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A nation must think before it acts.
The views expressed by the author are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. government or Department of Defense.
The recent firing or resignation of President Donald Trump’s National Security Advisor John Bolton has heightened speculation that Trump will meet with his Iranian counterpart President Hassan Rouhani on the margins of the upcoming United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) session beginning next week. Bolton is renowned for his hawkish views on Iran—long advocating for forceful U.S. military action against Iran and pushing regime change as the “only long term solution” to the threats posed by Iran.
With his sudden removal, some are suggesting that prospects for a bilateral meeting between Trump and Rouhani have substantially improved. In fact, it may well be that Bolton’s opposition to Trump’s suggestion to ease sanctions on Iran in order to facilitate just such a meeting might have been the spark that led to his dismissal. Since Bolton’s departure, key Trump officials including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Treasury Steve Mnuchin were quick to reiterate Trump’s willingness to meet with Iranian officials “with no preconditions.”
Trump’s multiple high-profile engagements with North Korean Leader Kim Jung-un and his recent willingness to host the Taliban at Camp David suggest there is little to discourage Trump from meeting directly with Iranian Rouhani.
From Iran’s vantage point, there are also good reasons to agree to such a high-level engagement. The U.S. “maximum pressure” campaign is inflicting severe damage on Iranian economy. Iranian oil exports have been slashed by more than 80% as the Trump administration pushes closer to achieving its objective of reducing Iranian oil exports to zero. The Iranian economy shrank by nearly 4% in 2018 and could shrink by 6% or more this year according to the International Monetary Fund due to a combination of tightening U.S. sanctions and internal economic mismanagement and corruption. Meanwhile, inflation is running rampant with the Iranian rial losing 60% of its value while food costs have skyrocketed by as much as 50-100%.
The quickest way to ease these economic pressures is to reach an accommodation with President Trump. There are also signs that at least some of the Iranian political elite in Tehran now see a meeting with Trump as essential to easing these economic pains. Rouhani has at various times repeated his openness to a meeting (albeit on the condition that the U.S. lift sanctions and adhere to its obligations under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), and Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has made multiple international trips to European capitals in an effort to keep prospects for a diplomatic resolution alive. Despite opposition from some senior U.S. officials, Trump is now reportedly considering backing a French proposal to extend a $15 billion line of credit to Iran as one means of incentivizing Iran’s return to negotiations.
Despite these objective reasons for Iran to reengage with Washington, however, several factors in domestic Iranian politics mitigate against Rouhani agreeing to meet with Trump. First, unlike Trump, who presides at the apex of the American foreign policy apparatus, Rouhani will need the approval of Supreme Leader Khamenei and other hardliners in the Iranian decision-making apparatus. According to exiled former Iranian President Bani-Sadr, the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA has served to strengthen the position of hardliners in Tehran who have long opposed engagement with the West. Consequently, it should come as no surprise that Khamenei has repeatedly rebuffed recent U.S. suggestions of renewed negotiations and reiterated his refusal to “negotiate over our military capabilities.” Moreover, the imposition of U.S. sanctions on both Khamenei and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) earlier this year has been denounced by Iranian officials as “outrageous and idiotic” acts that are designed to close “the doors on diplomacy.”
Second, the recent example of U.S. negotiations with North Korea also sounds a cautionary note for leaders in Tehran. Three high-level presidential engagements have failed to result in a meaningful easing of sanctions against Pyongyang. Rouhani and other Iranian leaders in the moderate camp are fearful that a meeting with Trump that fails to result in immediate meaningful lifting of sanctions will be sharply criticized by hardliners as a foolish and ill-conceived photo op just as Iranians prepare for parliamentary elections in February 2020. In 2013, Rouhani rejected a similar offer to meet directly with President Obama on the margins of a UNGA meeting settling instead for a much less controversial phone call. With Iranians suffering under renewed U.S. sanctions, Rouhani may well be reluctant to expose himself to further criticism from hardliners absent guarantees of immediate and concrete benefits.
Trump may instinctively understand the need for concrete assurances of progress if he is to entice Rouhani to a meeting at the UNGA. He has after all consistently sought to publicly reassure Iranian leaders that his policies are not aimed at regime change. As mentioned previously, he has also recently discussed the option of extending sanctions relief to Iran with his national security team in order to facilitate a meeting. Moreover, at least some in his close circle of advisors were apparently supportive of such an initiative.
Given the relative isolation of Iranian leaders who support engagement with the West, mere allusions to the potential for lifting of sanctions will not be enough to convince Rouhani—or more importantly, Khamenei—to take the risk of negotiating with the very person who unilaterally backed away from an internationally supported agreement despite Iran’s compliance as certified by the International Atomic Energy Commission. Unfortunately, repeated threats from senior U.S. policymakers promising an unrelenting and expanding “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran are also working at cross-purposes with other signals seeking to entice Iranian leaders to the negotiating table.
If Trump is serious about re-engaging with Iranian leaders to secure a more comprehensive and enduring agreement, he will first need to make a more concrete offer of immediate sanctions relief. Such an offer can—and should—be both limited and contingent. Economic and business analyst specializing in Iran Esfandyar Batmanghelidj has suggested that the U.S. take small steps to permit limited Iranian exports of oil in exchange for Iran reversing recent actions that exceed JCPOA limits on its uranium enrichment.
These relatively limited and reversible steps could generate sufficient momentum to resume negotiations and ease pressures on what many in both Washington and Tehran fear could escalate into open conflict. Even as Washington elites debate the implications of John Bolton’s removal and speculate over his potential successors, President Trump should take advantage of what might well be the best opportunity to return to talks before upcoming national elections in both countries complicate an already difficult negotiation.