Mousavian agreed that Iran doesn’t “want war” but added that Iran had abided by the nuclear deal for the past two years while only getting more sanctions and pressure in return, and “this trend can’t be continued.” He urged UN Secretary-General António Guterres to lead an effort to establish military-to-military communication channels between Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the United States so that the parties could at least avoid misunderstandings and stumbling into conflict, even if they never get as far as the negotiating table.
Efforts at mediation, however, have so far sputtered. Perhaps most notably, when Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe traveled to Tehran to appeal for calm and try to get talks going, Iran’s supreme leader rejected the overture, according to Pompeo—right before an explosion on a Japanese-owned oil tanker in the Gulf of Oman that the U.S. has blamed on Iran. (Iran denies involvement.) Khamenei, Pompeo told reporters in mid-June, told Abe “he has no response to President Trump and will not answer.” (The Iranians blame the Americans for the failure of Abe’s effort.)
Read: Trump might not want war, but the military is steering his Iran policy
Other countries have tried or at least positioned themselves to play mediator, Suzanne Maloney, an Iran expert at the Brookings Institution, told us. “Iranian diplomats will say privately that there is no mediation going on,” she said. Numerous parties—including the Swiss, the Omanis, the Kuwaitis, and the Qataris—would be willing to play such a role, but so far this is aspirational. “There have been episodic messages passed but there’s no official mediation,” she says. (U.S. and Iranian officials denied one report on Friday that the Omanis helped pass messages between the two countries ahead of the aborted U.S. strikes this week.)
Yet the attacks in the Gulf region, and Iranian threats to start abandoning the nuclear deal without some form of economic relief, also point to an Iranian effort to build up leverage, Jake Sullivan, a former Iran negotiator in the Obama administration, told us. Doing so “gives them a rationale for coming to the table in something other than a submissive way,” he said.
They might still insist on concessions as a condition for talks—possibly, Maloney said, a partial lifting of oil sanctions to bring them back to the levels they were trading in May. At the time, the administration had waivers in place to allow a handful of countries to continue importing Iranian oil, but it let them lapse in an effort to drive Iran’s oil exports to zero.
Given that Iran is now making reversible threats to restart its nuclear program, Maloney said a “freeze for freeze” arrangement like the interim nuclear deal the Obama administration struck in 2013 could help galvanize negotiations. The key question, she said, is: “What is a quid pro quo, that is nonpermanent, that is enough to incentivize each party to come back to the table but not so much to make negotiations on a full deal irrelevant?”