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Opinion Like it or not, talks with Iran are coming soon

French President Emmanuel Macron, second from right, and his delegation receive Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif during a meeting in the city hall of Biarritz, France, on the sidelines of the G-7 summit Sunday. (Javad Zarif's official Twitter account/AFP/Getty Images)

At this weekend’s Group of Seven summit, French President Emmanuel Macron delivered an important reality check on the war of ideas between the United States and Iran. The bottom line: Tehran is winning. If anyone needed proof, witness Macron’s decision to invite Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, to the meeting.

The Trump administration has been pursuing its strategy of “maximum pressure” on Iran for nearly two years now, with zero contacts between the two sides. That may be about to change. With the annual United Nations General Assembly starting in less than a month, face-to-face meetings between U.S. and Iranian officials could materialize quickly.

President Trump and his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani, both said Monday they were open to the idea of meeting.

“If I knew that going to a meeting and visiting a person would help my country’s development and resolve the problems of the people, I would not miss it,” Rouhani said in a televised speech on Monday. “We have to negotiate, we have to find a solution, and we have to solve the problem.”

Just as importantly, Trump reiterated his long-standing claim that he doesn’t seek regime change in Iran.

While Iran hawks in and around the Trump administration have been trying to sabotage even the notion of engaging with Tehran, other countries made their decision on this matter long ago. Macron’s decision merely reinforced the point.

For Iran’s leadership, the invitation was already a victory, and it will be presented as such at home. No matter how hard Trump’s Iran advisers try to demonize the Islamic republic, the regime is still being taken seriously by all the other major world powers.

In this respect, Iran is succeeding in achieving one of its primary goals: maintaining international relevance. The regime — but also the people of Iran — wants to be taken seriously, whether as a threat or potential partner. Every move from Tehran can be seen in the context of the effort to earn respect, appreciation or fear.

Biarritz proves that, for the moment at least, they can claim at least two of the three.

Tehran’s ability to exploit the divide between the United States and the rest of the world should be of grave concern. That growing rift serves to normalize the Iranian regime’s worst behaviors.

The 2015 nuclear accord was supposed to defang Iran. The agreement was supposed to deprive Tehran of its capacity to produce an atomic bomb, but also of its role as a disrupter in the Middle East. Yet it signally failed to require better treatment of the Iranian people.

New talks should be designed to get maximum cooperation from Iran on matters of real importance, such as ending the conflicts in Syria and Yemen and addressing the Islamic republic’s atrocious record on human rights.

Focusing disproportionate attention on Iran’s nuclear program, its regional role and its military capabilities diverts attention from Tehran’s most abhorrent behaviors: astronomical execution rates, gender apartheid, hostage-taking and environmental degradation, to name a few of the obvious ones. These are the aspects the international community should be paying attention to, since they are the reasons why the Islamic republic is so far out of step with international norms.

When Trump abandoned the nuclear agreement, he also gave up any American ability to influence how Iranian authorities should handle their domestic affairs.

Although they’ve been playing hard to get, Iran’s leaders are desperate for new talks. And if sanctions relief is truly in the offing, as President Trump is suggesting, it should come with conditions.

Exaggerating the status of a second-rate power that poses little threat to global stability while we could have been incentivizing it to act as a responsible regional player will go down as one of the great geopolitical sins of the last half-century. Now we have an opportunity to correct that mistake.

The Trump administration’s factually incorrect and dishonest approach to its Iran policy has helped the Islamic republic’s leadership to achieve heightened international legitimacy without having to deliver anything to its own people at a time when sanctions are ravaging the Iranian economy.

Unfortunately, however, the Trump administration has shown no sign that it actually cares about any of the grievances the Iranian people have with the regime that holds power over them.

If the Islamic republic wants to achieve full relief from the crushing sanctions currently eroding the fabric of Iranian society, now is the moment for the United States to make bold yet realistic demands of its Iranian counterparts. Doing so would be Trump’s best opportunity to reverse what has been, until now, one of his greatest policy failures.

Read more:

Trump must stop sanctioning Iranians to death

Trump wants to ‘make Iran great again.’ Here’s how he could.

Iran and the U.S. claim they’re not on speaking terms, but they’re doing a lot of talking.

It’s time to bring American hostages home from Iran