Iran’s Political Debate Over Negotiating With the Trump Administration

President Donald Trump’s offer to “meet with the Iranian president without preconditions if they wanted to meet” has been roundly rejected by Iran’s hardline establishment but has sparked a lively debate over the wisdom and efficacy of such a move in alleviating pressure on Iran’s economy.

During a recent meeting with President Hassan Rouhani and his cabinet members, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei appeared to emphatically rule out any negotiations, asking, “What negotiations can we have with the current disrespectful and brazen US officials who are making no secret of their hostility toward Iranians? Therefore, no talks will take place with Americans at any level. Not just the president but the foreign and intelligence ministers as well.”

According to Khamenei, the US administration wants to meet with Iran not to resolve issues but “to brag that we even pulled the Islamic Republic of Iran to the negotiating table.”

Similarly, Ahmad Jannati, the hardline chairman of the Assembly of Experts, a body tasked with supervising the Supreme Leader, said: “Some wickedness is in the process of setting up a meeting on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly between Trump and Mr. Rouhani. But Rouhani should not ignore the Leader’s warning about meeting Trump.” Jannati went on to say that the US wants to harm Iran, but the Islamic Republic will resist and turn the sanctions into opportunities. He didn’t explain how.

Senior military commanders also rejected Trump’s offer, saying his words contradict his actions in pulling out of the nuclear deal and reinstating sanctions on Iran.

General Mohammad Ali Jafari, the commander of the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), was quoted as saying that Iran is not North Korea and rejected high-level direct talks with the US. As Jafari put it, “despite the emphasis of the Supreme Leader, who said our efforts should be focused on domestic issues to solve economic problems, some people have alluded to the political solution and negotiations [with the US] to address the country’s economic problems.”

General Gholam Hossein Gheibparvar, the head of the Basij militia organization, also asserted that negotiations with US would not solve Iran’s difficulties. The only solution, he said, is to “trust the revolutionary forces,” and oppose “infiltrators.”

Kayhan newspaper, considered to be the mouthpiece of the Supreme Leader, ran an editorial entitled, “Renewing Negotiations or Entering the Enemy’s Rifle Range?” and emphasized the negative implications of negotiations with the United States. According to Kayhan, this is a plot by America and its “corrupt allies” inside Iran who want to escape arrest and execution. Tasnim News Agency, an outlet close to the IRGC, also wrote that given the behavior of the United States, negotiations with the current administration were not rational and would damage Iran’s national interests.

Conservatives consider negotiations with the Trump administration a sign of weakness. But given the extensive pressure the country is feeling from the sanctions, this position may not be irreversible.

Pragmatic forces have indicated that they are willing to talk to the United States to mend relations. They believe that holding direct talks with Washington could protect Iran’s national interests and relieve pressure particularly on Iran’s sagging currency.

For instance, following Khamenei’s statement on banning talks with Americans, Rouhani indirectly pushed back by exposing secret talks that took place in Geneva in the 1980s between representatives of Iran and Iraq during the bloody eight-year war. Those talks, according to Rouhani, “led to a great political victory for the Islamic Republic.” Rouhani’s intended message was clear: If Iran could talk to a hostile Iraq while under Saddam Hussein’s missile attacks, why not negotiate with a hostile United States if it advances Iran’s national interests?

After all, negotiations are a valuable diplomatic tool that can end, reduce or prevent conflict.

Commentary in Iran’s reformist media was more favorable to talks.

Sharq newspaper, a leading reformist outlet, wrote that “Iran should not reject the Trump offer out of hand. It is necessary to discuss this issue with patience at the Supreme National Security Council,” where Rouhani and other members of his administration sit with the commanders of Iran’s armed forces and the representative of Khamenei.

Entekhab, another reformist paper, editorialized that “Iran should welcome Trump’s negotiations offer,” because at the very least, it would have positive consequences on Iran’s economy.

Iran newspaper, an organ of the Rouhani administration, suggested that Iranian officials should think twice before rejecting Trump’s offer. Ghanoon newspaper went even further and wrote that regardless of the outcome, Iran should negotiate with Trump. According to the Ebtekar newspaper, negotiations at this time are a vital component of preserving the country’s interests.

Still, for some moderates, US foreign policy is seriously lacking reliability and Trump is the last person that can fix that. They argue that if Trump were serious about resolving conflicts with Iran, he would have abided by the 2015 nuclear deal. Hamidreza Asefi, a former spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, cautioned that Iran does not trust Trump because “Trump’s real objective is to humiliate Iran.”

Similarly, in an interview with Iran newspaper, Mohsen Mirdamadi, the secretary general of the Islamic Iran Participation Front, a reformist party, noted: “I do not want to conclude that we should never negotiate with the United States. But we have to see if it has a positive result for our national interests.” At the same time, Mirdamadi warned hardline conservatives, “they should not take the survival of the system for granted if they keep acting in a wrong way.”

Moderate factions do not dictate foreign policy but they do have influence over the Supreme Leader and in Iran’s Supreme National Security Council. While direct talks between Trump and Rouhani at the United Nations are unlikely, lower level contacts are not inconceivable, especially as Trump will chair a UN Security Council meeting on Iran on September 26.

Farhad Rezaei is an Iran analyst and the author of Iran’s Foreign Policy After the Nuclear Agreement: Politics of Normalizers and Traditionalists. Follow him on Twitter: @Farhadrezaeii​.

Image: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and his cabinet members meet with the Supreme Leader on August 29, 2018 (