(Bloomberg Opinion) — While Americans are rightly focused on handling the coronavirus at home, the government must also remain vigilant to threats around the world. Yet the Donald Trump administration’s approach to Iran, in particular, increasingly lacks any clear policy or overarching strategy.
The administration is at times threatening and at times conciliatory, giving Iran little sense of what actions the president will take. This could inadvertently lead us to war, and neither the U.S. nor Iran can afford to engage in hostilities that distract us from the pandemic.
Tensions between the two countries had calmed for nearly two months as they dealt with the effects of the coronavirus. But Iran is becoming increasingly provocative toward the U.S. Trump has escalated his rhetoric toward Iran, and last week vetoed the Iran War Powers resolution, which required him to terminate the use of U.S. armed forces engaged in hostilities against Iran unless Congress authorized the use of force, or in cases of self-defense.
As the coronavirus takes hold, a convergence of destabilizing events — including a large number of deaths, worsening economic woes and increasing refugee flows — portends great instability in the Middle East. We must seek to maintain peace within the region so that, at least in the near term, countries can focus on containing and recovering from the pandemic. With just six months until the 2020 presidential election and with everyone’s focus on public health, it’s unreasonable to expect anything more.
We know that Iran’s foreign policies often run counter to U.S. interests. Iranian leadership seeks to spread its influence in the region; supports militant proxies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen; maintains missiles that threaten Israel and pursues longer-range ballistic missiles; and continues to detain U.S. citizens as bargaining chips.
In December, the Trump administration indicated that Iran’s economy had been crippled by the re-imposition of U.S. sanctions and was on the verge of collapse. This policy, the White House argued, would compel Iran to come back to the negotiating table. Now, with Iran’s economy struggling under a trifecta of U.S. sanctions, low oil prices and the coronavirus, the administration defends its decision to maintain “maximum pressure” based on a new argument that the regime is actually flush with cash, and that any assistance the U.S. provides would be diverted to fund its terrorist proxies.
The administration also appears to be reinserting itself into the Iran nuclear deal in an attempt to extend the arms embargo on Iran, which the U.S. could have sought to do in negotiations directly with Iran and our European partners if we had stayed in the agreement.
So how does the U.S. increase stability?
First, America and Iran should agree to high-level meetings — something both nations have suggested — ideally between their defense and foreign ministers. I believe that both sides would negotiate in good faith and that they want to avoid war. Face-to-face meetings would reduce the chance of missteps that could accidentally lead to war, a situation possible today with Iranian boats recklessly engaging U.S. ships in the Persian Gulf.
Second, the U.S. should provide partial, temporary sanctions relief to Iran and facilitate efforts by international organizations to provide humanitarian funds and supplies so the country can respond more effectively to its coronavirus outbreak. Doing so would reduce popular resentment in Iran against the U.S. and help contain the spread of the disease throughout the region.
This would include:
Temporarily waiving sanctions on entities that purchase petroleum, petroleum products or petrochemical products from Iran; on foreign financial institutions that transact with Iran’s Central Bank, or any sanctioned Iranian bank; and on foreign financial institutions that conduct or facilitate the purchase of Iranian petroleum-based products. This would allow Iran to sell much larger quantities of oil and get paid for it in hard currency. Providing a 90-day general license authorizing specific medical goods and equipment, such as Covid-19 test kits, therapeutics, respiratory devices and personal protective equipment. Supporting Iran’s request for $5 billion in emergency funds from the International Monetary Fund, with oversight mechanisms within or similar to the Swiss Humanitarian Trade Arrangement, to facilitate the flow of much-needed goods to the Iranian people while safeguarding against the regime’s diversion of funds for malign purposes.
Finally, the U.S. should engage in a full diplomatic push to convince Iran to end proxy attacks. In concert with European partners — particularly France, Germany and the U.K. — we should press Tehran to cease regional aggression and make clear that Iran and its allies will not be attacked either.
While the immediate goal is to de-escalate tensions, these discussions could lead to a more comprehensive framework of discussions on Iran’s nuclear program, ballistic missiles and regional aggression. The prospect of sustained sanctions relief, beyond the limited allowances for Iran to deal with the coronavirus, could give the regime incentive to participate.
These discussions would also provide an opportunity to seek a resolution to the conflict in Yemen, where the coronavirus is poised to add to a devastating humanitarian catastrophe.
Haphazard U.S. policymaking has led to a weakening of America’s most important alliances, an increase in Iranian nuclear activity, and the consolidation of Iranian anti-American sentiment. It has backed Iran into an economic and public health crisis.
The U.S. should spend the next six months making sure that man-made and natural catastrophes don’t worsen the situation. Both sides need to give diplomacy a chance before we stumble into an ill-advised and ill-fated war.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Dianne Feinstein is a U.S. senator from California.
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