The momentous protests in Iran this autumn came at a delicate time in a tense standoff between the United States and Iran. Despite the recent prisoner swap, officials in Washington may see the prospects for diplomacy dimming. But that would be wrong. Iranian elections are coming, and without any American agreement to relent on sanctions, the current relatively conciliatory government might well lose all its influence in favor of far more confrontational hard-liners.
That calculus makes this exactly the time to take diplomacy seriously. While the opportunity for success may be slim, failing to reverse rising tensions now risks a serious escalation in frictions that would be more impervious to diplomacy down the road.
At first glance, it appears that Washington and Tehran have drawn diametrically opposed interpretations of the upheaval’s causes and consequences, rendering any effort at de-escalation unlikely. The unrest, triggered by an abrupt hike in fuel prices, quickly evolved into a violent nationwide revolt against the ruling order. The Trump administration saw the austerity measure as a direct result of its “maximum pressure” policy, and cried success. In their minds, the stifling impact of sanctions had prompted public ire, and could soon persuade Iran’s leaders to alter their domestic and foreign policies in order to retain power.
To Washington hawks, that is a strong argument against throwing Iran a lifeline by negotiating a deal; they believe that the United States could get concessions if it were to further tighten the screws. And their perception of Iranian vulnerability is only reinforced by the anti-Iran tenor that partly characterizes popular protests now taking place in Lebanon and Iraq.
Conversely, even those among the Iranian leadership who concede that the sanctions have effectively driven a wedge between the state and society see the extensive looting and arson that occurred as the work of agitators trained by the United States and its Middle Eastern allies. The Trump administration’s expressions of support for the protesters and evident satisfaction at the turmoil then gave that accusation some credibility, exacerbating Iran’s paranoia. In the days after the protests broke out, official circles in Tehran began citing a claim by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey that Ankara had intercepted intelligence regarding a plot to bring down the Islamic Republic.
Iran’s rulers believe that they crushed an American plot when they crushed the unrest quickly and decisively, and that by doing that, they have rendered President Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign far less effective. The leadership is also confident that it has demonstrated its determination to defeat any challenge to its hold on power, having killed more than 300 protesters and completely shut down the internet for more than a week. This, coupled with attacks in recent months on oil tankers and energy infrastructure in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which the United States and its allies have attributed to Iran, is treated in Tehran as a demonstration of their power at home and throughout the region.
This implies that, whatever the prisoner swap accomplished, the protests have further diminished opportunities for diplomacy. But if the absence of diplomacy points toward a direct military confrontation, both Washington and Tehran should rethink their positions.
Why negotiate now? On Jan. 6, 2020, Iran is scheduled to take yet another step in rolling back its compliance with the 2015 nuclear accord that the Trump administration has left. This time it might resume enriching uranium to a 20 percent level, which is dangerously close to weapons grade. That could push European signatories to support a snapback of United Nations sanctions. Tehran has already threatened that it will counter such a step by withdrawing from both the nuclear deal and, more important, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty –- steps that North Korea took before developing its nuclear arsenal.
Tehran could also continue to orchestrate attacks in the region that would not give the United States a clear case for war. Mr. Trump’s aversion to responding to such provocations has taught the Iranians that their risks of backlash are limited and manageable. Some in Tehran even argue that Iran could absorb any American military retaliation, and that the closer the United States gets to the threat of all-out war with Iran, the more it will consider returning to negotiations. As the economic situation in Iran worsens, the leadership may feel it has little to lose and little to fear — a dangerous combination.
The electoral calendars in the United States and Iran add another layer of complexity. President Trump, increasingly bogged down by impeachment proceedings and his re-election campaign, might be more averse to a political backlash from ordering sanctions relief. Without economic reprieve, his Iranian counterpart, President Hassan Rouhani, is bound to lose the Parliament to his hardline opposition in February, further reducing his ability to generate a consensus within the Iranian system for a deal with Washington. And Mr. Trump should not put too much stock in Iran’s troubles in Iraq and Lebanon. The longer those crises drag on, the more they will turn into a problem for Washington as much as for Tehran.
If President Trump is interested in a deal with Iran, now is the optimum time. There is no immediate prospect of a change in Tehran’s government structure, and further instability in Iran will only render deal-making nearly impossible. The Rouhani government remains Trump’s best bet, and there is only a small window before “maximum pressure” completely sidelines it.
Iranian leaders should realize that a successful crackdown does not guarantee that protests won’t break out again. They have to address the country’s economic woes, and the Islamic Republic cannot expect halcyon stability under unending draconian sanctions. Public patience with economic hardship is wearing thin; the political cost of the government’s “resistance economy” is onerous.
The president of France, Emmanuel Macron, and Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, have tried to bring the United States and Iran to the negotiating table. Drawing on their proposals, it is still possible to pursue a narrow cease-fire, during which Tehran would agree to constructive engagement on nuclear issues and a de-escalation of tensions in the region, in exchange for a limited but meaningful reprieve from American sanctions. Such a step would be a necessary prelude to the broader deal Mr. Trump is calling for.
However, the window for diplomacy is rapidly closing. If de-escalation is not achieved before Iran’s parliamentary elections in February, its odds of success are likely to drastically diminish. With both sides locked in a cycle of escalation, it can soon become too late for diplomacy to take off.
Vali R. Nasr is a professor of Middle East Studies and International Affairs at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. Ali Vaez directs the Iran Project at the International Crisis Group and is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University.