One of the reasons that the Foreign Ministries of both China and Russia are so successful is because they meet with representatives of every nation in the world irrespective of the current state of the bilateral relationship in question. While India continues to advance Sinophobic policies which make a cohesive relationship with China difficult, Chinese President Xi Jinping meets with Indian Premier Narendra Modi multiple times a year whether in the BRICS format or during summits of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. Likewise, in spite of the consistently poor relations between the two Asian states, in late April of this year, President Xi invited Premier Modi for a one-on-one informal visit designed to attempt to develop something of an even slightly positive understanding between one another.
While the leader of Ukraine’s fascist regime Petro Poroshenko presents a clear and present danger to the safety of Russian people, Russia’s President Putin has met Poroshenko several times since the Kiev coup of 2014. Furthermore, Putin and Poroshenko spoke over the phone prior to the beginning of the World Cup – a conversation widely credited with stopping what many thought was a forthcoming fascist offensive against the Donbass republics.
Likewise, even when Russo-Turkish relations reached a new low in late 2015, President Putin and Turkish President Erdogan continued to engage in private dialogue which has resulted in the best relations between Moscow and Ankara since the age of Ataturk and Lenin.
Finally, while Sino-Philippine relations were incredibly poor during the Presidency of Noynoy Aquino, Beijing never cut off the phone lines or refused to meet with Philippine officials. This open door has paid off as the election of President Rodrigo Duterte has led to what President Xi called a “golden era” in Sino-Philippine relations.
It is against this background that an official statement from Tehran saying that during last year’s opening of the UN General Assembly Iranian President Rouhani refused to meet with Donald Trump even though Iranian officials now claim that Trump asked for a one-on-one meeting on the sidelines of the UN eight times, appears all the more regrettable.
Trump reached out to Rouhani 8 times – Iran's presidential chief of staff pic.twitter.com/ebgf8QAHCW
— Ruptly (@Ruptly) July 18, 2018
The Iranian side’s refusal to facilitate a meeting between Rouhani and Trump – one that the US leader apparently wanted very much, indicates that Iran made a strategic error both in terms of foresight and hindsight. The aforementioned examples of dialogue taking place in presently or historically difficult situations proves that even in the worst of times, communication and face to face meetings are preferable to long distance tensions and an atmosphere of volatile impersonal rhetoric.
With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that while Trump offered wildly anti-DPRK rhetoric during his speech at last year’s General Assembly, his current open relationship with Kim Jong-un has undoubtedly been good for the wider world and for both Korean states in particular.
Because it has long been known that Trump likes to build up tensions in order to then play the role of “hero” by engaging in historic dialogue with an American “rival”, it is all the more bizarre that Iran is now touting the refusal of its President and his staff to meet with Trump when the opportunity arose, as if to imply that somehow Iran’s political leadership is more principled than that of the DPRK, Russia and China.
While it is true that Israel’s particular loathing of Iran when combined with America’s close relationship with Tel Aviv has made the issue of any breakthrough in Iran-US relations more difficult even than the present thaw in DPRK-US relations, it still seems awkward that Iran did not take the opportunity to engage in dialogue even in the faintest of hopes that some sort of partial breakthrough could be made. After all, it was this pragmatic but hopeful attitude that is pervasive when the Chinese President meets with the Indian Premier and likewise it was this attitude that eventually convinced the DPRK’s Chairman Kim Jong-un to sit down with Donald Trump.
While Iran’s political system is governed by revolutionary rhetoric so too is the DPRK’s Juche society as is China’s Marxist society. Therefore, this is not a legitimate excuse not to explore the prospects of an historic meeting with a US leader in spite of his well known hostility.
Now that the US and Russia have agreed on the importance of the withdrawal of Iranian and pro-Tehran Hezbollah troops from the theatres of combat in south-western Syria, it becomes apparent that Iran like the Chinese, Russian and American superpowers and like the nuclear capable DPRK must find room to compromise not for the sake of others but for the sake of retaining long term partnerships with its very genuine partners, including and especially Russia.
Even if a Rouhani-Trump summit was an abject failure, this would still allow Russia the geopolitical leverage to promulgate a true narrative stating that Iran has been reasonable and fair while it was the US side that remained incapable of making necessary compromises where Iran is concerned. In underestimating the kind of leverage that both Russia and of course China could gain from a failed Rouhani-Trump summit, Iran has underestimated the ability of counter-intuitive soft power to help open up new channels of opportunity that arise from the fomentation of palpable geopolitical sympathy. Had Iran met with Trump in good faith and the US acted in a less than diplomatic manner, Iran would clearly look like the more reasonable party, even in the eyes of many sceptics.
While one could argue from dust till dawn about the moral consistency of meeting with a clear adversary, if some of the most successful countries in the world communicate with adversaries on a regular basis, there is nothing unique about Iran or the United States to make such lines of communication any more taboo than those which are open between China and India, the US and the DPRK and Russia and the US.