Yesterday, not long after threatening Iran with “consequences the likes of which few throughout history have suffered before”, Donald Trump stated that he is willing to meet with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at any time and in any place without preconditions in order to discuss a new nuclear deal – a proverbial JCPOA 2.0. Trump’s offer was reiterated by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who said
“President [Trump] wants to meet with folks to solve problems. If the Iranians demonstrate a commitment to make fundamental changes in how they treat their own people, reduce their malign behaviour, can agree that it’s worthwhile to enter into a nuclear agreement that actually prevents proliferation, then the president said he’s prepared to sit down and have the conversation with them”.
In response, President Rouhani’s chief adviser Hamid Aboutalebi stated, “Respecting the Iranian nation’s rights, reducing hostilities and returning to the nuclear deal are steps that can be taken to pave the bumpy road of talks between Iran and America“.
While the sudden about face from Washington and the corresponding toned-down response from Tehran may seem surprising, over a week ago I outlined how the Rouhani-Trump “show down” is following an almost identical trajectory to that which transpired last year and earlier this year between Trump and DPRK Leader Kim Jong-un:
“The public exchanges between Iran and the US are highly reminiscent of those from 2017 where Donald Trump and the DPRK’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un frequently exchanged threats and provocative warnings with one another. Last year, Trump stated that the DPRK’s warnings to Washington would be ‘met with fire, fury and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before’
The remarks exchanged more recently between Hassan Rouhani and Donald Trump follow an incredibly similar pattern. Throughout 2017 when the US and DPRK experienced a period of heightened tensions, officials in Pyongyang including Kim Jong-un threatened that if the US does anything to compromise its security, it would be met with a fierce nuclear response. Now that America’s always tense relations with Iran are entering a new period of hostility due to Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the JCPOA (Iran nuclear deal), Iran has been issuing increasingly assertive statements including a threat to bloc all oil shipments from the Persian Gulf when the US re-imposes pre-JCPOA sanctions in November.
While the pattern of US sanctions and further threats which is then met by further regional and military threats from the nation targeted by the US is almost identical in respect of the US and Iran this year and the US and DPRK last year, the vexing question is whether the situation with Iran will result in the historic de-escalation that transpired between the US and DPRK when Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump held the first meeting between a sitting US and DPRK head of state in history”.
It now appears that the cycle of threats followed by more threats and then followed by a request for a meeting has indeed occurred in respect of the US treatment of Iran and the only immediate remaining question is: will a long overdue meeting between the Presidents of Iran and the US take place?
The answer to this question ought to be a resounding ‘yes’ from the Iranian side. While it is certainly true that Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the JCPOA was not directly provoked by anything Iran did, as the UN and all the other parties to the original 2015 agreement continue to state that Iran is in full compliance with the initial terms, factors far beyond Iran’s borders self-evidently motivated Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 agreement.
While Trump’s close personal relationship with Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu clearly played a substantial role in motivating Trump’s decision to withdraw from the JCPOA, the fact that Netanyahu later assigned himself full credit for the decision only paints part of the picture.
Throughout his campaign for President, Donald Trump mercilessly criticised Barack Obama’s foreign policy. Obama’s securing of the JCPOA was among the most vocal points of Trump’s contention with his predecessor. As part of his ‘wrecking ball’ strategy of repealing most of his predecessor’s flagship policies ranging from the domestic Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) to Obama’s policies towards both Europe and the Arab world, the JCPOA was an obvious major target in this respect.
In this sense, Trump’s dislike of the JCPOA can in many ways be described as more of an emotional response to Barack Obama than an objective response to either the events inside Iran, Iran’s involvement in the anti-terror wars in Iraq and Syria or even Israel’s anti-Iranian foreign policy. Because of this, Trump’s decision to welcome re-engagement with Iran over a “new deal” should not be dismissed as mere rhetoric.
Just as he blamed his predecessors for doing a poor job in “handling” the DPRK, many of Trump’s most controversial foreign policies are actually part of his strategy to undo what he sees as poor legacies of the recent political past in the US. In this sense, much of Trump’s seemingly “irrational” foreign policy is as much to strengthen his hand in domestic politics as it is anything else.
As a result, much of the world often feels like it is being held hostage to Trump’s brinkmanship. It is therefore natural for Iran to be reticent to re-engage with the US over a deal that Iran has fulfilled by all accounts. That being said, dialogue is always preferable to confrontation and while a traditional US war on Iran remains a remote possibility in spite of the storm and fury from certain media outlets, the US sanctions that are set to come into force in November will undeniably be a burden that Iran neither needs nor deserves.
Geopolitics is never about lofty ideals or fraternal loyalties but is merely about serving one’s interests and solving one’s problems, ideally while doing as little harm to others as possible. While Iran prides itself on grandiose rhetoric, there is nothing for Iran to lose by engaging in direct discussions with Donald Trump and his colleagues. In this sense, rather than face an uncertain economic future in the face of sanctions, Iran ought to do anything it can to work with the US on a new deal, knowing that Russia and China’s mutually good relations with both Tehran and Tel Aviv can throughout the entire process, work to streamline any asymmetrical responses that Israel might have to Trump’s about face regarding Iran.