I have no doubt that President Trump was serious Monday when he said he would be willing to meet with Iran’s leaders without precondition. But for the man who is still generally considered the most powerful person in the world, there are plenty of obstacles between him and a summit with the Islamic Republic’s top officials.
Standing in his way are the domestic politics of Washington and Tehran.
On Wednesday, Iran officials ruled out any meeting.
“Mr Trump! Iran is not North Korea to accept your offer for a meeting,” the commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, Mohammad Ali Jafari, wrote in an open letter published by the Fars News Agency.
Jafari reiterated that the freeze would go on past the Trump era, writing, “Even U.S. presidents after you will not see that day.”
Jafari’s was the most defiant response to Trump’s offer, but if other Iranian officials are to be believed — and this is one of those rare cases in which they probably can be — the White House reached out several times over the past year asking for a meeting with President Hassan Rouhani.
Those invitations — eight of them, according to Rouhani’s chief of staff — were all rejected.
The reality is that the leadership in Tehran sees little that could be gained from such a summit, especially at this time. This is a key departure from Kim Jong Un and his father, who coveted high-level meetings with American leaders. For the Kims, such encounters with American power legitimized them on the world stage.
That works with totalitarian dictators but is less useful in a country such as Iran, where internal politics — however limited in scope — and power jockeying are facts of life for its statesmen.
Although most Iranians from all walks of life would prefer renewed relations with the United States and the improved economic conditions that renewed relations would likely bring, for the current Iranian leadership such a meeting, on the heels of the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear accord and at a time that the country faces an economic crisis, would be deemed a sign of weakness. That proposition is too risky.
In Washington, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was quick to step in to explain what he says Trump actually meant to say: that once Iran falls into line, there could be a meeting.
“If the Iranians demonstrate a commitment to make fundamental changes in how they treat their own people, reduce their malign behavior, 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,” Pompeo said.
That all sounds reasonable enough, but Pompeo has outlined 12 parameters required for the United States to normalize its relations with Iran. Tehran deems those non-starters.
Regime-change proponents in Washington are likely to push back on any sort of engagement with Tehran. That would include Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, who has been a longtime advocate of the Mujahedin Khalq Organization (MEK), an exiled group that operates like a cult and was on the State Department’s list of terrorist groups from 1997 until 2012. The organization is reviled by most Iranians — inside Iran and in the diaspora — but has been given a new lease on life because of its ties with Bolton and others close to Trump, including Rudolph W. Giuliani.
For Trump, though, the goal is not about supporting any particular Iranian group but simply attempting to undo any Obama-era achievements.
Even politicians who opposed President Barack Obama’s nuclear accord at the time have come to understand the disastrous consequences that may ultimately come from Trump’s decision to withdraw from the deal. There is pressure, albeit limited, to find ways to reengage with Tehran.
Talking to Iran wouldn’t be crazy, but it’s unlikely that Trump’s latest statement will create the right conditions.
New sanctions will go into effect this week, which will make any engagement in the short term virtually impossible.
Once the drastic economic impact on the Iranian public becomes too much to ignore, Iran’s leaders may limp back to the negotiating table, but it’s unclear whether those efforts would be led by the diplomats who negotiated the nuclear accord or other officials, less eager for rapprochement.
U.S. diplomats who worked in both the Obama and George W. Bush administrations talk openly about the vast difference in dealing with counterparts from the Rouhani era compared with previous iterations of Iranian negotiators, who were known for lecturing Americans about historical conflicts, repeating ideological diatribes and never really getting to the point.
Iran’s nuclear negotiators, led by Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, actually made a deal. There are few scenarios now in which they would be able to reengage with Washington. Instead, the war of words — along with the strange flirtations that have come to signify U.S.-Iran relations — is likely to continue, as ideologues in Tehran and Washington are back in the driver’s seat.