France has a way out of the US-Iran impasse

Bloomberg | Hussein Ibish: Macron’s four-point formula is vague and aspirational, but it is the surest way to avoid war.

The U.S. and Iran are both looking for a diplomatic off-ramp from their intensifying confrontation. France may have found a way out. President Emmanuel Macron has developed a four-point framework that looks like a plausible basis for a resumption of US-Iranian dialog.

It is clear that, without talks, the Islamic Republic will not stop with its calibrated program of military provocations, which culminated in the strikes on Saudi oil facilities on Sept 14 that temporarily halved that country’s oil production. As with previous attacks on energy shipping in the Persian Gulf, the latest strikes restate Tehran’s consistent message: If we can’t sell oil, we’ll make sure nobody can.

Generating a crisis is Iran’s chosen strategy to restart diplomacy. But Tehran doesn’t want a war, knowing it will surely lose. Trump has made it clear he doesn’t want a conflict either.

But who will blink first? For more than a year, each side was convinced it had the upper hand, overvaluing its own leverage while underestimating the endurance of the other side. Iran believed it could wait out the Trump presidency in the hope that a more conciliatory administration would follow. The American strategy, since Trump abrogated the 2015 nuclear agreement, has been to exert pressure through economic sanctions and force the Iranians to negotiate a new and better deal.

The sanctions have severely damaged the Iranian economy, but the regime in Tehran has not shown any signs of bending. Recognizing the impasse, both sides have been looking for an opportunity to resume dialogue, but neither has been willing to make opening concessions.

Enter Macron.

At the G7 meeting in Biarritz in August, the French president came close to persuading Trump to meet Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif. At the United Nations General Assembly in New York last month, he came even closer to arranging a phone call between Trump and Rouhani.

Those failures belie the real progress Macron has achieved in creating a framework that Washington and Tehran might be able to accept as a basis for resumed negotiations.

Iran would again agree never to build nuclear weapons, and forswear other forms of aggression in its neighborhood. The latter may imply restricting some aspects of its missile-development. In return, the U.S. would agree to lift all sanctions imposed since 2017, freeing Iran to once again sell its oil and spend money.

It’s not as easy as all that. Rouhani reportedly backed out of the phone call after demanding that the U.S. lift all new sanctions before any talks. Hardliners in Tehran will resist any new dialogue. Iran hawks in Washington, like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, will likewise argue against any outreach until the Islamic Republic shows it is mending its behavior.

Some sweeteners will be required. As an initial inducement, France proposed giving Iran a $15 billion line of credit; Trump seems open to the idea. Can the U.S. also lift some sanctions in order to resume talks, on the understanding others will be removed only after an agreement is reached? Or would a promise to ease the pressure suffice? And what steps might Iran be willing to take on nuclear or regional issues to demonstrate its own good faith?

Once talks begin, it is not hard to see where the two sides may agree, and where the sticking points lie. In negotiations with the administration of former President Barack Obama, the Iranians had insisted on the ability to enrich uranium at low levels. Trump, too, may have to accept that some level of low and closely-monitored enrichment is unavoidable. Equally, it’s probable that Tehran would have to accept limitations on the range of its missiles, especially in terms of range.

The more difficult challenge will be getting Iran to scale back its support for terrorist groups and armed gangs in neighboring Arab countries—including Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq and the Houthis in Yemen—and to create a system of verification and enforcement of such terms. Such regional issues might only be resolvable through direct negotiations between Iran and its Arab neighbors, especially Saudi Arabia.

The biggest challenge for Washington and Riyadh right now is to prevent further Iranian attacks, given the likelihood that the next provocation might require a military response. Opening a dialog might accomplish that.

Macron’s formula is vague and aspirational, but it meets the basic demands of Washington and Tehran. Rouhani’s reluctant to deal directly with Trump could be overcome by holding new talks between Iran and all the P5+1 signatories to the 2015 nuclear deal. That would include the U.S., without giving the appearance of a climbdown by Iran.

Whatever its flaws, it’s hard to imagine a better off-ramp. Since the likely alternative is a devastating conflict nobody wants, the parties ought to take it.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.