By David Ignatius
WASHINGTON – As the United States and Iran move closer toward open confrontation, it’s important that both take quiet steps to avoid the miscalculations and misunderstandings that can lead to an inadvertent military conflict.
It’s been done before: During the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, President Kennedy used a back channel to communicate American resolve to the Soviets, and also explore a formula for settlement. The key points of contact were his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, and the Soviet ambassador to Washington, Anatoly Dobrynin. That exchange helped avoid nuclear war.
Washington and Tehran today lack any similar means of communication in a crisis.
So here’s a proposal in this period of deepening crisis: The U.S. and Iran should explore the possibility of direct contact through the sort of back channel that nations use to communicate urgent messages – namely, their intelligence services. Through this contact, each side could communicate its “red lines” in the crisis – for the U.S., the insistence that Iran’s nuclear program remain peaceful; for Iran, presumably, an end to sanctions and a recognition that Iran is a significant regional power.
My nominees for this back-channel contact would be two people who have been circling each other warily for the past half-dozen years: Gen. David Petraeus, director of the CIA, and Gen. Qassem Suleimani, the head of the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. These two are said to have communicated indirectly in the past about red lines in the Iraq conflict, when Petraeus was commander of U.S. forces in Baghdad and Suleimani was the de-facto chief of Iranian activities in Iraq.
Some would argue that as head of the Quds Force, Suleimani is the heart of the problem – and therefore an inappropriate liaison. But precisely because Suleimani heads Iran’s most powerful intelligence network, messages through him would carry special weight.
Suleimani would be a potent contact because he reports directly to the supreme leader, and his Quds Force role trumps Ahmadinejad.
Iran called the assassination last week of one of its nuclear scientists another in a series of “malicious terrorist attacks.” At some point, the Iranians may conclude that the broad pressure campaign, overt and covert, means that a state of undeclared war exists – and respond in kind.
The Obama administration’s squeeze on Iran has been powerful, but also carefully calibrated. U.S. officials insist that America had nothing to do with the recent killing of Iranian scientists, for example, and their denials are credible in part because it would be so difficult for the CIA to direct motorcycle assassins in North Tehran.
The pressure campaign has international support, and there’s no reason to stop it. But this is a moment when a U.S. emissary should make clear that Iran has a choice – it can seek to be a nuclear-weapons power, or remain an oil power, but not both – and communicate that to someone who can report directly to Ayatollah Khamenei.
As in the Cuban missile crisis, the message should be one of resolve – and of a desire for a settlement that avoids war.
David Ignatius’ email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. He writes for The Washington Post Writers Group.