Like two heavyweight boxers, the United States and Iran circle the ring — flexing their muscles without stepping close enough to actually trade blows. It is clear that neither wants to fight, but they also have no interest in settling their stark differences.
That is how experts say Washington and Tehran have dealt with each other for more than four decades, only changing their stance when it is mutually beneficial.
Tensions have soared between the two foes, who have no formal diplomatic ties, amid the fallout from Israel’s devastating war in the Gaza Strip. But despite calls for de-escalation, observers say there is little room for détente.
“I’ve rarely seen a situation in which the tensions have been so high and the exit ramps are nearly nonexistent and there were no real channels of communication between the two sides,” said Ali Vaez, director of the Iran project at the International Crisis Group.
“And that makes the current situation even more dangerous, because there’s plenty of space for miscommunication and misunderstanding,” Vaez added.
Current tensions in the Middle East have had deadly consequences even as each side tries to avoid getting drawn into a direct military confrontation.
The United States has hit Iran-backed militants in response to attacks against U.S. forces and interests in the region, including the deaths of three U.S. soldiers in Jordan last month, while underscoring that its aim is de-escalation.
Iran, which like the United States has said that it does not want war, has continued to back militant groups that make up its so-called “axis of resistance” against Israel and the West, while calling for diplomacy to resolve the crisis.
Tehran and Washington have carefully avoided direct conflict, but are in no position to work out their differences even if they wanted to, experts say.
Washington and Tehran have not had formal diplomatic ties since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, leaving them to negotiate through back-channels or third states when needed.
But political and ideological pressures at home — amplified ahead of a parliamentary vote in Iran in March and a presidential election in the United States in November — has meant that neither side is looking to back away any time soon from the stark red lines the two have drawn.
Avenues For Diplomacy
“There are ways that communication can be had between the two countries, and they do so,” said Alex Vatanka, director of the Iran Program at the U.S.-based Middle East Institute. “But they tend to do it on select files, or moments of crisis.”
Vatanka said those lines of communication include Iran’s envoy to the United Nations who resides in New York and the Swiss Embassy in Tehran which handles American interests in the Islamic republic. There are also third-party mediators, including Qatar, Oman, and Iraq, he said.
The U.S.-Iran prisoner swap worked out in September, which followed years of secret negotiations involving Gulf states and Switzerland, is the most recent example.
Under that deal, four Americans held hostage in Iran were released in exchange for Washington unfreezing $6 billion in Iranian oil revenue held up in South Korea.
As part of the agreement, according to Vaez, “Iran committed to rein in groups that were targeting U.S. interests in Iraq and Syria” and Washington received a commitment that Tehran would not supply ballistic missiles to Russia for use in Moscow’s war against Ukraine.
Shortly after Iran-backed Hamas, which is considered a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union, carried out its deadly assault on Israel on October 7, the unfrozen Iranian funds came under intense scrutiny. Republicans in the United States who are gearing up for the presidential election in November have been particularly vocal in criticizing the deal worked out by the administration of Democratic President Joe Biden.
In response, Washington worked out an agreement with Qatar, where the unfrozen Iranian funds were moved and to be released only for humanitarian purposes, to prevent Tehran from accessing them at all. But the deal has remained a hot-button issue.
The Gaza war and the ensuing resumption of attacks on U.S. forces and interests by Iran-backed groups have attracted even more political discord.
After Israel’s large-scale offensive against Hamas in the Gaza Strip that has killed more than 27,000 Palestinians, Iran-backed militant groups have carried out attacks in solidarity with Hamas. The Iran-backed Huthi rebels in Yemen have targeted maritime shipping and U.S. naval forces in the Red Sea. Meanwhile, Iran-backed militias in Iraq killed three U.S. soldiers in Jordan in a drone attack.
That, in turn, has led to U.S. and U.K. attacks on Huthi targets in Yemen, and by the United States against Iran-backed militias and Iranian-linked sites in Syria and Iraq.
Iran, for its part, has said that the axis of resistance, which it denies directing, would continue to carry out strikes until a permanent cease-fire is worked out to stop what it calls a genocide in Gaza. And in what was widely seen as a show of its capability to strike back in the event Iran itself is attacked, it has launched ballistic missile strikes against “enemy” targets in Iraq, Pakistan, and Syria, the latter of which showcased that Israel was within striking distance.
