U.S.-Iran Stare-off Needs to End | Opinion

On February 21, IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi traveled to Iran and struck a deal with the government to allow the nuclear watchdog to inspect Tehran's nuclear program for another three months. The arrangement delays what would have been an escalation in the standoff over Iran's nuclear activities, providing U.S. and Iranian negotiators more time to explore the resumption of diplomacy.

If the Biden administration is serious about deescalating with Iran, it needs to take bold and creative steps to move the process forward. This means dropping its current demand that Iran re-commit to the nuclear deal before the U.S. does the same and looking beyond the nuclear sphere for additional diplomatic opportunities.

While the agreement between Iran and the U.N.-backed International Atomic Energy Agency gives a slight reprieve to further confrontation, three months is a relatively short period of time in the annals of diplomacy.

Despite the Biden administration's recent announcement that it is willing to enter into talks with the Iranians, Washington's position on the Iran nuclear issue remains uncompromising: The U.S. will only re-enter the nuclear agreement after Iran takes the first step.

Biden's diplomatic opening aside, the U.S. sanctions which formed the backbone of the Trump administration's failed maximum pressure campaign are still in effect. The Iranians, unsurprisingly, are not only opposed to Washington's proposition—and have been ever since it was first suggested weeks earlier—but view the entire notion of making the first move hypocritical given Washington's unilateral withdrawal from the deal three years prior.

Tehran's current position is just as unrealistic as Washington's. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif's expectation that the U.S. lift all nuclear-related sanctions before Iran returns to full compliance is a non-starter in the Beltway.

Tehran's position gets more untenable with every Iranian violation, whether it's enriching uranium to 20 percent purity or challenging IAEA access. No U.S. diplomat worth his or her salt would recommend this approach, both because it would cause intense opposition within the bureaucracy and because the trust deficit between the U.S. and Iran is so low that U.S. officials don't have the confidence Tehran will actually do what it says.

While both sides returning to the nuclear deal is the right policy, this common-sense exit-ramp will remain out of reach as long as U.S. and Iranian officials continue to joust in front of the cameras and talk past each other. The only way this is going to work is if Washington and Tehran take steps together, where the U.S. lifting of oil and banking sanctions is synchronized with Iran shipping out its large stockpile of low-enriched uranium and disassembling its advanced centrifuges. To ensure the process is running smoothly, both sides will need to agree on a credible third-party mediator to verify compliance and keep both parties true to their commitments.

Iranian flag
Iranian flags flutter in the southeastern Iranian coastal city of Chabahar, on the Gulf of Oman. ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images

The U.S. would also be wise to not let differences over the nuclear agreement get in the way of other deescalatory measures it can take with Iran. As important as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is, it should not define the U.S.-Iran relationship as a whole. Ultimately, preventing miscalculations and unnecessary aggression that could lead to a costly war in the Middle East is the top U.S. policy priority.

Maintaining some semblance of communication with Iranian officials is a critical part of the formula. Claims that dialogue with Iran is a reward for bad behavior not only misinterpret the concept of diplomacy but increase tension to a more alarmist level.

For starters, the U.S. should not hesitate to launch separate negotiations with the Iranians over prisoners, an issue both countries have been able to discuss with some success in the past. According to the Iranian Foreign Ministry, both countries have used the Swiss as intermediaries to pass messages on prisoner issues since the Biden administration came into office. Those conversations should continue until all Americans under Iranian custody are back home with their families.

President Biden should also task his new special envoy, veteran diplomat Robert Malley, to explore the feasibility of establishing some confidence-building measures with the Iranians in the Persian Gulf region, an area that has witnessed numerous standoffs between the U.S. Navy and Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in the past.

While ship-to-ship communications are vital in the event of close encounters, they aren't sufficient in the heat of the moment. To the extent possible, U.S.-Iran engagement on deconfliction and crisis management needs to be institutionalized so senior officials on both sides can reach one another quickly if an incident erupts.

Let there be no mistake about it: The U.S. and Iran won't be best friends anytime soon. There will be no reset buttons pressed between these two nations.

Neither has an interest in conflict. Promoting diplomatic resolutions to problems and managing antagonism may be the best both nations can do. This in itself would be a victory.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow with the Defense Priorities think tank, columnist at the Washington Examiner and a contributor to The National Interest.

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