April 13, 2018
If Trump Can Meet with North Korea’s Leader, Why Not Iran’s?
By Holly Dagres
Trump’s planned upcoming meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un fits this pattern. Assuming it takes place, Trump will be the first US president to hold talks with the leader of the nuclear-armed communist state. Like Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit to China, a Trump-Kim summit is a daring gesture for someone associated with hardline views. Nixon had logical reasons to go to Beijing, to counter-balance US relations with the Soviet Union and ease a US exit from the Vietnam War. He wanted “a more normal relationship because our interests require it. Not because we love them, but because they’re there.”
Like Beijing and Pyongyang, Tehran is there, too, and is a tremendously influential country in its region. The suggestion for a US president to talk to Iran’s leaders is therefore not outlandish.
In 2011, Trump told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that he’d meet with then President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was arguably Iran’s most controversial chief executive for denying the Holocaust and for a 2009 re-election that many regarded as fraudulent. Trump said in the interview, “Look, nobody's even talking to Iran. Now, maybe they're the ‘evil empire’, maybe they're the bad people, and maybe they're not, you know, got to talk.” Trump added that he believed in negotiating instead of “killing millions of people.” Trump certainly had a point. Diplomacy through dialogue is almost always a better option than war.
Seven years after Trump, then just a TV reality star and businessman, made this comment, there is a solid precedent for Iran-US negotiations – namely the three years of talks that culminated in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2015.
Diplomats from the two countries also met quietly in Europe after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks and worked together to unseat the Taliban and install Hamid Karzai as president of Afghanistan. In 2003, Iran floated a so-called “Grand Bargain” offer for comprehensive talks to which Washington, full of hubris after the Iraq invasion, never replied. Four years later, the US and Iranian ambassadors to Iraq met in Baghdad as instability in that country mounted. In 2008, the US joined multinational talks on Iran's nuclear program.
In the aftermath of the JCPOA, there is still plenty to talk about. Washington and Tehran could start with confidence-building measures such as freeing jailed Americans and Iranians, quelling Sunni extremism in the Middle East, and alleviating the ongoing drug problem that seeps into Iran via Afghanistan and also sends drugs to Europe. Then they could move on to bigger geopolitical issues such as Syria’s future, Tehran’s backing of militia groups such as Lebanese Hezbollah and Palestinian Hamas. Iran could seek US guarantees not to seek regime change or support controversial groups such as the Mujahedeen-e Khalq, an Iranian exile organization that was on a US list of terrorist organizations for 15 years and that has paid large speaking fees to influential Americans including the new national security adviser, John Bolton. Such comprehensive talks would require mutual understanding and respect, and acknowledgement of the dark parts of US-Iran history.
Had Trump taken this nuanced approach, the hardliners in Tehran would’ve been shaken to their core. The potential of good ties with the West, particularly Washington, would hurt their standing in Iranian domestic politics. After all, part of the raison d'etre of the Islamic Republic is opposition to US “imperialism.”
Instead, hardliners are counting down to the May 12 deadline for Trump to renew sanctions waivers, hoping the president follows through on his threats to withdraw from the JCPOA. This would validate their argument that Iran can never trust the US to keep its commitments.
There’s no telling how the Iranian government would’ve reacted to a Trump proposal for a summit meeting. One can safely assume that many Iranians would support Trump’s decision, as they no longer want to be isolated, but rather to reconnect to the international community.
Of course, relations with the so-called “Great Satan” would threaten a pillar of the Islamic Republic for four decades. But even Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has said several times that Iran is willing to talk with the US if the conditions are right and Khamenei blessed both the backchannel and announced negotiations that led to the JCPOA.
Khamenei is believed to have authorized the 2003 “Grand Bargain” trial balloon which said that Iran was open to dialogue with Washington over several key US aims including coordination in Iraq, “decisive action” against terrorists, stopping “material support” for Palestinian militias and accepting a two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In 2011, the late former president and head of the Assembly of Experts, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, said that Tehran could “ negotiate on an equal footing and mutual respect” with Washington. Rafsanjani was a pragmatist who firmly believed in the China model for Iran: improved ties with neighbors and the West and détente with the United States.
In 2015, President Hassan Rouhani told an Italian newspaper there was the possibility of opening embassies in Tehran and Washington. He said that, if US leaders would “modify their policies, correct errors committed in these 37 years and apologize to the Iranian people, the situation will change and good things can happen.”
Unfortunately, Trump has undermined the chance for improved relations by not only constantly threatening to kill the nuclear deal, but also seeking to ban Iranian nationals from entering the United States. His top officials are all considered Iran hawks, especially Bolton and Secretary of State-designate Mike Pompeo. Both have called for “regime change” in Iran although Pompeo toned down his remarks in Senate confirmation hearings on April 12.
Trump has also cozied up to Israel and Saudi Arabia, and made the later the venue for his first foreign trip where he spoke of the “Arabian Gulf” – the ultimate insult to those who live on the other side of the Persian Gulf, the body of water’s historic name. In general, Trump’s Iran policy recalls that of George W. Bush with an emphasis on sanctions and a refusal to rule out the “military option” against Iran’s nuclear installations.
Tehran, like the rest of the world, will be watching closely how talks between Trump and Kim turn out, just as Pyongyang will pay attention to what Trump does regarding the JCPOA on May 12. For now, it is in Iran’s best interest to keep its side of the nuclear deal and demonstrate its reliability to the rest of the world. Or else, Trump might come to Tehran not with words of historical reconciliation, but with bombs.
Holly Dagres is an Iranian-American analyst on Middle East affairs and the curator of the weekly newsletter, The Iranist. On Twitter: @hdagres