Iranian leaders have past form when it comes to testing limits, then seeking overtures. That time is now
After tensions between the US and Iran came close to boiling over a few weeks ago, both sides have moved to lower the temperature. Yet they remain on a collision course, even though no one would benefit from another war.
US President Donald Trump has repeatedly said he wants to talk, even reportedly providing telephone numbers through Swiss intermediaries.
But will Washington and Tehran be able to talk as long as Mr Trump is in the White House?
Yet Iran has a long history of seeking a way out of intense pressure when its leaders realise they have no alternative.
After years of insisting it would not negotiate with Iraq, Iran did precisely that in order to end the grinding war between the two countries in 1988. Facing biting sanctions in the 1990s, Iran promised to stop assassinating political opposition figures in Europe.
Tehran sought an assurance it would not be next after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. And facing sweeping international sanctions in 2011 and 2012, the regime agreed to initiate talks that eventually led to the signing of the 2015 nuclear deal, which Mr Trump withdrew from last year.
So while the Iranian regime is highly ideological and, in many respects, fanatical, it is neither unrealistic nor suicidal. When things get bad enough and there is no other way out, it is willing to talk.
Things are getting pretty bad for the regime now.
The “maximum pressure” US sanctions have crippled an already shaky Iranian economy and Washington is beginning to re-engage in regional struggles such as Syria, from which it once appeared ready to withdraw. Even Iranian proxies such as Hezbollah admit that they, too, are experiencing a financial crisis.
Mr Trump has made it clear that a blatant attack would result in a firm military response.
That is why Tehran was careful to test American resolve through low-intensity operationsthat are unlikely to result in a direct reprisal, such as the attacks on international commercial tankers off the coast of the UAE, or using the Houthis in Yemen to launch attacks against Saudi Arabia.
Iran’s preference and initial strategy was to wait out the Trump administration and hope for a new and less hostile government in Washington after the 2020 election.
However, there is a good chance that Mr Trump could be re-elected, and there is certainly no guarantee that any other US administration won’t simply pick up where he has left off. There is, realistically, no possibility of simply returning to the Obama-era nuclear deal, even though Iranian and European powers are still trying to pretend it remains viable.
Indeed, Iran has threatened to effectively pull out of the agreement itself if Europeans do not start compensating Tehran for economic losses inflicted by the US sanctions.
Such threats, and even talk of pulling out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, are Iran’s own version of “maximum pressure” and they are not completely ineffective, since no one wants either a war or a nuclear-armed Iran.
The 12 conditions laid out by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo aren’t going to be considered an acceptable starting point by Tehran, which regards them as tantamount to regime change. But Mr Trump has made it clear that regime change is not his goal and even recently said all he seeks is “no nuclear weapons” in Iran.
This means that there is a window of opportunity for Iranian leaders to try to seek some version of the nuclear deal they originally struck with Barack Obama with his successor, coupled with an undertaking to curtail its destabilising interventions in the Arab world.
Mr Trump has demonstrated through several trade agreements that he is quite willing to denounce an existing agreement as the worst thing ever, tweak it slightly, change its name and then claim to have authored an unprecedented breakthrough.
Given the fact that his much-trumpeted diplomatic overtures to North Korea never achieved anything for the US and now appear to have completely collapsed, he might be looking for an alternative foreign policy “victory” to take into the next election.
But Iran’s leaders might be too intransigent and extreme to seriously explore what’s possible with this most volatile and unpredictable of American presidents. The opportunity is obvious and there is no shortage of potential mediators, beginning with Russia. Yet Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has spent his whole career railing against compromise and negotiations and now, under intense pressure, he has now reverted to form.
Still, if they were convinced Mr Trump might be in power for the next five years, backdoor negotiations would probably be much further along than they currently appear.
As things stand, if Iran’s leaders were willing to be flexible and seriously discuss not only nuclear issues but the possibility of curbing their destabilising interference in the Arab world with Washington, it is perceivable that they could reach an agreement with Mr Trump.
But they will probably continue to try to wait him out in hope of something better come 2020. If so, it is a reckless gamble and, at its own peril, Tehran will allow an important window of opportunity to slam shut.