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Secretary Tillerson, It’s Time to Phone Iran

Why did the Trump Administration shut off diplomatic communications?
donald trump javad zarif iran

When ten American sailors found themselves captives of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps in the Persian Gulf last year, then-Secretary John Kerry secured their freedom in less than sixteen hours. He used a remarkable instrument to score this stunning victory: A telephone.

Within hours of their capture, Kerry had his Iranian counterpart, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, on the line. They spoke five times that evening, but they already had a deal by the second call. The subsequent conversations served to handle logistical issues and resolve problems and misunderstandings that arose along the way.

For instance, at one point U.S. Navy ships and helicopters were approaching the Iranian island where the sailors were kept. “Please tell your navy not to get close,” Zarif told Kerry, his tone revealing the urgency of the matter. “We don’t want a military confrontation. But if your planes get close, we will have serious trouble.” Kerry immediately hung up and called General Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to urge him to pull back. “We’re risking potential escalation here,” Kerry told the general. “They were giving us positive indications that they are gonna release these guys, so we should back off the helicopters for now and test if this is real.” Dunford complied, and a dangerous confrontation was avoided. To prove that the sailors were safe, Zarif emailed a picture of them from his Gmail account to Kerry’s State Department email.

It had taken two years of intense discussions and negotiations for Kerry and Zarif to build the rapport that enabled them to so quickly resolve unforeseen crises such as that of the U.S. sailors. But once the channel of communications and the rapport had been established, its utility and efficiency was unquestionable. Indeed, the sailors’ incident could have ended up as another prolonged hostage crisis. Instead, most Americans have not even heard of their mishap.

Today, there are many unforeseen crises that risk bringing the U.S. and Iran—indeed, the entire Middle East—into direct confrontation. The U.S. and Iran have a shared interest in defeating ISIS in Iraq, but after the fall of Mosul, the balance of their interest may lead them in a more confrontational direction. A similar dynamic is playing out in Syria, where the U.S. already has shot down Iranian drones and bombed Iranian-sponsored groups. Moreover, tensions in the Persian Gulf are rising as Saudi Arabia appears to have received a green light from the Trump administration to double down on confrontation and bullying.

Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates had no illusions about the end goal of the Saudis. The Saudis always want to “fight the Iranians to the last American,” he told his French counterpart in 2010. Since then, the Saudi appetite for a U.S.-Iran war has only grown.  

Despite these hotspots, the Trump administration and Secretary Rex Tillerson have allowed the hotline with Tehran to go cold. Despite the significant risk of war, not a single phone call has taken place between Tillerson and Zarif. Not a single attempt at resolving the tensions diplomatically has been made.

When asked about diplomacy with Iran during his visit to the Saudi kingdom, Tillerson said that he had no plans to reach out to Iran, although he didn’t rule it out in the future.

That is simply not good enough. It is the foremost responsibility of the President and his administration to keep America safe and to only put American servicemen and women in harm’s way once all other options have been exhausted.

On both of these counts, the Trump administration doesn’t just fail, they fail abysmally because they haven’t even tried. The United States is about to sleepwalk into yet another devastating war in the Middle East without a debate as to whether such an escalation lies in the U.S.’s national interest, and without the Trump administration even giving lip service to diplomacy. Other potential foes in the world observe this behavior as they consider the payoff of peaceful engagement with the U.S. versus conflict. Do we want to send those actors the message that the U.S. shoots first and asks questions later?

The George W. Bush administration at least had the decency to lie to the American public when it sold the electorate the Iraq War. And however skewed and faulty, the Iraq War was preceded by a debate and a vote in Congress. Though President Bush eschewed diplomacy, he nevertheless presented a deeply flawed case as to why diplomacy no longer was an option. Trump and Tillerson simply don’t even bother.

The Trump administration’s recklessness is endangering America and putting American servicemen and women at risk. If Tillerson was supposed to be the adult in the room steering Trump in the right direction, he needs to start to act the part.

Before the escalation with Iran reaches a point of no return, diplomacy must be given a chance. That responsibility falls on Mr. Tillerson. The former Exxonmobil CEO has Zarif’s number. It’s time he places a call.

Trita Parsi is the author of Losing an Enemy – Obama, Iran and the Triumph of Diplomacy. He is the president of the National Iranian American Council.