The Independent | Negar Mortazavi : Since President Trump pulled the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal last year, Iran has remained in the deal and abided by its commitments under the agreement. In the face of economic sanctions and mounting pressure from Washington, Tehran has not yet reacted directly and threats from Iranian officials have mostly been in rhetoric. Iranian moderates have tried to rally Europe, a key supporter of the nuclear deal, against Washington to defy economic sanctions. And Iranian hardliners, who have always opposed the nuclear deal and engagement with the West, seem to have been mostly contained until now. But much has changed over the course of the past year and Iran is now signaling that it might shift gears soon.
It is no longer just Iranian hardliners who are vocal against the United States and Europe. Moderates are slowly joining them. And unless there is a breakthrough in the Trump administration’s policy towards the country, it’s clear Tehran will continue to move further away from the West.
I spoke to the Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at Iran’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations in New York a few days ago. He told me that, although he doesn’t think war between Iran and the United States is imminent, “accidents can happen” that then spiral into a military conflict. And it was apparent that he was here in the United States in an effort to prevent that.
I asked Zarif about these “accidents” and he gave the example of the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz, a strategic waterway where most of the world’s oil exporters pass through. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) control the Strait of Hormuz on the Iranian side and communicate with ships going through this narrow passageway. A lack of this vital communication can easily lead to conflict. Concern over this was heightened recently by President Trump’s designation of the IRGC as a terrorist organization and Iran’s retaliation in designating the US Central Command similarly.
Zarif also mentioned the January 2016 incident in the Persian Gulf when two US Navy boats entered Iranian waters and were captured by the IRGC. Back then, Javad Zarif and his American counterpart John Kerry had a direct line of communication following their two years of nuclear negotiations. That direct line let the two top diplomats control the situation, secure the quick release of American sailors, and prevent a potential escalation. But today there is no such line of communication between the Iranian foreign minister and US Secretary of State. So a similar incident in the Persian Gulf could quickly get out of hand.
It was only two months ago that Zarif suddenly resigned in his last attempt to push back against hardliners like IRGC Quds Force Commander Ghassem Soleimani, who controls Iran’s military presence in the region and is seen as a shadow foreign minister. Zarif’s resignation was not accepted by the President and he was brought back to work in a renewed vote of confidence from the Supreme Leader. Now he looks more confident — but also closer to hardliners in his position.
Iran’s top diplomat has told me and other American media outlets in the past that he has the authority to do a prisoner swap between Tehran and Washington. He told me during our recent conversation that the prisoner swap would be with the United States, between Americans detained in Iran and Iranians detained for sanctions violations in the US or elsewhere. The swap, he elaborated, would not include Europeans like British-Iranian dual national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who has been detained in Iran for three years. This is the first time that Zarif has made this proposal publicly, although he says Iran has previously suggested it in private without any response from his American counterparts.
If it comes to fruition, this would not be the first prisoner swap between Tehran and Washington. During negotiations between Iran and the United States which ultimately led to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, there was a direct prisoner exchange between the two countries. Donald Trump was a vocal critic of that exchange — and that has put him in a difficult position today.
While here in the United States, Zarif implied that he wants to reach out directly to the American public and warn them of the possibility of another war in the Middle East. The foreign minister made a long speech at the prominent New York organization Asia Society, had meetings with American journalists, spoke with researchers at think tanks, academics, and influential Iranians living in the United States, and also gave a round of sit-down interviews to various American television channels and media outlets.
His most unusual interview was with Chris Wallace at Fox News. It seemed like a move calculated to grab President Trump’s attention. How else to do that, after all, than by appearing on his favorite channel?
I asked Zarif about the interview and he said he wanted to reach out to Trump’s base in mainstream America “because it is important to speak to the other side sometimes”. He added that this was not his first interview with Fox and that he had talked to the channel years ago when he was Iran’s ambassador at the United Nations in New York.
Zarif said on Fox that what he calls the “B-Team” is trying to drag President Trump into conflict with Iran. He explained that the B-Team includes Trump’s National Security Advisor John Bolton, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, and United Arab Emirates Prince Bin Zayed. He emphasised that President Trump ran on a campaign promise of not bringing the US into another war.
It’s unclear how the interview was received in the White House, but it certainly made waves in Iran. Prominent Iranian moderate Mostafa Tajzade praised Zarif in a tweet which read: “Talking to America’s most right-wing channel is a sign of Zarif’s self-confidence. And targeting the warmongers Bolton/Netanyahu/Bin Salman is smart. Our diplomatic vehicle must use every opportunity to defy dangerous threats against Iran.”
Iranian reformist journalist Ruhollah Nakhaee tweeted in a similar vein: “The B-Team (Bolton, Bibi, Bin Salman, Ben Zayed) has a loud voice and Trump is even louder. But Zarif’s voice from Iran shows the world that we are the ones who still know the manners of talking, are the ones who have patience for bullies, and are the ones who are still at the negotiating table.”
While Washington and Tehran continue to exchange threats and the Trump administration ramps up its maximum pressure campaign on Iran with increasing economic sanctions, the main losers in all of this are the people of Iran. Lest we forget, this is one of the most pro-Western societies in the Middle East, comprising people who voted twice for a president who ran on the promise of diplomacy and engagement with the rest of the world. After the nuclear deal was struck, everyday Iranians had high hopes for a better economic future and a return to the world market.
With the current Trump team in the White House, specially with John Bolton and Mike Pompeo in charge of Iran, there is little hope for engagement between Washington and Tehran. However, not all hope is lost. Most Democrats running for president in the 2020 election have pledged to return to the Iran nuclear deal if they win. So Iranians will be following the upcoming American election with particular interest: it could, after all, affect the lives of people in Iran just as much — and possibly even more — than the people who go to the ballot boxes.
Negar Mortazavi is an Iranian-American journalist and commentator based in Washington. She is a Consultant Editor for The Independent.