Even the most inexperienced commander knows not to escalate without having de-escalatory options at hand. That is the most troubling issue with National Security Advisor Michael Flynn’s harsh “notice” to Iran yesterday in response to Tehran’s ill-advised missile test. Flynn’s statement may have been bluster. The Donald J. Trump presidency is only a few days old and there is pressure to signal its firmness and the approach it will take in the Middle East. But bluster without having established a channel for de-escalation is profoundly dangerous, and it is likely to increase rather than decrease the administration’s challenges with Iran.
Most pundits and journalists have pressed the White House to specify what it would do in case Iran continues testing ballistic missiles or aiding Houthi rebels in Yemen (a connection that Flynn greatly exaggerated in his statement). Will the U.S. fire at Iranian vessels in the Persian Gulf? Will it impose new sanctions? Will it walk away from the Iranian nuclear deal?
But the more important question is not how the U.S. will escalate, but how it will calm down the situation once it has achieved its yet-to-be revealed objectives. This is what remains unclear.
It is disappointing but unsurprising, given Trump’s campaign and his chosen advisors, that this administration has begun its tenure by raising tensions with Iran without first having established lines of communication with the higher echelons of the Iranian leadership. Twitter is not an acceptable line of communication for U.S. leadership to engage the world. The Obama administration did the opposite ― it first tried to establish strong, authoritative channels before it made any positive gesture or issued any threats.
These lines of communication not only helped secure a nuclear deal that prevented both war with Iran and blocked Iran’s potential paths to a nuclear weapon, but the channels also proved crucial in securing the freedom of 10 U.S. sailors after they had accidentally drifted into Iranian waters. Instead of a standoff that could have taken months to resolve, the Americans were released unharmed within only 16 hours.
The Trump administration does not have any such channels and has not bothered to create them either. While former Secretary of State John Kerry developed an extremely useful rapport with his Iranian counterpart Javad Zarif over the course of two years of negotiations, this channel has not been handed over to Secretary Rex Tillerson (who wasn’t confirmed by the Senate until Wednesday).
And even if an attempt was made now to put it in place, it would begin under the worst circumstances precisely because Trump’s first communique to Iran was a threat. Moreover, Iran is hypersensitive to American signals as it enters the early phases of its political season. The history of U.S.-Iran relations in the past 35 years is ripe with examples of how such tough talk is more likely to cause Tehran to dig in its heels than to cause it to back down.
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Kerry secured the release of the 10 American sailors precisely because he did not engage in such language. As I reveal in my forthcoming book Losing an Enemy ― Obama, Iran and the Triumph of Diplomacy, Zarif was first informed about the 10 American sailors as he was leaving a theater in Tehran. His first concern was to ensure that the U.S. wouldn’t make any public threats against Iran as that would dramatically complicate their release and force him to adopt a much harsher position. As Zarif likes to say, Iranians are allergic to threats. “Knowing the United States,” Zarif told me, “the language they’d use would be ‘Iran must release our guys.’ And then Iran would take it as a threat. And then we would have responded, and then this whole thing would have taken a life of its own.”
Fortunately, he already had a scheduled call with Kerry that same evening, so there was time to convey this to Kerry before he would address the media. “Do you know the story?” Kerry asked. “Had you not called, I would have called you,” Zarif replied. Kerry pressed Zarif to quickly release the sailors, arguing the incident otherwise would jeopardize both the nuclear deal, which was nearing “Implementation Day” when sanctions would be lifted in return for Iran’s completion of initial nuclear steps, as well as the secret prisoner swap that was in the making. Zarif, in turn, pressed Kerry not to issue any public threats. If Kerry’s message was, “Don’t let this unravel the nuclear deal,” Zarif’s argument was, “We don’t want the sailors, so don’t force us to keep them by making threats.”
Zarif and Kerry spoke to each other five times that day. Instead of making threats, the Obama administration kept its cool and quietly negotiated the sailors’ release. Clearly, the Iranians were cooperating, and the channels of communication were open and effective. President Obama saw no value in raising the issue in the State of the Union Address, even though the news had broken. By contrast, his critics rushed to declare that it was the start of another hostage crisis and portrayed him as weak, indecisive and foolish, all the while blatantly ignoring the intrusion of the sailors into Iranian waters. “The fact that you have an active conversation going on diplomatically means you’re not going to be talking about this,” a White House official explained.
Had Kerry acted like Flynn, it is possible these 10 Americans could still be stuck in Iran. The prisoner exchange likely would have fallen part, resulting in a prolonged imprisonment for former Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian and several American citizens. And it is extremely difficult to imagine any nuclear deal coming to fruition while American sailors are detained ― torpedoing the Iran deal and leaving the U.S. and Iran on a path to war.
Rather than following Kerry’s successful diplomatic path, Flynn has put the U.S. in an escalatory cycle with no clear exit. Iran is likely to respond to Washington’s notice with another provocative measure, which in turn will beget yet another ― and perhaps a more tangible ― threat from Washington. At some point, what started off as bluster, may turn into a real military conflict or even open warfare precisely because Flynn and the Trump administration prioritized threats over direct diplomacy.
Amateur hour at the Trump White House continues.