The relationship between the United States and Iran has never been an especially good one. The best that can be said about the last 40 years is that the two countries have avoided a conventional war. Sure, there have been flare-ups and cases of asymmetric conflict—think of the “tanker war” in the late 1980s and Tehran’s sponsorship of Shia militias in Iraq. But Washington and Tehran have always found a way to lower the temperature before tensions get out of control.
If ever there was a time when the thermostat could be turned down, it is today. The U.S. and Iran have been trapped in a rapid series of escalations that nearly resulted in American airstrikes on Iranian soil last month. Civilian tankers have been sabotaged in the Persian Gulf, mortars have been launched in the direction of bases where U.S. troops are stationed, an American drone has been shot down, Tehran’s oil sales have declined by roughly 86 percent since April 2018, and senior U.S. officials have settled on a strategy that largely consists of making the lives of the Iranian people as miserable as possible until Tehran signs a better nuclear deal. Just this week, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei blasted America and the West as arrogant, using his own Twitter feed to send Washington a message of defiance and resistance.
If there is any direct communication between American and Iranian officials, it is hidden from public view. All of this has made Senator Rand Paul’s initiative to open dialogue with Tehran urgent, necessary, and prudent.
According to a July 17 story in Politico, Paul recently pitched himself to President Trump as a possible presidential emissary to the Iranians—someone who could sit down with Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif and begin a conversation on the issues that have nearly resulted in military conflict. Trump apparently accepted Paul’s pitch while the two were on the golf course last weekend. His decision, while not yet confirmed by the White House, suggests that Trump is slowly beginning to recognize the deficiencies of the maximum pressure policy that National Security Adviser John Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and outside counsels like the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Mark Dubowitz have peddled for years. Far from forcing Tehran’s surrender, economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation have yielded more Iranian aggression. Iran is now a wounded animal backed into a corner, ready to fight rather than submit. The chances of a clash have increased substantially.
In a town filled with tough talkers who see foreign policy as an extension of domestic politics, Rand Paul is one of those strange creatures who is willing to throw himself in front of a bus for the sake of preventing a war. His foes (of which there are many, from Bill Kristol and Lindsey Graham to Marco Rubio and Liz Cheney) use the lazy isolationist epitaph to paint him as a gadfly on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. But at his core, Paul is neither a gadfly nor an isolationist. The junior senator from Kentucky is a non-interventionist who has the audacity to search for diplomatic solutions before doing what most of his colleagues on Capitol Hill would have long preferred—involuntarily reaching for more punitive options.
This isn’t the first time Paul has tried to create space for dialogue with a U.S. adversary. Last year, when so much as talking to a Russian was universally frowned upon by the political class, Paul flew to Moscow and delivered a letter on behalf of President Trump to Russian parliamentarians. A month later, he introduced an amendment that would have lifted travel restrictions on Russian lawmakers if Moscow did the same for their American counterparts. The amendment was a small and reasonable gesture that removed largely symbolic sanctions in order to encourage Americans and Russians to familiarize themselves with each other. It was lambasted in committee and killed.
Paul’s latest initiative with Iran could run into the same brick wall. The fact that the arrangement was leaked to the media is an indication that somebody in the Trump administration is totally opposed to the idea and wants to bury any potential conversations with the Iranians before they begin. One can almost picture John Bolton, holed up in the White House basement, hearing the news and frantically ordering his minions on the National Security Council to expose it in the press.
There are also practical questions that need to be answered. With Zarif only in New York for another few days, does Paul have the time for a one-on-one meeting? Would the Iranians be interested in meeting with the senator, even if he does have the president’s ear? Or is Khamenei, still seething over the administration’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal and watching his government’s oil exports disappear, dead set on banning any contact with the Americans for as long as Trump remains in the Oval Office?
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Organizing a backchannel with the Iranians could be difficult, in large measure because it will be fought tooth-and-nail by the usual suspects. But Rand Paul’s potential role as an envoy should be pursued. After all, it isn’t like the hawks have such a great track record.
Daniel R. DePetris is a foreign policy analyst, a columnist at Reuters, and a frequent contributor to The American Conservative.