A door for peace in rising US-Iran tensions

Washington and Tehran have escalated tensions as hard-liners on each side seem to smell victory. Yet behind the posturing remains a chance for mediation by a neutral friend.

Worshippers in Tehran, Iran, pray at a shrine during the holy fasting month of Ramadan, May 8.

By the looks of it, Iran and the United States are as poised for conflict as ever. Hard-liners in both countries appear to be itching for a fight with no wiggle room for compromise. But as we said, that’s the looks of it.

The latest escalation of tensions was Iran’s threat on Wednesday to partially pull out of a 2015 nuclear pact and resume higher enrichment of uranium unless it gets sanctions relief from Europe. The threat came soon after the U.S. beefed up its military forces in the region, claiming new threats against American troops by Iran or its supporters.

In addition, President Donald Trump stepped up his “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran by designating the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist organization. He also tightened the screws on countries doing business with Iran. A year ago he pulled the U.S. out of the nuclear deal, citing its main flaw: The deal does not protect Israel or U.S. allies in the Mideast from threats by Iran other than its now-suspended program to build a nuclear weapon.

For its part, Iran keeps consolidating its influence, spending heavily on military proxies in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, and Gaza. Forty years after the Islamic Revolution, Iran feels it is reaching a much-desired dominance in the region.

All these moves might seem like a winner-take-all approach by both sides. The U.S. seeks regime change in Tehran while Iran seeks to oust both the U.S. and Israel from the Middle East.

The problem with this picture is that Iran has quietly kept a door open for direct or indirect talks with the U.S. Some sort of deal is still an option.

Last month, for example, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif offered to hold talks with the U.S. And the local press in Iran continually takes note of offers by neighboring Oman to mediate between the U.S. and Iran. Perceived as a neutral player, Oman was key in 2012 to bringing the U.S. and Iran together for talks that led to the nuclear pact.

As Mr. Zarif recently told an Iranian newspaper, “Any achievements we had [during the past 40 years] in foreign policy were the result of negotiations.”

Oman’s very identity serves as a reminder of what peace can look like in the region. It is an island of stability. Its ruling sultanate includes officials who set a priority on listening to all sides and then offering to mediate with selfless interest. Last month, for example, its foreign minister called on Arab nations to reduce Israel’s “fears for its future” in the region.

Oman’s diplomats say their strategy is to first understand a foreign country as “though we were as them, to see the world through their eyes.” When Iran and the U.S. are ready to avoid a major conflict, Oman will be there to mediate again. The looks of a potential war can be deceiving.

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