At a news conference with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, President Trump indicated that he would be willing to meet with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at anytime with no preconditions.
This happened a few months after President Trump violated the JCPOA by walking away from the deal, even though the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) indicated that Iran was complying with the agreement twelve times. For months, President Trump called the JCPOA an embarrassment to US national security interests on the campaign trail and during his tenure as president. Given Trump’s unpredictability on foreign policy issues, his willingness to talk to President Rouhani raises more questions than answers. We’ve heard the “fire and fury” of President Trump before with North Korea, and as a result, the DPRK came to the negotiating table in Singapore. However, Iran is a very different case from North Korea.
One problem with having a summit between Trump and Rouhani would be looking for a partner to broker such an event. For example, South Korea brokered a meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong-Un, but who could do that with Iran? Maybe Oman could with its past experience by brokering backchannel negotiations between the US and Iran on the JCPOA. Another problem lies within the Trump Administration itself. Senior officials in Trump’s cabinet like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton are staunch critics of the Iranian Government’s regional activities and ballistic missile program. But if there is a willingness to have such a meeting, it would not hurt for both Tehran and Washington to negotiate as long as it avoids a direct confrontation in the Middle East.
President Trump’s remarks on a possible meeting with Iranian President Rouhani signal yet another shift in tone from threatening Iran on twitter to meeting the Iranians with no preconditions.
However, Trump may have a strategy that is underreported in Washington. President Trump’s foreign policy strategy has been to assess strong states and see if there is any room to work with the people in charge of those states who he either can or needs to work with. At the same time, Trump uses rhetorical pressure to put himself in a position to somehow strike an agreement with those leaders and work with those states.
Trump has assessed from the very beginning of his presidential campaign that Iran is a strong state and he will have to deal with Iran in one way or another. In addition, Trump did not want to be saddled with the deal struck by his predecessor. The JCPOA had a root in Trump’s domestic politics by undermining Obama’s legacy and playing to his political base before the midterm elections in November, as well as his re-election campaign in 2020.
Iran did not pull out of the JCPOA, but the United States did. In fact, the Iranians have never had any problems with negotiations and Tehran has been negotiating about its nuclear program for the last two decades. The JCPOA took many years of intensive negotiations to implement, but the problem Iran sees in Washington are the mixed signals coming out of the Trump Administration.
President Trump talked about meeting President Rouhani, but an hour later, Secretary of State Pompeo came out with three preconditions criticizing Iran’s domestic politics, its role in the region, and its ballistic missile program. For Tehran, it is very difficult for them to accept these preconditions, as well as the twelve demands that were released a few months ago from Pompeo.
However, why would the Iranians negotiate with an American President that has issued a travel ban on the country, threatened to reimpose sanctions, cut oil exports to zero, and nix a functioning agreement like the JCPOA? These issues are major obstacles for a possible re-negotiation between the US and Iran in the near future.
Looking at the region as a whole, the Saudis and Emiratis are not welcoming a meeting between Rouhani and Trump. Even though there is a great deal of concern coming out of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, part of Trump’s intention is to keep other nations on their toes and give the United States more. Unlike past American presidents, Trump looks at states and chooses what interests are not only beneficial towards national security, but for himself personally. Vis-à-vis the Saudis and Emiratis, the White House has been disappointed in what they think the Saudis should have given to the US in terms of investment and arms sales. As a result, Trump may be cranking up the heat on traditional partners like Saudi Arabia and the UAE, but Trump could pivot to Rouhani if he feels less dependent on the Gulf which may be a part of his potential strategy.
Washington has reportedly planned on creating a Middle East Strategic Alliance with Sunni majority countries to counter Iranian influence and increase counterterrorism efforts. With the GCC Crisis between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, it is nearly impossible to create such an alliance that will only further bog down the US in the region. A lot of decision makers already think that this may not happen, but there is a strange delusion from Saudi Arabia that all of their foreign adventures from Yemen to Syria have failed miserably and for the US to put all of its eggs in the basket of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi is a risky gamble.
The GCC Crisis also shows that the Sunni majority states in the Arab world are divided and depicts the failures of Saudi power to unite the GCC. From the perspective of Washington, the Saudis are not only failing in Yemen, but they couldn’t even take on Qatar which does not make for a coherent security strategy. Many analysts in think tanks, as well as the Pentagon like to talk about security alliances, but being able to sell billions of dollars in hardware is not sustainable for an American-Arab security summit let alone a potential alliance.
Iran’s regional influence will make it more difficult for the U.S to engage in a direct confrontation militarily and the costs of such a confrontation will be catastrophic. In fact, for medium-term security, Iran has called for a new regional paradigm for quite a long time, even when Rouhani was first elected in 2013. Tehran has argued for all the countries in the region to put aside their differences and provide support for each other.
The political elite in Washington are beaten down after Trump’s summit with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki and his Singapore summit with Kim Jong-Un. But again, the pro-Israeli lobbies like AIPAC are highly enormous industries that could prevent a meeting between Presidents Rouhani and Trump from occurring and we’ll have to see what will happen next.