The recent spike in violence came after the United States had experienced “the longest period of quiet in the Middle East” from March until the Hamas assault on October 7, Vaez said.
That relative peace came about not because of displays of power, but because Iran and the United States were negotiating, Vaez said.
“It wasn’t because the U.S. had flexed its military muscle and deterred Iran, it was because it was engaged in diplomatic understandings with Iran that came to fruition and culminated in a detainee deal,” Vaez said.
Tehran and the United States, currently trading threats of ever-stronger responses, “are seeking to pressure each other into greater flexibility,” said Trita Parsi, co-founder of the Washington-based Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.
“Both would like to get back to the truce they enjoyed prior to the October 7 attacks” by Hamas against Israel, Parsi said in written comments. “But whether the political will is available for real de-escalation remains unclear.”
“President Biden has been unmovable in his opposition to a cease-fire in Gaza thus far,” Parsi said, referring to mounting calls for a cessation of hostilities between Israel and Hamas. “And without such a cease-fire, real de-escalation remains very unlikely.”
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on February 6, halfway through his latest trip to the Middle East to reduce regional tensions, that a proposal for a temporary cease-fire put together with the help of Qatar and Egypt and presented to Hamas and Israel, was “possible and, indeed, essential.”
While details of the proposal have not been made public, Blinken said that the goal is to use any pause in fighting to address humanitarian and reconstruction needs in Gaza and “to continue to pave a diplomatic path forward to a just and lasting peace and security for the region.”
Asked by RFE/RL whether Washington is employing any diplomatic means, either directly or indirectly, to decrease tensions with Iran, a U.S. State Department spokesperson pointed to recent strikes carried out against Iranian-backed groups in Yemen, Syria, and Iraq.
“Our military response to the killing of three U.S. service members by Iran-aligned militia groups and our continued action to degrade the Huthis’ ability to threaten international shipping sends the clearest message of all: the United States will defend our personnel and our interests,” a U.S. State Department spokesman said in written comments on February 7.
“When we are attacked, we will respond strongly, and we will respond at a time and place of our choosing,” the spokesman said.
Prior to the deadly attack on the U.S. base in Jordan, there had been reports of Washington using third states to send a nonmilitary notice to Iran.
Shortly after the Hamas assault on Israel in October, the U.S. Senate majority leader, Chuck Schumer, said that a congressional delegation to China had asked Beijing to exert its influence with Tehran to prevent the Israel-Hamas conflict from spreading.
In early January, the Lebanese news publication Al-Ahed News quoted Iran’s ambassador to Syria as saying that a delegation from an unidentified Gulf state had carried a message from the United States seeking to reduce the risk of an expanded regional conflict.
The U.S. State Department spokesperson said that beyond the recent U.S. strikes, “our message to Iran, in public and in private, has been a singular one: cease your support for terrorist groups and militant proxies and partners.”
Washington welcomes “any efforts by other countries to play a constructive role in trying to prevent these Iran-enabled attacks from taking place,” the spokesperson added, but referred to White House national-security spokesman John Kirby’s February 6 comment that “I know of no private messaging to Iran since the death of our soldiers in Jordan over a week ago.”
Lack Of Vision
The limits of diplomacy between the United States and Iran, according to Vatanka, “is not a lack of the ability to communicate, the problem is a lack of vision” to repair relations.
For political reasons and for a long time, Vantanka added, neither side has been interested in mending the bad blood that has existed between the two countries going back to 1979.
“Right now, the White House cannot afford to talk to Iran at a time when so many of Biden’s critics are saying he’s too soft on the Iranian regime,” Vatanka said. “On the other hand, you’ve got an Iranian supreme leader who is 84 years old. He’s really keen on two things: not to have a war with the Americans, because he doesn’t think that’s going to go well for Iran or his regime. But at the same time, he doesn’t want to see the Americans return to Tehran anytime soon. Certainly not when he’s alive.”
This, Vatanka explained, is because Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini “does not think the Americans want anything other than the fundamental objective of bringing about the end of the Islamic republic.”
The other major voice in Iranian foreign policy — the leaders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps — also see anti-Americanism as a worthwhile instrument to further their ideological and political aims at home and abroad, according to Vatanka.
“They think anti-Americanism is the ticket to mobilize the Islamic world around their flag and around their leadership,” Vatanka said.
More moderate voices when it comes to Iran’s foreign policy, Vatanka said, are labeled as traitors and weak and “are today essentially marginalized.”