Sabre rattling and ratcheting up tensions is the dominant discourse between Iran and the US. The BBC was yesterday full of talk of whether war had become inevitable. A US attack could make problems in Iraq look like a sideshow. There are plenty of hardliners on both sides who would welcome such an attack, as it would strengthen their positions. It could lead to the declaration of an emergency government in the country that could keep the hardliners in power for a decade.
Diplomacy is currently framed around carrot and stick. There is some engagement, but there is also a process of demonisation on both sides. The US has designated the foreign wing of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organisation. The Iranian parliament for its part has voted that both the US military and the CIA are terrorist organisations. This is not the climate in which deep political differences are accommodated.
The US administration believes the Republican Guard will be weakened by the sanctions. They control a third of the country's economy. The US move will deter foreign countries from dealing with them for fear of economic retaliation by the former. The latest economic pressure from the US, rather than bringing internal collapse in Iran, could further deepen the polarisation and the escalation of a military solution.
For the West, this seems a perfectly logical argument, but it misreads the mindset of the Iranian elite who are consumed with the asymmetry of power. They, seeing themselves as embodying a proud and ancient civilisation, regard the US as their equals. They are deeply mistrustful of Western governments who they believe have set the agenda for too long. While the current regime in Iran with its revolutionary ideology makes a full relationship with the West problematic, there is still room for stabilisation, mutual understanding and negotiations.
The US and Iran have now met on two occasions to discuss Iraq, breaking a taboo of not communicating for 30 years. But the atmosphere is one of suspicion and there have been recriminations on both sides. A process of continuous engagement is required, to allow both sides' genuine security anxieties to be addressed. Anything less is a high-risk policy. When power and strategic interest are mixed in the cauldron of mistrust, suspicion and extreme sensitivity, this brew can lead to war.
Understanding what motivates the other is key. Iranians are much more multi-faceted and complex in their thinking than is often communicated. They are proud not to lose face in the world and – with good reason – historically extremely sensitive to external intervention. Equally, the isolated Iranian regime lacks analysts who understand the mindset of the US administration. At present, the US, mindful of the 1979 hostage crisis, is growing impatient for a resolution of Iran's nuclear issue.
The potential for misunderstanding is huge. I recently attended a meeting of senior Iranian and US decision-makers to discuss the nuclear crisis. They were on parallel trajectories, intent on the rightness of their own case. Neither side seemed to understand each other's fears or genuine concerns. It was a dialogue of the deaf. The Iranian senior diplomats had been brought up during the Iranian revolution and talked of justice, symmetry of power and not being pushed around, and the negotiations taking place on a level playing field. The senior US official seemed genuinely affronted by the Iranian position and was mistrustful of being manipulated.
This kind of encounter could make negotiations seem futile and strengthen the voice of those calling for war, but Western diplomacy, if it is to mean anything, must seek dialogue with those who do not think like us.
In 2003 the Khatami government discussed a secret "Grand Bargain" with Swiss interlocutors at the time of the fall of Saddam Hussein. In return for US security guarantees of non-interference, the end of sanctions and the opening of the possibility of joining the World Trade Organisation, Iran offered support for a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine in which it said it would accept the 2002 Beirut Declaration, in which the Arab League endorsed this objective. It also offered to give up supporting terrorist groups. The US government, fresh from toppling Saddam Hussein, showed no interest in responding.
This was over four years ago in a different political climate – but there is still much to talk about. Chaos in Iraq and in Afghanistan is not in the interests of Iran, which, convinced that the US is trying to destabilise the current regime, wants a non-intervention pact. Iran has recently stated it will accept a solution to the Palestine-Israel conflict which is acceptable to the Palestinians. As things stand, Western expectations are unlikely to be satisfied.
Diplomacy that leaves Iran feeling cornered is more likely to lead to a more dangerous escalation than a climbdown. An offer that allows it to extricate itself with dignity, such as the recent ElBaradei proposal of a firm timetable for Iran to clear up controversies about her secret nuclear activities while improving access for the IAEA inspectors is less likely to lead to confrontation.
There is a real danger of a path to accidental war or contrived confrontation. The immediate situation calls for safety nets to be put in place to contain this possibility: hot lines, shuttle diplomacy, direct channels of communications and a regional summit that addresses the security concerns of all parties.
Western diplomats are not going to take the risk that Iran does not have nuclear ambitions nor any regional ambitions. Paradoxically in response to fear, engagement rather than confrontation is critical. It will need to be robust, sustained and long term in spite of the nuclear anxieties. Ultimately, it would need to be based on inclusive security architecture that addresses common interests, irrespective of ideological differences. These players may not be natural allies but there can be pragmatic accommodations.
Gabrielle Rifkind, a specialist in conflict resolution, is a consultant to the Oxford Research Group
Further reading 'Making Terrorism History': Scilla Elworthy and Gabrielle Rifkind (Random House, £3.99)Reuse content