President Donald Trump’s last-minute decision late last week to stop a planned attack on Iran, in response to Tehran’s downing of an American spy drone, provides an opportunity for Washington to take a fresh look at the deepening crisis in the Gulf. White House’s second thoughts are of a piece with the conflicting signals from Trump on Iran over the last two years. Trump seemed to have sided with the Iran hawks at home to pull out of the nuclear agreement that his predecessor Barack Obama, along with other major powers, had negotiated with Iran. Israel and a section of the Sunni Arabs were egging him on. Trump then embarked on a “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran by ramping up sanctions to cover Iran’s lifeline, the energy sector. This effort has been widely viewed as an attempt to overthrow the Islamic Republic.
Even as the war party in his own administration, led by the national security adviser, John Bolton, has been itching for a military showdown with Iran, Trump has presented himself as the champion of the peace faction. During his campaign for presidency and since, Trump has repeatedly criticised America’s endless wars in West Asia. Much of his political base in America’s heartland is unwilling to support another war in West Asia after the costly failures in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is no surprise, then, that the world has seen on the one hand a steady drift towards a military conflict with Iran, and on the other, President Trump’s frequent call for an unconditional dialogue with Iran. After he reversed the decision to attack Iran, Trump said he appreciates Iran’s restraint in not shooting down a spy plane with about 30 security forces that was in Iran’s range along with the unmanned drone. He seemed to have encouraged the Japanese premier, Shinzo Abe, who was in Tehran earlier this month, to convey his interest in engagement with Iran directly to the Iranian leadership. But Iran has apparently turned down the offer.
Tehran is betting that it can afford to wait. Although Iran is hurting amidst new sanctions, it is playing the few cards it has with some effect. Last month, Tehran set a 60-day deadline for scaling back its compliance with the nuclear agreement, if other powers don’t abide by its terms. This is deepening the divisions between the US and Europe, which has affirmed the value of the nuclear agreement. As Washington threatens to escalate the conflict vertically, Tehran has promised to escalate it horizontally — expand it to cover the regional allies of the US. This, in turn, has widened the split among the Gulf Arabs. Direct talks between the US and Iran might be the only way to de-escalate the current tensions in the Gulf, devise a new framework for a stable regional balance while limiting the four decades of conflict between Washington and Tehran. Finding the terms of that direct dialogue will obviously be a significant challenge.