The Swiss Alps. For illustrative purposes only Image Credit: Pixabay

Washington: The United States and Iran have quietly exchanged a handful of official messages in recent weeks through third parties.

But a diplomatic exit for the perilous escalation of hostilities between the two adversaries remains distant, officials and analysts here and abroad say.

Both President Donald Trump and his Iranian counterparts seem to have backed down, for now, from the cycle of military attack and retaliation.

Trump on Wednesday said he was willing to talk to Tehran — but at the same time announced plans for additional economic sanctions, a move that probably prevents Iranian leaders from sitting down with U.S. officials.

Several back-channel efforts to ease the crisis and push Iran and the U.S. to talk to each other hit a flurried pace this week.

Switzerland, which has represented U.S. interests with Iran since shortly after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, has been the primary go-between.

The Swiss government delivered a message to Iran from the U.S. about the killing of Gen. Qassem Soleimani on Jan. 3. While the contents were not made public, it is telling that it came hours after the American drone strike that took Soleimani’s life. Also through the Swiss, Iran responded to condemn the attack.

Since then, “several” messages have been exchanged, Swiss government spokesman Pierre-Alain Eltschinger told reporters, including some on Tuesday, when Iran launched retaliatory strikes against U.S. targets in Iraq, and on the following day.

Most communications so far are believed to have been aimed at deescalation, urging both sides to hold fire and preventing events from spiraling out of control, rather than opening talks.

Unusually, Iran has also asked fellow Muslim nation Pakistan to represent it to the Trump administration. This is a smart move, diplomatically, because Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Kahn, the former cricket star, has a surprisingly good relationship with Trump.

Oman says 'no room for mediation'

Earlier this week, Oman’s foreign minister, Yousuf bin Alawi, met with Iranian officials in Tehran. 

Although Oman has previously served as an intermediary between Tehran and Washington, Alawi came away this time saying there was currently “no room” for mediation.

And French President Emmanuel Macron, who came close to persuading Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to sit at a negotiating table during meetings at the United Nations last fall, spoke at length with Rouhani following the Iranian missile strikes.

In addition to urging calm, Macron called on Iran to return to full compliance with the nuclear accord. As Washington ignored and disparaged the deal, Tehran also began to step away from full compliance, finally announcing after Soleimani’s killing that it would no longer abide by caps on uranium enrichment and stockpiling.

Though in violation of the agreement, Iran is still far from weapons-grade production.

The meeting that Macron attempted to broker between Trump and Rouhani fell apart, diplomats said, because Iran demanded a commitment from the U.S. to consider easing sanctions. Trump is also notoriously contemptuous of multilateral efforts and prefers to be the star of any show rather than share billing.

The next opportunity for the two leaders to meet face to face may be the Davos, Switzerland, economic forum Jan. 21-22. Trump has said he will attend, and Iran promises to send a senior-level delegation.

Emergency EU meeting

An emergency meeting of the European Union has been called for Friday in Brussels.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif will attend, but there will be no U.S. presence.

The administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign, which it launched after withdrawing unilaterally from the landmark 2015 Iran nuclear deal, consists of bruising sanctions that have crippled the Iranian economy and strangled its oil industry, a key lifeline.

European signatories to the deal, along with Russia and China, have been trying to salvage the agreement, which by most accounts successfully curbed the Islamic Republic’s capacity to pursue nuclear weapons.

But maximum pressure from the U.S. has been met with maximum resistance from the Iranians.

The tighter Washington has turned the screws, the more Iran has stepped up its tempo of guerrilla attacks on Saudi oil installations and on cargo ships in the Strait of Hormuz, among other operations.