Trump Should Seize Initiative on Iran and Back Macron's Daring Diplomacy | Opinion

If there is one word to best describe the U.S.-Iran relationship at the present moment, it is "tense." The two long-time adversaries are stuck in their respective corners, each doubling down on strategies of pressure and escalation in hopes of getting the other to blink first. Recent attempts at dialogue have functioned less as a genuine attempt at resolving disputes and more as a signal to win the war of perception.

De-escalation, of course, is exactly what is required. The situation as it now exists, with the U.S. and Iran shooting down one another's drones and sending military signals of a prolonged standoff, is unsustainable and dangerous. Neither the United States, Iran, nor neighboring countries in the Middle East would benefit from a miscalculation turning into a major confrontation. This is why French President Emmanuel Macron's decision to invite Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif to France last weekend—while world leaders were meeting in the same seaside town for the G-7—was wise. Searching for a diplomatic off-ramp before the situation becomes unsalvageable should be a top priority.

Just as notable, however, was President Trump's assent to the bold diplomatic gambit. Although Trump did not participate in the meeting, he reportedly approved of Macron's last-minute initiative—a suggestion that the president may be tiring of a maximum pressure policy that has resulted in much less than its boosters confidently predicted.

We should be under no illusion about how difficult it will be to arrive at an agreement with the Iranians. After three hours of talks with French officials, Zarif flew back to Iran with nothing more than a promise that discussions will continue. There are genuine disagreements between Washington and Tehran, and bridges are difficult to build on a foundation of 40 years of bad history.

And while Trump always appears open to negotiation, he remains surrounded by voices, like National Security Advisor John Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and U.S. Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook, who are fully invested in an all-sanctions, no-diplomacy strategy that aims to isolate and bankrupt Tehran. Thus far, the president has been willing to outsource his Iran policy to those in his administration who have spent their entire careers supporting regime change in Tehran. If Trump is sincerely committed to exploring a diplomatic framework with the Iranians, he will have to be willing to buck the very people who have sold him an empty bill of goods over the past year.

To date, the Trump administration's Iran policy has centeredcompletely on a flawed premise: that the tighter Iran's bank accounts are squeezed, the more desperate Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei will be to come back to the table and negotiate a deal that saves his regime from financial ruin. Washington's maximum pressure campaign is indeed having an economic impact on Iran: U.S. sanctions have plunged the country's crude oil exports from 2.5 million barrels per day in May 2018 to approximately 100,000 barrels per day in July of this year, a 96 percent decline. The International Monetary Fund has also projected a 6 percent contraction in the Iranian economy this year.

But these short-term economic effects of maximum pressurehave yet to translate into long-term and constructive changes in Iran's foreign policy behavior. Far from coercing Tehran and dragging Iranian officials back into negotiations on their hands and knees, Washington's pressure strategy is consolidating hardline support within Iran's political system; splitting the U.S. from our allies, none of whom seek a confrontation; and incentivizing aggressive action from Iran. It is no coincidence that Iran's sabotage of six tankers in the Persian Gulf and the seizure of three more occurred after the White House removed all oil waivers and issued sanctions on the Iranian petrochemical sector. Maximum pressure has produced minimal results on behalf of U.S. national security.

The blunt reality is that Iran will not bow to American pressure. Doing so only invites more pressure in the future.

That is why Macron's efforts at diplomacy with Iran are laudable. Unfortunately, they will likely fall short if Trump won't reassess his own policy.

There are deals on the table, including the reinstatement of some U.S. oil sanctions waivers in exchange for Iran's return to full compliance with the nuclear deal and the end of its sabotaging of civilian tankers in the waters of the Gulf, which Trump should consider.

Admittedly, any arrangement made will be open to negotiation,and it will be imperfect by its very nature.

Yet the status quo is a far worse alternative—one that traps U.S.-Iran relations in permanent hostility and adds more tension to an already dangerous situation.

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.