Speaking at the annual Reagan National Defense Forum, CIA Director Mike Pompeo recently disclosed that he sent a direct communication to Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani, the longtime commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force division responsible for Iran’s overseas paramilitary and intelligence activity. “What we were communicating to him in that letter was that we will hold he and Iran accountable for any attacks on American interests in Iraq by forces that are under their control,” Pompeo told the audience. “We wanted to make sure he and the leadership in Iran understood that in a way that was crystal clear.”
To some who have operated in the clandestine and murky world of intelligence tradecraft, Pompeo’s maneuver was a surprise. Former CIA director Mike Hayden told Newsweek that he couldn’t recall ever doing such a thing during his tenure, while others labeled Pompeo’s move a too-clever-by-half strategy to signal toughness to Soleimani, who retains enormous power and influence within the Iranian political system.
But regardless of the critiques (and the fact that Soleimani reportedly sent back the letter without opening it), there are legitimate and wise reasons for a top U.S. national security official to make contact with such an adversary. History has demonstrated that back-channel negotiations (and even mere discussions on topics of mutual concern) can, if accepted as promising and sincere by the other side, result in greater understanding among competitors and perhaps even the beginning of a more formal negotiating process. Pompeo’s move was a good idea, and here are the reasons why.
“Jaw-jaw is better than war-war”: As British Prime Minister Winston Churchill argued, talking with an enemy to prevent a major military conflict from happening is a far better option than skipping dialogue altogether and catapulting toward a more violent and unpredictable relationship. While the context of Churchill’s quote is unclear even after all these years, it is likely that he had in mind the trials of World War II, which killed at least 60 million people, led to the indiscriminate fire-bombing of entire cities, and destroyed large parts of the European continent—as well as the prospect, very real at the time, that the United States and the Soviet Union could stumble into a nuclear confrontation.
A military conflict between Washington and Tehran would be devastating to the Middle East. Diplomacy is the only mechanism states have at their disposal to resolve international disputes peacefully and prevent conflicts from spiraling into violent catastrophes. Whether it was the Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq in the 2000s, or Saudi Arabia’s military intervention in Yemen today, human history is replete with examples of leaders failing to exhibit the strategic foresight to deescalate at critical moments before warfare becomes inevitable.
Attempting to make contact with a high-ranking Iranian general, specifically one who is behind many of Iran’s aggressions in the Middle East today, is an unappetizing but pragmatic and commonsense move that keeps open a potentially critical avenue of dialogue.
U.S.-Iran contacts today are too limited: The Trump administration’s policy on Iran during its first year has been overly dependent on sticks, like economic sanctions and massive weapons sales to regional allies, and too short on engagement. There is no balance in America’s Iran policy. Such is the wisdom of the conventional, bipartisan foreign policy consensus in Washington, which equates talking to hostile governments with offering premature concessions—a perverse interpretation of the very concept of diplomacy.
Such a mindset handcuffs the United States and prematurely limits the options national security officials can pursue. The global environment is too competitive for politicians to remove a valuable tool in America’s foreign policy kit. There is nothing pragmatic or beneficial in cutting officials off at the knees and forbidding them from leveraging all the options at their disposal on behalf of the United States.
Miscalculation is in nobody’s interest: The Middle East is a region on tenterhooks, congested with multiple actors vying for power and influence. As we speak, Russian and U.S. fighter planes are flying in the same Syrian airspace, and in some cases have come within a mile of colliding.
U.S. aircraft shot down Iranian-manufactured drones and a manned Syrian regime aircraft earlier in the summer. Russian planes have bombarded U.S.-supported Syrian opposition forces. And in Eastern Syria, Iranian and American-sponsored Syrian militias have come close enough that armed clashes were more than a distinct possibility. In the waters of the Persian Gulf, U.S. naval officials almost assume they will have to stare down Iranian patrol boats whenever they set sail.
Without clear and consistent communication links between U.S. and Iranian officials, what are now manageable irritations could easily become potential flash points that prelude a violent incident.
Just as the U.S. and Russia established a military-to-military channel to ensure American and Russian pilots don’t run into each other in Syrian airspace, Washington and Tehran could minimize any miscalculation that may occur in a very turbulent and unpredictable region of the world by doing the same. In a way, Pompeo’s letter to Soleimani was designed for just that purpose: making it clear that if any Iranian proxy force targets U.S. forces or interests, Tehran will be held responsible for the consequences.
It will be up to the Trump administration to decide whether Pompeo’s message to the Iranians was a one-off, isolated occurrence meant for the cameras or the beginning of a more established channel to communicate red lines, prevent mistakes, and, above all, keep U.S. foreign policy options open. Let’s hope it’s the latter.
Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.