“Now I’m Trump’s lovely man!” one Persian language tweet read with a picture of a smiling President Hassan Rouhani. The tweet was from hashtag #LovelyMan, an Iranian social media response to US President Donald Trump’s tweet.
On September 26, shortly before he addressed the United Nations General Assembly, Trump wrote on Twitter: “Despite requests, I have no plans to meet Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Maybe someday in the future. I am sure he is an absolutely lovely man!”
Shortly after the tweet, CNN’s Christiane Amanpour interviewed the Iranian president. During the interview, Amanpour read Trump’s tweet to Rouhani, who with an amused smile dismissed the comment, claiming the US president is “playing with words and will not get us to any solutions.”
Based on Trump’s tweet, one would assume that it was the US president who was declining an invitation to meet his Iranian counterpart on the sidelines of the annual UN summit. Especially when considering right before taking the podium, Trump told reporters, “Iran has to change its tune before I meet with them. They want to meet. I’m not meeting with them until they change their tune.”
Only the day before, Rouhani told NBC News that there were no plans for a meeting. He added, “Naturally, if someone is keen on having a meeting and holding dialogue and creating progress in relationships, that person would not use the tool of sanctions and threats [and bring] to bear all of its power against another government and nation.”
In an op-ed for the Washington Post on September 21, Rouhani wrote: “Trump’s offer of direct talks with Iran is not honest or genuine. How can we be convinced of his sincerity while his secretary of state has gone so far as to set a long list of openly insulting pre-conditions for talks?”
On numerous occasions, the US president has left the door open for a meeting. In July, Trump even suggested he would sit down with Iran’s leaders “anytime they want” with “no preconditions.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo later clarified saying that Iran would have to change its policies before a meeting could take place. Pompeo this week added to his list of demands that a meeting would have to be with Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say on national security decisions.
According to Rouhani’s chief of staff, Mahmoud Vaezi, the Trump administration requested to meet Iran a total of eight times, including at the sidelines of the 2017 General Assembly and even possibly at a dinner. Rouhani made a similar comment during his CNN interview with Amanpour, and said that he never asked to meet with Trump in 2017 or 2018. Interestingly, in February, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Trump administration reached out to Iran to start a channel to negotiate a swap of prisoners. Iran didn’t respond to any of the three requests according to the report.
Though it doesn’t matter who wants to talk to whom, the Iranian government prides itself on saying that the “Great Satan” is always trying to talk to them. It’s their way of telling a domestic audience that Washington needs Tehran, and not the other way around. Even Tehran-based analysts will make the claim that it was the Obama administration that reached out to Iran, which eventually led to the 2015 nuclear agreement.
For Trump, meeting with Iran would show his base that he’s getting the job done and was right that he can make a better deal than his predecessor. It’s more about ego, however, than countering what the US president calls “the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism.” Even some unnamed officials in the Trump administration worry that Tehran will give in to talks and that Trump will settle on a deal that is not in the interests of the United States. That’s why they—and Iran hawks in Washington—have pushed the president to see Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, not Rouhani.
The Iranian government sees itself as a victim in all this, and thanks to Trump increasingly isolating the United States from Western allies by withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Iran can play that role to a tee. Tehran is able to gain the sympathy of the European Union and the P4+1—Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany—which are unhappy with Trump’s handling of world affairs in general.
Rouhani recently said, “we have a great deal of patience,” adding that Tehran would leave the JCPOA “at will” if it’s not to their benefit—a threat Iran often makes which especially unsettles European supporters of the nuclear agreement. This in turn has prompted the European Union to try harder to salvage the deal by providing Iran incentives and guarantees to stay in the JCPOA, such as a recent $20.6 million aid package and talk of an alternative money transfer channel that the US Treasury Department can’t touch.
Iran seems to be gambling on time, waiting out the Trump administration while keeping a close eye on how events with North Korea unfold. A rumor has floated of back channel talks between the United States and Iran on negotiating some points of Pompeo’s twelve demands, but this would require more carrots on the part of the Trump administration and fewer sticks.
Iran, whether it’s the government or the people, is a proud nation. As Rouhani remarked during his General Assembly speech: “Iran is an empire in terms of its civilization and its culture; not through political domination.”
Perhaps it’s time we start treating it like a proud nation. Iran and the United States should take on Oman and Switzerland’s offer to mediate—assuming they haven’t already. Even at the height of the Cold War, there was dialogue.
Diplomacy is not just in the Middle East’s best interest but the international community’s—and the United States.
Holly Dagres is editor of the Atlantic Council’s IranSource blog, and a nonresident fellow with the Middle East Security Initiative in the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. She also curates The Iranist newsletter. Follow her on Twitter: @hdagres.