How backdoor negotiations could help avert an Iran-US war

How backdoor negotiations could help avert an Iran-US war
5 min read
21 May, 2019
Comment: Iraq, Qatar or Oman could all offer a forum for backdoor diplomacy to help de-escalate tensions between the US and Iran, writes Dr Ali Bakeer.
Mounting Iran-US tensions have sparked growing international concern [AFP]
In his tweet last week, Hashmatullah Falahat Pishe, head of the Iranian parliament's national security and foreign policy committee, called for dialogue between Iran and the US.

His call for both sides to sit face to face "to manage the escalating tensions in the region" came just days after he and many Iranian officials underscored that no one in Iran is going to be picking up the phone to Trump.

Hashmatullah pointed out that some regional powers could play a role in hosting dialogue between Tehran and Washington, naming both Iraq and Qatar as candidates for this mission. Soon after Pishe's call for dialogue, Iran's supreme national council dismissed his message saying "remarks by an individual should not be taken as a statement of policy".

The council was probably referring to earlier statements by the Supreme Leader Ali Khaminei, in which he said that "there will be no war and no negotiations" with the US.

Despite the disclaimer, it seem thats the message that Tehran is not seeking an escalation, and would rather open channels to contain the rising tensions, has been understood. Echoing Pishe's message, Reuters caught a senior US administration official who declined to be named, saying "We think they should de-escalate and come to negotiations".

Despite their apparent hostility, both sides have, in the past, resorted directly and indirectly to backdoor diplomacy in hard times, from Jimmy Carter's time, to Obama's.

Last week, the Trump administration engaged with a wide range of allies and friends in Europe and the region, including Iraq, Qatar and Oman, to send Iran a clear message: "Don't escalate, instead come to the negotiation table."
Muscat has established itself as a credible and trusted backchannel between Iran and the West
The US president openly declared that the goal is to bring Iran back to the table and re-negotiate the nuclear deal.

From his perspective, the only viable option for doing this, given Iranian stubbornness, is to increase the political, economic, and military pressure on Tehran.

The US administration is also employing psychological warfare very efficiently, by sending mixed signals in rhetoric and on the ground. The US' conflicting messages aim to confuse the Iranian regime, and allow it to believe that Trump is willing to do everything, including things Iran previously considered off the table, such as war.

On 11 May, Qatar Amiri Flight A7-MBK landed in Tehran's Mehrabad Airport with a high-level official on board and spent few hours in Iran before heading back to Doha.

It turned out that, during the undeclared visit, Qatar's foreign minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani held talks with his Iranian counterpart, intended to open new avenues for resolving the crisis between Iran and the United States, and to ease the volatile situation.

Similarly, on 20 May, Oman's foreign minister, Yousuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah made a surprise unannounced visit to Tehran to meet with his Iranian counterpart, Javad Zarif. His visit comes after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called Oman's Sultan Qaboos bin Said last week, and discussed Iranian threats to the Gulf region more broadly.

Although Trump signaled his preference for Switzerland to play the facilitator between the US and Iran, there are several other nations that could possibly assume the same role.

Given Iraq has good ties with both Iran and the US, and has no interest in getting drawn into a deadly conflict between its closest allies, Baghdad is in a good position to host a potential dialogue between the two parties.

In 2007, Iraq also hosted rare US-Iran direct talks, but much has changed since then and Baghdad may not be ideal, given recent US orders for its 'non-emergency' government employees to leave.

Oman could serve as another possible back channel between the Trump administration and Iran. It is one of the very few countries in the region which has enjoyed perenially good relations with Iran. Over the years, especially in difficult times, Muscat has established itself as a credible and trusted backchannel between Iran and the West, mainly the US.

The GCC country has helped several times to navigate issues involving Iran, and successfully managed to convince Iran or its proxies to release British and American hostages.

Muscat also paved the way for secret US-Iranian talks that later led to the nuclear deal, by offering the right venue to conduct this dialogue. Despite these advantages, the Trump administration may prefer to avoid Oman because of the role it played during the Obama administration, or because it considers it closer to Iran than required.

Qatar on the other hand could provide a suitable middle ground for both sides.

Qatar on the other hand could provide a suitable middle ground for both sides

Traditionally, mediation has been a pillar of Doha's foreign policy. This role has guaranteed the Gulf emirate significant influence and contributed to its soft power over recent decades.

Qatar also enjoys excellent relations with the United States and its Al-Udeid base hosts the largest US military facility in the Middle East.

Although Doha and Iran are not on the same page when it comes to several regional issues, their bilateral relations improved about two years ago when the Saudi-led bloc imposed a blockade on Qatar, and Tehran rallied its support for Doha.

These facts mean that, unlike countries such as Saudi Arabia and UAE which preach war, Doha has a direct interest in de-escalating the tensions and preparing the ground for direct talks between the two sides.

Read more: Taking the US and Iran off collision course

Furthermore, if Doha manages to facilitate direct talks between Iran and the US, or to provide the appropriate venue for the presumed dialogue, this would certainly add to the list of reasons why the blockade should be ended.

Regardless of which country will assume the ultimate role in diffusing the mounting crisis, the negotiation table is clearly preferable to a possible war.

It remains to be seen, though, how Iran will save face by accepting such an invitation for dialogue after rejecting it, and whether the Trump administration will make this possible by not overstating its terms.

Ali Bakeer is an Ankara based political analyst/researcher. He holds a PhD in political science and international relations. His interests include Middle East politics with a particular focus on Iran, GCC countries and Turkey.

Follow him on Twitter: @alibakeer

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.