In coded diplomatic missives, in messages sent through intermediaries and in statements from their leaders, both Iran and the United States have signalled their desire to step back from a confrontation that had sparked fears of a wider conflict – at least for now.
But the events of the past week have dashed any small hope of diplomacy that might have eased tensions between the two enemies.
The killing of top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani by the US, and Iran’s retaliatory missile strikes on American bases in Iraq have piled the pressure on a landmark 2015 nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers, which the international community had largely agreed was working.
In what was billed as an overture intended to de-escalate tensions, the US said on Wednesday it was ready to engage in “serious negotiations” with Iran.
In a letter to the United Nations Security Council, ambassador Kelly Craft said the US was ready to talk “without preconditions”, with the aim of “preventing further endangerment of international peace and security or escalation by the Iranian regime”.
It came hours after similar remarks by Donald Trump in his first public address since ordering the assassination of Soleimani, the leader of Iran’s Quds Force, a week ago.
“We must all work together toward making a deal with Iran that makes the world a safer and more peaceful place,” the president said, while blaming the 2015 nuclear deal for emboldening Iran in the Middle East.
But many were quick to cast doubt on the sincerity of his calls for talks, delivered in a speech in which he announced the US would be imposing “additional punishing sanctions” on Iran.
Tehran sharply dismissed the possibility, citing the killing of Soleimani and crippling US sanctions on the Iranian economy. Majid Takht Ravanchi, Iran’s ambassador to the UN, called the suggestion of new talks “unbelievable”, Iran’s state news agency IRNA has reported.
In what appeared to be Iran’s first official reaction to Mr Trump’s address, he was quoted as saying Washington had “initiated a new series of escalation and animosity with Iran” by killing Soleimani.
“As long as the US continues its hostilities, the talk of cooperation is not comprehensible and the Iranian people will not be deceived by such remarks,” he said.
Analysts, too, suggested that negotiations may not be a priority for Washington now.
Aaron David Miller, a former State Department analyst and negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations and senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, described Mr Trump’s speech as “a combination of crowing, accusing and explicit threats plus more sanctions. This is a speech for continued confrontation. And the message to the regime is change or else.”
“Even by reading tea leaves, coffee grinds and goat entrails, it’s hard to identify in Trump’s speech any trace of serious intention to negotiate with Iran. Only in America does the pendulum among the chattering classes go from World War Three to negotiations,” he said.
Mr Miller told The Independent that serious negotiations “require an enormous investment and a team of individuals who know what they are doing,” which the Trump administration has not put together.
Despite publicly showing a willingness for reconciliation, there appears to be little sign of a departure from the administration’s “maximum pressure” approach intended at forcing Iran back to the negotiating table.
Ali Vaez, director of the Iran Project at the International Crisis Group, said the “door to diplomacy has been shut for now”.
“There is no way that [Iranian] president [Hassan] Rouhani would meet with his American counterpart who ordered Soleimani’s assassination. And without the pageantry of a summit, Trump seems uninterested in dealing with Tehran,” he told The Independent.
What happens to the 2015 nuclear deal now, formerly known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is unclear. Mr Trump pulled the US out of the agreement in 2018, despite US allies insisting that it was succeeding in its primary purpose of halting Iran’s ability to acquire nuclear weapons. That move was seen as the starting point of escalating tensions between the Trump administration and Iran, which reached a crescendo this week.
The Trump administration has repeatedly called on other world powers who signed up to the deal to also abandon it, and Mr Trump did so again on Wednesday.
Vice-president Mike Pence doubled down on those remarks on Thursday.
“The president is going to call on our allies, in the days ahead, to join the United States to withdraw from the disastrous Iran nuclear deal and demand that Iran abandon its long history of sowing terrorist violence, abandon its nuclear ambitions and join the family of nations,” he said in an interview on Fox & Friends.
European powers have resisted such calls, however. Boris Johnson distanced the UK from its transatlantic ally on Thursday in a phone call with Iran’s president.
Mr Johnson’s spokesman said the prime minister “underlined the UK’s continued commitment to the [deal] and to ongoing dialogue to avoid nuclear proliferation and reduce tensions”.
The 2015 deal gave Iran sanctions relief in return for imposing restrictions on its nuclear programme. But the sanctions imposed on Tehran by Washington since the US abandoned the deal have led to Iran taking its own steps to withdraw from parts of the deal.
And in the aftermath of Soleimani’s killing, Iran announced that it will roll back its commitments even further, among them restrictions on the number of centrifuges it could operate and the level of uranium enrichment.
“The JCPOA has been in a coma since the US withdrawal from the nuclear agreement,” said Holly Dagres, a non-resident fellow specialising on Iran at the Atlantic Council think-tank.
“Having said that, it’s not dead. Iran has repeatedly said it would return to aspects of the JCPOA if the US lifts sanctions and/or returns to the deal.”
But, she added, the chances of that happening are slim.
“I don’t find the US calls for negotiations to be genuine, given that the Trump administration has continuously changed its preconditions,” she told The Independent.
“The administration has pursued a reckless and inconsistent policy that shifts depending on what side of the bed the president wakes up on.”
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