On Sunday, on an official trip to Switzerland, the US Secretary of State said that the United States was ready to talk to Iran “without preconditions”. This is an important statement, capable of initiating a pathway to peace between the two most militarily powerful nations in the Persian Gulf.
As absurd as it may seem, Washington has had no diplomatic relations with Iran since April 1980. In April 1981, Switzerland agreed to represent American interests in Iran.
In March 2009, a US president newly arrived in the White House had reached out to the Iranian government. Noting that anti-Western Islamic violence came more from Sunni people than from Shia Persia, Barack Obama began to normalize US-Iran relations. He also wanted to defuse any incipient nuclear arms race in the Middle East.
This White House initiative took time, but it was successful. In the presidential elections of June 2013, the Iranian people would elect, in the first round of voting, the moderate Hassan Rohani who campaigned on the theme of opening his country to the West. Secret negotiations between American and Iranian diplomats had begun in Oman.
This led to the international agreement on Iran’s nuclear ambitions, signed in Vienna on July 14, 2015. In exchange for a lifting of sanctions against Iran, Iran suspended its enrichment of uranium.
But Donald Trump decided to destroy the brilliant diplomatic edifice of his predecessor. Not only did he unilaterally renounce America’s commitment, he also undertook to strangle Iran economically, threatening retaliation against anyone who continued to buy its oil (an extraordinary extension of the extraterritoriality of American law).
His idea was to get even more than Obama had achieved. He wants Iran to give up uranium enrichment forever. He also demands that Iran loosen its hold over four Arab capitals: Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut, Sanaa.
The goals of the American president are very understandable. But will he reach them with the methods he deploys? It’s unlikely. Peoples have their pride. Few governments agree to negotiate with a tourniquet around their neck. Responding indirectly to the Swiss statement by Mike Pompeo, the Iranian president said that the prerequisite for any serious negotiations was respect.
Should we be reassured by the statements of the President of the United States and the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, both of whom have publicly stated that they do not want war? These declarations of intent are not a sufficient guarantee.
We had the same in Europe at the end of June 1914, after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo. But in the absence of energetic diplomatic initiatives, the Austrians, Germans, Russians, French, and British sleep walked off the precipice into the worst war they had ever known.
The world has still not finished paying the consequences of the war that the Americans unleashed in March 2003 by invading Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, whom they wrongly presented as a terrorist, and as posing a nuclear and biological weapons threat.
It is in the interest of America, its allies and all the countries of the Middle East not to provoke a new war in the region. Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah movement warned: an Iran-America war would spill out of the Gulf very quickly to reach the Levant. No one can guarantee that Russia and Turkey would not be tempted to get into it.
The risk of a broad conflagration exists. Explosives often go off by accident.
To avoid plunging the Middle East again into a big lose-lose game, Americans and Iranians must resolutely seek to build, together, the narrow path of constructive dialogue.
That requires secrecy – that is, no tweets. Secret diplomacy has the advantage of being able to move forward free from pressure groups. In Iran, there are the Guardians of the Revolution; in America, there is the pro-Israel lobby. The less a diplomacy is subject to domestic politics, the more likely it is to progress rapidly.
To begin this indispensable dialogue, Americans and Iranians need a reliable, honest broker. In June 2007, the Elysée, imbued with neo-conservative ideology, did not want to become one. Why would France not take on, today, such a diplomatic role?
This article was first published in le Figaro.