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Trump is going to have to decide what he wants from Iran

Does the president want regime change in Tehran – with the risk of war? A substantially reworked nuclear deal? Or a tweaked deal that has his name on it rather than President Obama’s?

It’s a good thing that President Donald Trump thought twice about hitting Iran late last week.
It’s a good thing that President Donald Trump thought twice about hitting Iran late last week.
REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

What comes after President Trump’s almost-attack on Iran to retaliate for the downing of a U.S. surveillance drone?

Maybe diplomacy. Leaders on both sides appear to be casting around for an acceptable formula to start talking.

It’s a good thing that Trump thought twice about hitting Iran late last week. Even though the United States and Iran probably would have contained the conflict, hotheads on both sides and lots of weapons in a confined area make for a bad combination. Things could easily spin out of control.

Trump made himself the humanitarian hero of this drama by declaring that a projected 150 Iranian deaths would be disproportionate. Fair enough. But there are enough questions about how we got within minutes of a military strike on Iran to make heads spin, both here and in Tehran.

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Why didn’t the possible death toll come up earlier? Did the president finally have to choose between his own excessive rhetoric and the views of his hawkish advisers on one side, and his distaste for another war?  The U.S. did conduct a cyberattack on Iranian targets, and Trump says more sanctions are coming. It would be foolish to think that the danger of armed conflict has passed.

But there also has been another theme coming from the White House – Trump’s support for making “Iran great again,” his expression of appreciation that Iran did not target a manned aircraft, his repeated declarations that he wants to talk to the Iranians.

In Tehran, there’s a good chance Trump comes out of this looking wobbly. Iranian officials of course have paid attention to Trump’s North Korea policy, too. This all suggests that Iran will try to keep the pressure up (while trying to keep it from going too high), to see if Trump really wants to talk and what kind of deal they could get.

Much is unclear on the Iranian side, as well. Perhaps, as the New York Times reported, the Iranians did send a message saying a tactical commander overreacted in shooting down the drone. There is still some doubt about who was responsible for attacks on a couple of ships in the Persian Gulf – the U.S. rush to accuse Iran notwithstanding — but it is not unreasonable to think Iran was behind them.

After initially hunkering down as Trump dramatically increased pressure, Iran appears to have concluded that it needs to try to force the issue. Sanctions are hitting hard, and although it’s unlikely the Islamic Republic will collapse, Iran expert Suzanne Maloney at the Brookings Institution says Iranian leaders have concluded they can’t sit back and wait Trump out.

If that’s true, then the point of putting Persian Gulf shipping at risk is to cause economic jitters and force up the global price of oil – at least causing more uncertainty at a point when Trump has just launched his re-election campaign. That strategy has worked in the past, but is seeming less successful now because of changes in energy markets, including increased U.S. production and a shift to renewables.

Iran has been quite public about its plans to ditch part of the nuclear agreement – which of course Trump did last year.

Trump will face sharp domestic criticism whatever policy he follows on Iran. In fact, BBC diplomatic correspondent Jonathan Marcus raises the possibility that Iran might be pursuing a “regime change” policy of its own – causing Trump enough grief that it damages his re-election chances.

Ayatollah Khamenei publicly has ruled out new talks with the United States, but several experts don’t buy it.

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Maloney points out that Iran has been talking to possible intermediaries, there have been public calls in Iran for talks without conditions, and that officials have floated the possibility of exploring prisoner exchanges as a start.

Writing in Politico this weekend, Ray Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations argues that the whole point of Iran’s recent actions is to restart talks. To do so, it needs to come in not as a supplicant, and shooting down a drone without incurring a military response provides cover.

A summit, à la Trump’s meetings with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, would be a surprise. But lower-level talks or negotiations carried out through an intermediary such as Oman are possible.

Takeyh says Iran is confident that if its diplomats get in the same room, they expect outside pressure for a deal to pile up on the Americans. Maloney believes that starting small on direct bilateral issues might pay off. Susan Rice, President Obama’s national security adviser, sets out her own blueprint to restart negotiations here.

Trump is going to have to decide what he wants. Regime change in Tehran – with the risk of war? A substantially reworked nuclear deal? Or headlines and a tweaked deal that has his name on it rather than President Obama’s?

The mere fact that talks are going on tends to make armed conflict less likely. That’s probably enough; anything else could be beyond reach. Trump has surrounded himself with people who aren’t much interested in negotiating, unless it ends in something that would look to Tehran like surrender. And the president, as he has shown once again, isn’t the type to actually craft a careful long-range policy and then implement it.