From overtures for US talks to threats of war with Iran

For the past several weeks and especially since the firing of national security adviser and Iran uber-hawk John Bolton on September 10, Washington has been awash with rumors that President Donald Trump was preparing to meet with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York next week.

The attack on Saudi oil facilities on September 14—which Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blamed on Iran—has supplanted such speculation with threats of war, with Trump tweeting that the US is “locked and loaded” for a possible military response. But a meeting between Rouhani and Trump was never likely even though the US president seemed eager and some Iranians promoted the notion in an apparent effort to relieve the unremitting US economic pressure against Iran.

Iran, which has faced sanctions and isolation for much of the last four decades, takes diplomatic protocol very seriously. Although it has engaged in contacts of varying sorts with US officials since the 1979 revolution, there have been no public or private encounters between top leaders. 

On several occasions, American presidents have sought to meet their Iranian counterparts by choreographing an “accidental” handshake at the United Nations. In 2000 as he was concluding his second term as president, Bill Clinton got the world body to schedule then Iranian President Mohammad Khatami to speak after him at the General Assembly’s annual diplomatic gabfest. As a sign of respect, Clinton stayed in the assembly hall after his own speech to listen to his Iranian counterpart. The hope, Bruce Riedel, Clinton’s senior director for the Middle East on the National Security Council, told this analyst was that Khatami and Clinton might shake hands and exchange a few words after the speeches or at the lunch that followed for heads of state.

The environment then seemed propitious. Khatami had called for a “dialogue of civilizations” and urged steps to break down the “bulky wall of mistrust” between the long-time adversaries. The US responded by removing sanctions on selling US food and medicine to Iran and on Iran’s exports to America of carpets and caviar. But even though relations had improved, Khatami balked at a gesture that would have created a new political crisis for him at home. The Iranian president was already struggling to assert authority in the face of opposition from hardliners and skepticism from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s final decision-maker. After Khatami left office, he told this analyst that, in hindsight, both countries “were a bit too cautious” and should have moved faster to improve ties while relative moderates were in place. The window closed soon after Clinton left office: he was followed by George W. Bush who put Iran on an “Axis of Evil” despite Iranian support for the overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001 attacks.

The closest Iran and the US have come to a presidential tête-à-tête was a phone call between Barack Obama and Rouhani in 2013 after Rouhani made his debut at the UN General Assembly as Iranian president. The US and Iran were already deep into nuclear negotiations—deeper than many knew at the time—and then Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif had already met one-on-one after a meeting of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany. The Obama White House initiated the call, which was a consolation prize after Rouhani refused a handshake in the corridors of the UN. Even so, the 15-minute chat with Rouhani in his hotel room shortly before his departure from New York aroused criticism from some quarters in Tehran who argued that the US should not be “rewarded” for imposing economic sanctions on Iran.

Those arguments are even more persuasive now that the Trump administration is trying to enforce a total embargo on the export of Iranian oil. Some Iranians have hinted that Rouhani might be willing to “run into” Trump at the UN or that Trump might crash a Rouhani meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron, but only if the US were to embrace Macron’s proposal for a $15 billion credit to Iran for future oil sales. Trump appeared to flirt with that idea when he met Macron at the G-7 meeting last month in Biarritz. But his surviving senior officials—especially Pompeo—were not enthusiastic about easing the “maximum pressure” campaign even before the attacks on the Saudi oil facilities. Now Trump is also appearing to backpedal, accusing the “Fake News” of claiming he was ready to meet Rouhani without preconditions when Pompeo and other US officials repeatedly said he was.

Unlike North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, Rouhani has little to gain from meeting with Trump absent major US concessions. The veteran Iranian bureaucrat still has hopes of succeeding the Supreme Leader and has been tacking right since Trump’s election. The US president, who seems desperate for some sort of diplomatic win before the 2020 elections, might do better to try for an incremental deal with North Korea. Bolton vehemently opposed such a deal but Pompeo, who as CIA director initiated the Trump administration contacts with Kim, would presumably be more flexible.

Trump has already met Kim three times and signed a short statement after their first encounter in Singapore. North Korea’s neighbors want détente in Northeast Asia but Iran’s neighbors, with the exception of Iraq, do not want an improvement in US-Iran ties even if they also don’t want a war. 

Having quit the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2018 after trashing it during his election campaign, Trump would have a hard time defending a new deal with Iran that did not substantially improve on the 2015 Obama agreement. Iran, meanwhile, insists that it will not enter new negotiations with the US until and unless it returns to compliance with the JCPOA and Iran receives compensation for the losses it has suffered since Trump pulled out unilaterally and re-imposed sanctions.

This is not the first time Trump has floated the notion of meeting with Rouhani. Before his address to the General Assembly last year, Trump put out a tweet that suggested that the Iranians had asked himto meet but that he had refused even though he was sure that Rouhani is “an absolutely lovely man.”

Trump then proceeded to give his most belligerent speech up until then on Iran, describing Iranian leaders as “brutal and corrupt” and responsible for sowing “chaos, death and destruction” in the Middle East.

Rejected again and embarrassed by the escalation in the Persian Gulf his policies have incentivized, Trump is likely to make similar comments this year and US-Iran relations will only worsen.

Barbara Slavin is director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council. Follow her on Twitter: @barbaraslavin1.

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Image: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo joins President Donald Trump for a working lunch on February 27, 2019 (State Department)