Both the US and Iran appear for now to be holding back from a direct military confrontation, judging from the comments heard on all sides. On Tuesday, May 14, US President Donald Trump said: “We don’t want a war with Iran.” The next day, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said: “The Iranian nation has chosen the path of resistance.” The most revealing comment came on Friday, May 17, from Qatar’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani after a visit to Tehran: “A red desk should be set up in Iraq or Qatar with officials from the two sides… to manage tensions.”
All these remarks confirm the suspicion that American and Iranian officials are already in secret conversation in Baghdad or in Doha, although engaged in nothing more than a start on “talks about talks” – a far cry from ordering a slowdown of their threatening military movements. Therefore, flareups are still on the cards, including such incidents as the presumed Israeli air or missile strike on Iranian and Hizballah sites south of Damascus on Friday night, May 17. It may be taken for granted that Israel would have cleared with Washington in advance any attack on Iranian targets in Syria.
Even if US and Iranian officials achieve enough progress in their preliminary talks to lift the war clouds hanging over the Middle East, they would still face major hurdles on the path to negotiations on the substantive subjects at issue. The easing of crippling US sanctions will top Iran’s agenda, as it has for Kim Jong-un after his two summits with President Donald Trump, and also most likely for President Vladimir Putin when he met Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Sochi last Tuesday, although the trade war with China takes place on a different plane.
Up until now, Trump has stuck fast to sanctions as the most powerful weapon in his foreign policy toolbox with regard to Iran, North Korea, China and Russian, in the hope that one of those powers will blink first and the others will follow. That has still not happened.
Trump confronts Tehran with his tallest order: Halt malign meddling in the affairs of Middle East nations, especially, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen; give up your nuclear weapons and ballistic missile development programs; and return to the table for talks on a revised nuclear pact. However, although the sanctions against Iran are harsh, Khamenei is a tough survivor and confident enough to believe that he can outlast his adversary in the White House.