What does U.S. President Donald Trump want from Iran? According to his most recent statements, his chief concern is Iran’s nuclear weapons program. In a recent interview, he declared that if Iran’s leaders abandon their nuclear ambitions — ambitions they insist they do not have — he is prepared to do business with them. Yet the position of his administration is that the Tehran government must change its behavior across virtually the entire range of its foreign policies — and Trump withdrew from the multilateral agreement to cap that program supposedly because it was too narrowly focused on the nuclear issue and ignored other forms of Iranian misbehavior.
This confusion is troubling, but it is becoming dangerous as American and Iranian forces exchange blows. Tensions are rising between the two countries and de-escalation is difficult if not impossible when each side’s objectives are unclear. Washington and Tehran need to be talking to each other, sending clear messages and leaving nothing to chance or interpretation.
The situation in the Persian Gulf has become increasingly worrisome. The most recent downward spiral began in May with a string of attacks on commercial vessels off the Emirati port of Fujairah. Iran was blamed but denied involvement; a United Nations Security Council investigation has yet to identify a culprit. Then, earlier this month two other tankers were attacked; the United States released video that allegedly proves that Iranian proxies were behind the acts, but again Tehran denied being responsible.
Iran then downed an unmanned U.S. surveillance drone, which it claimed was in Iranian airspace; a charge the U.S. denies. Trump called off a retaliatory airstrike reportedly because it might have caused disproportionate deaths. Trump also suggested that a lower-level official authorized the downing of the drone. But signs of restraint were obscured by tough talk — Trump warned that “any attack by Iran on anything American will be met with great and overwhelming force” — and his administration’s decision to impose yet more economic sanctions, this time against Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and several other top officials, including Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. The U.S also reportedly authorized an offensive cyberstrike against computer systems run by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps that control rocket and missile launches.
Trump’s message was garbled yet again by his complaint that the U.S. is “protecting the shipping lanes for other countries” and suggested that he could halt U.S. naval patrols in the Strait of Hormuz. “All of these countries should be protecting their own ships on what has always been a dangerous journey,” Trump tweeted. Reportedly, the U.S. is designing a new program for international maritime security cooperation in the Gulf. If enacted, it would require countries that buy and sell oil in the region, such as Japan, to escort ships, place vessels at fixed positions in the region or provide maritime patrol aircraft. Knowing Trump’s views of alliances — made again clear upon his arrival in Japan for the Group of 20 summit — the Japanese government needs to start thinking about how it will deal with that request.
If this all sounds familiar, it should. Provocations, name calling, overtures for dialogue and promises to create economic opportunities — all part of the diplomatic dance between the U.S. and North Korea — are now being repeated with Iran. Trump talks tough — promising obliteration if necessary — but also insists that he wants to sit down with Iran’s leadership. He has invited Tehran to “start all over” and says that if Iran will give up its nuclear program we can “make Iran great again” and “become a wealthy nation again.” He can even envision a future in which the U.S. is “Iran’s best friend,” a statement that must have raised eyebrows in Riyadh and Tel Aviv.
Iran has resisted the president’s entreaties and instead said that it will begin to withdraw from its commitments under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA); U.S. outrage must be tempered by the fact that Trump already pulled the U.S. from that multilateral agreement.
In this situation, an interlocutor is needed. Iranian objectives are clear. It wants an end to crippling economic sanctions and respect for its sovereignty. But it is hard to know what the U.S. wants and mixed messages come not just from the U.S. government but from its ultimate decision-maker, the president himself. Moreover, the primary vehicle for such communications, the multilateral process that produced the JCPOA, has lost all credibility with the U.S. administration.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has a personal rapport with Trump and cordial relations with the Iranian leadership, may be the best person to assume this role, but his last overture ended in flames — literally. A successful G20 summit could both inspire Abe to try again and give him credibility with Trump to try again. It is a long shot, but optimism and energy are demanded now.