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Finding a way off the U.S.-Iran ledge

Trump on Thursday at the White House. Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

An American warship "destroyed" an Iranian drone operating in the Strait of Hormuz, President Trump announced Thursday.

Why it matters: When Iran downed a U.S. drone last month, it very nearly led to a military conflict. Thursday's move came hours after news that Iran had seized a foreign oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz — the latest in a string of incidents in or near the narrow waterway through which one-fifth of the world's oil supply travels.

  • The Pentagon says the Iranian drone "closed within a threatening range" of the USS Boxer, which "took defensive action."
  • CNN's Barbara Starr reports that the drone was "brought down by electric warfare jamming." Trump said only that it was "immediately destroyed."

The big picture: During the current crisis, windows for diplomacy have seemed to open and then quickly close.

  • Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told the BBC this week that Iran wouldn't let Trump "bully" his way into talks. But he also floated a deal that would allow for permanent nuclear inspections in exchange for permanent sanctions relief.
  • Brian Hook, the U.S. envoy to Iran, said at an Atlantic Council event yesterday that the U.S. is willing to talk "with no preconditions," but won't take any "concrete steps" to secure dialogue. If Iran balks at diplomacy on those terms, he said, "our sanctions will continue to intensify.”

Between the lines: Trump has showed clear interest in talks. Politico reports he gave dovish Sen. Rand Paul license to intermediate on his behalf, potentially with Zarif this week in New York. French President Emmanuel Macron seems eager to play a similar role.

“The Iranians take anyone who has a direct link to the president and who does not belong to the Bolton-Pompeo camp seriously, because they understand the president is mostly interested in dealmaking but almost no one else in this administration feels that way," says Ali Vaez, Iran director for the International Crisis Group, who has been speaking with Iranian officials.

  • Vaez says the Iranians feel strongly that the onus is on Trump to make the first concession, even if they know he won't meet their demand to unwind all U.S. sanctions.
  • He says there might be a deal to be made whereby Iran returns to compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal and the U.S. loosens its stranglehold on Iranian oil exports.

Getting there wouldn't be easy.

  • The Iranians prefer to communicate via backchannels, negotiate multilaterally and play for time (especially with the 2020 election looming). Trump favors leader-to-leader meetings, and he has little interest in slow and steady diplomacy.
  • Hook pointed to Trump's 3 meetings with North Korea's Kim Jong-un as a sign he's open to dialogue. But while sitting down with Trump was a major coup for Kim, Vaez notes, it'd be a "major liability" for any Iranian leader.

What to watch: For now, the default course is escalation.

  • "I believe the Iranians have come to the conclusion that noncompliance and pushback in the region has brought them more dividends than compliance and restraint,” Vaez says.
  • Meanwhile, Trump's advisers continue to insist that maximum pressure is working, and the task now is to further tighten the screws.