After months of mounting fears of an armed conflict between Iran and the United States, a different outcome may now be possible. The headlines have been screaming about Iran’s interference with shipping in the Gulf of Hormuz, its downing of a U.S. drone and controversial missile tests, as Tehran escalated tensions in reaction to America’s imposition of crippling sanctions.
Iran’s provocations have garnered the lion’s share of attention. But it’s also clear that it is exploring an alternative strategy: the possibility of new talks with the U.S. aimed at ending the confrontation.
That was made clear in a Guardian report earlier this month: Iran is interest in negotiations with the U.S. that would alter the 2015 nuclear deal. This contradicted Iran’s previous insistence that it would not talk unless President Donald Trump first rescinded the sanctions he had re-imposed on them after withdrawing from the pact last year.
But interest in this possibility really picked up when it became known that Trump had effectively appointed Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) as a mediator, and allowed him to speak with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif to feel out about the prospects for bilateral negotiations.
While that’s as far as the two sides have reportedly gone to date, it raises the possibility that Trump’s "maximum pressure" policy may be working. Iran’s economy is tottering and, as The New York Times reported earlier this year, the regime’s terrorist auxiliaries are, along with the Iranian people, feeling the pain of Trump’s sanctions, leaving the regime with a difficult choice.
Both the Europeans and former secretary of state John Kerry have advised Zarif to wait out Trump, in the hope he will be defeated in 2020 and be replaced by a Democrat who will rejoin the nuclear deal and lift sanctions.
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But it’s possible that the theocrats in Tehran are now calculating that waiting another 18 months for sanctions relief is a risky proposition, both in terms of their economy and keeping a lid on a restive population.
Iran’s leaders also know that Trump has a reasonable chance of being re-elected. They may have concluded that if they can’t scare the West into budging on sanctions, and will have to talk to the U.S. eventually anyway, they may get a better deal out of Trump now - rather than after he is re-elected.
Yet if the Paul-Zarif talks are just the start of a new diplomatic process, that raises the question of where these negotiations leave Israel and Trump’s ardent Jewish and evangelical supporters - who have cheered his Iran policy as lustily as his move of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem - when the dust settles?
Up until now Trump has done no wrong in the eyes of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and American Jewish right-wingers. But they also know that Trump has two factions fighting to gain his ear on Iran.
The "maximum pressure" policy has been enthusiastically implemented by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton, and cheered on by Netanyahu.
But as much as Trump rightly derided the nuclear deal as a disaster, and heaped scorn on Obama’s bargaining skills, he shares neither the Iran hawks’ interest in regime change nor their willingness to risk war to halt Tehran’s quest for regional hegemony.
Right-wing critics of the tough Iran policy, like Senator Paul and Fox News Channel personality Tucker Carlson, can tap into Trump’s neo-isolationist "America First" instincts, as they compete to influence his choices. Reportedly, it was a conversation with Carlson that persuaded Trump to abort at the last minute a U.S. military response to Iran’s downing of a U.S. drone - ignoring Bolton’s advice.
An improved nuclear deal with Iran may not be possible. That why some Iran hawks believe toppling the Islamist regime is the only real end game.
International sanctions had imposed hardships on the Iranians when they were forced to negotiate with Obama and Kerry in 2013. But they put up a tough front, convincing U.S. officials that it would be impossible to ram through the nuclear and military restrictions Obama had promised in his 2012 re-election campaign. Eager for a deal at any price, Obama agreed to leaving Iran with a sophisticated nuclear program, as well as sunset clauses that kept open the future development of a nuclear weapon anyway.
But if Tehran has concluded that it must talk with Trump, it’s going to have to give him something in exchange for ending the sanctions. Trump would then tout any concessions as a triumph for his re-election campaign. And if the Iranians offer him something substantive, such as ending the sunset clauses, that would have to be considered a genuine achievement.
But even if Trump is able to substantially improve the nuclear deal, that wouldn’t come close to fulfilling the Iran wish list of Netanyahu and pro-Israel U.S. conservatives. That includes items like forcing them to end funding for terrorism, as well as ending their entire nuclear and missile development programs.
So any new Iran deal may turn out to be a bitter disappointment to Bolton and the Israelis, not to mention Trump’s Jewish and evangelical donors and supporters.
Could that endanger Trump’s support from these quarters?
A new nuclear deal that is perceived as a betrayal of Israel’s interests would undermine the argument for Trump among the pro-Israel community. That’s especially true if Paul and Carlson become more influential in determining Trump’s foreign policy than Pompeo and Bolton.
But most of the president’s supporters are not likely to think Israel would be better off with one of the Democrats currently running for president even if Trump turns out to be not quite the godsend some of them believe him to be.
Like some in the Netanyahu government - who may be deluding themselves into thinking that better relations with Russia or India will give Israel more diplomatic room to maneuver outside the alliance with the U.S. - Trump’s supporters have nowhere else to go, if he disappoints them on Iran.
In the meantime, in the battle for influence inside the White House, Netanyahu and his American friends and political allies will continue to cheer for the Iran hawks to prevail over the neo-isolationists.
But what they are learning is that the success of Trump’s sanctions brings with it the possibility of diplomacy that could bitterly disappoint them.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS (the Jewish News Syndicate) and a contributing writer for National Review. Twitter: @jonathans_tobin