US official explains as Tehran “punching its way toward new talks.”
 
Iran has begun to breach the nuclear deal’s enrichment restrictions, it shot down an American drone, and it now has seized a British tanker. This week, Tehranannounced plans to execute a ring of alleged CIA spies.
 
Beyond that, Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen have been using drones and missiles provided to them by Tehran to strike Saudi targets such as airfields, pipelines and pumping stations. Iranian trained and financed Shia militias are firing rockets at US bases, and Israeli security officials have told former US official Dennis Ross that the Iranian-backed group Islamic Jihad is trying to provoke conflict with Israel in Gaza.
 
None of that may look much like a prelude to the return of Iran to the negotiating table, except that Iranian officials in the last few days are showing an unexpected and public willingness to talk. Past patterns have shown that Iran never likes engaging from a position of perceived weakness.
 
Talking to US journalists, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif last week floated the idea of a deal that would have the US easing sanctions and Iran agreeing to a tougher nuclear protocol. Then he met with Senator Rand Paul, a self-appointed US mediator. 
 
The New York Times’ Farnaz Fassihi also reports on what she regards as an intriguing split among Iranian hard-liners on how to deal with President Trump between those who have long ruled out any dealings, including the country’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, known in Washington for his Holocaust denial and anti-American and anti-Israeli fervor, as well as other conservatives clerics and officials close to the revolutionary guards who are advocating for negotiations with the US.
 
“Mr. Trump is a man of action,” Mr. Ahmadinejad said. “He is a businessman and therefore he is capable of calculating cost-benefits and making a decision. We say to him, let’s calculate the long-term cost-benefit of our two nations and not be short-sighted.” He conceded the issues went far beyond the matter of the nuclear agreement and would require “a fundamental discussion.”
 
Given both the present perils and the emerging potential, it’s time to transform President Trump’s maximum pressure into diplomatic activity. It’s also time to provide a more common front on Iran by taming transatlantic tensions, moderating Washington’s partisan bickering and toning down Trumpian tweets so that all parties can better leverage the indisputable economic bite of sanctions into a deal that better contains Iran and avoid war.
 
It really doesn’t matter anymore whether you believe President Trump never should have withdrawn from President Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran in May 2018, and instead should have done more to leverage it with allies and through sanctions for a better deal. (My view.)
 
It also doesn’t matter whether you believe President Obama never should have entered such a significant agreement without more effort at bipartisan, Congressional approval. Or that US engagement with Iran failed to address the present danger of Iran’s use of regional proxies, support for terrorists or ballistic missile development. (Also, my view.)
 
That’s water under the bridge.       
 
The question now is a larger one: What’s the best course to address the largest security challenge in the Middle East, now that the danger of an ISIS caliphate has been wrestled down. Iran’s nuclear ambitions had been an accumulating danger, but its Arab and Israeli neighbors all along argued that their more immediate worries were Tehran’s destabilizing activities in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Gaza – which continue.
 
Even President Trump’s fiercest critics concede US unilateral sanctions have reduced the resources Iran can invest in malign activities. Intelligence intercepts and news reports have confirmed that. The world is far from the better agreement the Trump administration wants with Iran, reaching from its nuclear activities to is regional behavior, but the wallet Teheran wields is smaller.
 
“The US is looking for a change in behavior,” said Brian Hook, the State Department’s Special Representative for Iran, at an Atlantic Council event last week alongside Bahrain’s foreign minister, Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa. “Iran would not like to change its behavior, so we are constraining its decision space through our sanctions and deterrent actions. Iran faces a choice. They can accept the diplomatic offramps we have offered over the past year, or watch the economy continue to collapse.”
 
Lay aside all the transatlantic and domestic differences that have poisoned the Iran debate, and one is left with a simple question: how can one best alter the Iranian regime’s cost-benefit analysis and render unsustainable its support for proxies, terrorism and nuclear arms ambitions?
 
Hard as it may be for Democrats and some Europeans to swallow, it would be better to circle the wagons than let differences cloud this opportunity. Hard as it may be for some in the Trump administration to accept, it is time for talks where maximalist positions will need to be compromised.
 
President Trump’s maximum pressure and Iran’s escalating responses have increased the risks of conflict. They have also brought a new chance of resolution that may become the most significant test yet of President Trump’s ability to transform his disruptive foreign policy into positive outcomes.

This article originally appeared on CNBC.com

Frederick Kempe is president and chief executive officer of the Atlantic Council. You can follow him on Twitter @FredKempe. Subscribe to his weekly InflectionPoints newsletter.
 

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