A Three-Step Guide to Deescalating the Conflict With Iran | Opinion

The last two months in the Persian Gulf have arguably seen more turmoil than the last two years. Each day seems to bring a new development, and regrettably, none are particularly helpful for de-escalating what has become a hairy situation.

In less than eight weeks, six cargo vessels have been damaged by mines attached to their hulls. A U.S. surveillance drone was shot out of the sky. An Iranian drone was downed in mid-air by the USS Boxer. An Iranian cargo ship laden with over 2 million barrels of crude was seized by British authorities off Gibraltar. And in the latest case, a U.K. vessel was taken into Iranian custody. The only good news thus far is that a wider shooting war hasn't started. If it weren't for President Trump's last-minute decision to call off U.S. airstrikes on Iranian soil last month, who knows where we would be.

Despite his national security team stocked with Iran hawks, Trump is reluctant to go down the warpath. This is for good reason: While nobody disputes U.S. military forces could significantly degrade Tehran's military capacity, Tehran would not easily surrender. Armed conflict serves the interests of no one—especially not Trump, who made a commitment on the campaign trail to prevent the United States from getting further bogged down in the Middle East.

Yet while Trump may not court a war, he is doing too little to avoid one. As former national intelligence officer Paul Pillar writes, the administration "is flailing in trying to get out of a box of its own making, and it sees no way to get out—other than the way it refuses to admit, which would be to reverse its own action that built the box in the first place."

The president needs to act—and fast. He can start by following a simple three-step guide.

Step 1: Appoint an envoy with power

News that Sen. Rand Paul pitched himself to Trump as an intermediary to the Iranians—and Trump's confirmation to the media that he gave his blessing to Paul's plan—is a slight opening of the door to a much-needed dialogue. It will be wasted, however, if the president doesn't bestow upon Paul or any envoy real power to negotiate.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif and President Hassan Rouhani won't waste their time talking to someone who isn't empowered to make decisions at the table. Trump will therefore have to make it loud and clear, both through his Twitter feed and his public remarks, that his envoy is the one, sole point of contact with Washington. If there is any ambiguity, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei will have very little—if any—confidence that authorizing diplomacy with Washington will be worth the effort.

Step 2: Be clear about what you want

To date, the Trump administration has been all over the place with its demands for Iran. Trump talks about getting a more fulsome nuclear deal that permanently prevents Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, while Secretary of State Mike Pompeo remains attached to his Christmas List of 12 demands, including a withdrawal of Iranian troops and militias from Syria and Iraq and a suspension of ballistic missile work. National Security Adviser John Bolton, meanwhile, speaks as if there is no point in negotiating with Iran at all. With so many conflicting messages from the same country, Tehran doesn't have the faintest idea of what Washington wants.

Trump can't allow this to continue. Using his appointed envoy as the messenger, the president should spell out in clear and specific terms what Washington's objectives are; what issues can wait for a time when the relationship is on a better footing; and what the U.S. is open to offering along the way.

Step 3: Start negotiating

The devil of any agreement is in the details. And like all negotiations, success or failure here will depend on whether both parties show the pragmatism, patience, and wisdom to take yes for an answer. But Washington and Tehran will not even reach discussions about the details if they fail to demonstrate the creativity to get talks off the ground in the first place.

A brand-new nuclear deal or grand bargain is likely too much of an ask at this point. There is simply too much mistrust between the U.S. and Iran for either country to sign on the dotted line.But defusing and stabilizing the current situation may be possible with a little give and take.

Any number of options are on the table. The U.S. could loosen sanctions by reissuing some of the crude oil export waivers that were previously rescinded in exchange for Iran returning to full compliance of the nuclear deal. At the very least, Washington and Tehran could establish communication channels at senior levels of their political and military establishments to quickly exchange messages rather than having to rely on third parties.

Whatever arrangements may or may not be available, it's imperative that a war in the Persian Gulf is avoided. Maximum pressure has been a maximum failure, and continuing the status-quo is a recipe for more tension. We have to try something new.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a columnist at the Washington Examiner

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​