It was easy enough to miss amid all the chest-thumping, threats, and talk of imminent strikes filling the airways, but last week, Iran signaled its willingness to restart talks with the P5+1 (the five U.N. Security Council members plus Germany) about its nuclear program. "We hope the P5+1 meeting will be held in near future," Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said, as a group of inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) toured the country.
The last round of such talks ended inconclusively in Istanbul in January 2011, and it has taken more than a year to get close to a new meeting. Although no date has been set for the new talks, it's not too early to begin planning for how to make them more productive than past negotiations. Here are a few steps that could put us on a road more promising than the current ominous exchanges.
1. DON'T UNDERESTIMATE THE RISK OF MISCALCULATION
It is tempting to dismiss the current talk of war as bluff and bluster. Although there is certainly much hot air in the current talk of Iran's closing the Strait of Hormuz or of imminent Israeli attacks on Iran, its very volume and frequency should make us worry. Each threat, each warning, each "red line" declared threatens to trap the parties in rhetorical corners. Even worse, a party might start believing its own defiant rhetoric and fail to distinguish between real and imaginary threats.
Complicating the issue is the fact that the United States and Iran have almost never spoken officially to each other in more than 30 years. Diplomats do not meet; officials do not talk; and military officials to not communicate. Instead of contact in which each side can listen to the other, take the measure of personalities, and look for underlying interests behind public positions, each side has imputed the worst possible motives to the other, creating an adversary both superhuman (devious, powerful, and implacably hostile) and subhuman (violent, irrational, and unthinking).
This mutual demonization -- born of fear and contempt -- raises the risk that a simple confrontation will lead to miscalculation and full-scale conflict. Put simply, today, in the absence of direct communication, it would be very difficult to de-escalate a potential incident in the Persian Gulf or Afghanistan. With each side assuming the worst about the other, a minor incident could lead both sides into military and political disaster.