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The President's Take

How the U.S. and Iran Can Step Away from a Conflagration

In his introduction to this month's edition of CrisisWatch, Crisis Group's conflict tracker, our President Robert Malley urges the U.S. and Iran to step back from a dangerous conflagration and calls for the immediate release of our colleague Michael Kovrig from arbitrary detention in China. 

The standoff between the U.S. and Iran increasingly calls to mind the question of what happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object. The force is the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign, which seems willing to stop at nothing – whether it is sanctioning Iran’s supreme leader or its foreign minister or forcing the country’s oil exports down to zero – to bring Tehran to its knees. The object is Iran’s determination not to yield or concede, but to resist – whether by restarting its nuclear program or targeting the U.S. and its regional allies. And the end result could be the military confrontation about which Crisis Group has warned for over a year.

There are ways out, still. Iran might be wise enough to calibrate its moves, so that they are sufficient to signal resistance but insufficient to spark a military response. A third party could orchestrate a series of steps to get the protagonists to walk back from the brink: the U.S. might agree to waive certain of its oil sanctions, Iran might resume compliance with the nuclear deal, there could be progress on the issue of Americans detained in Iran. Or Europe could provide Iran with just enough economic benefits through its recently established barter mechanism to persuade the Islamic Republic to hold its breath, sit back and await the results of the 2020 U.S. presidential elections. But those are fragile ifs on which to rest hope of avoiding a military conflagration that President Trump almost certainly does not want, but to which his policies are leading.

For us at Crisis Group, the other big news of the month is a sad milestone that ought never have been reached: last week, our friend and colleague Michael Kovrig marked his 200th day in arbitrary detention in China. He has yet to see his lawyer or a member of his family. At the G20 meeting in Japan, Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau raised his case, as well as that of Michael Spavor, another Canadian citizen held by China, with President Xi Jinping. President Trump also has said he would push for the two Michaels’ release. Other nations should continue pressing, relentlessly, until they can return home, making clear to Beijing that its ambitions to global leadership cannot go hand-in-hand with such practices. Our colleague is a pawn in a battle with which he has nothing to do, and about which he can do nothing. It is past time for him to be released and reunited with his loved ones.