Such a meeting would be a typical strategy for an American leader more focused on deals than dogma and willing to abruptly change his policy if it aids a negotiation. Trump met with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un after months of missile and nuclear tests last year; his administration has been willing to talk directly to groups as unsavory as the Afghan Taliban and even the Iran-backed Houthi militia in Yemen.
But if Trump continues to pursue the idea of direct talks with his counterpart in Tehran, he will run into a serious backlash — not only from hard-liners in both Iran and the United States. The decision would again expose the distance between an opportunistic president and his ideological backers.
Both Trump and Rouhani have discussed the possibility of a meeting in recent days, with the U.S. leader sounding especially positive. “If the circumstances were correct, were right, I would certainly agree to that,” Trump said at a joint news conference with French President Emmanuel Macron during the Group of Seven summit in Biarritz, France, on Monday. Trump later suggested that a summit could happen within weeks.
Advocates of a meeting hope that it might provide an off-ramp for tension between the United States and Iran. Last year, Trump pulled the United States out of an agreement between Iran and other world powers designed to limit Tehran’s nuclear program and subsequently reimposed U.S. sanctions on the country. Iran has stayed in the deal, but it broke some of its key limits on nuclear enrichment and has disrupted shipping in the Persian Gulf.
This summer, with Iran’s economy suffering real pain and the United States mulling bolstering its military forces in the region, there seemed to be the real possibility of another conflict in the Middle East, potentially even more devastating than the Iraq War. Even now, the situation remains fraught.
But while Trump’s push for dialogue with Rouhani might reduce the risk of conflict, it may also run counter to the views of some of his closest allies both at home and abroad. Mike Pompeo, Trump’s ever-loyal secretary of state, made his name in the House of Representatives opposing the 2015 nuclear deal that the United States signed under the Obama administration.
Earlier this year, Pompeo made a list of 12 strict demands that Iran would need to meet to rejoin negotiations. Trump contradicted this on Monday by suggesting that he could seek a “very simple” deal with Iran that focused on nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. “Pompeo and Trump’s negotiating divergences cannot be ignored,” Tom Rogan of the Washington Examiner argues. “They are now crystal clear.”
White House national security adviser John Bolton gave a speech at an event hosted by an Iranian exile group known as the Mujahedeen Khalq, MEK, or People’s Mujahedeen, where he openly called for the end of the religious regime that rules Iran. “The declared policy of the United States should be the overthrow of the mullahs’ regime in Tehran,” Bolton told the audience.
Trump on Monday reiterated an idea that is the exact opposite of Bolton’s proposal: “We are not looking for regime change in Iran.” It’s a message that the MEK, which has cultivated not only Bolton but also Trump lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani, will not like to hear.
Meanwhile, Trump’s greatest allies in the Middle East have thrown much of their support behind the American leader because of his tough Iran policy. They would balk if he reversed course. Both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates oppose Iran’s nuclear ambitions but also its general regional influence — and though they fear a conflict with Iran, they worry about a capitulation to it as well.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, perhaps the closest of all of Trump’s foreign friends, may have taken matters into his own hands: Suspected Israeli airstrikes have hit targets in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq in recent days, raising concern about a war between a major American ally and Iranian-linked forces. Just weeks ahead of another Israeli election, U.S.-Iran reconciliation would be disastrous for Netanyahu.
If the proposed Trump-Rouhani meeting happens, it’d be thanks to the efforts of the American leader. Trump has been clear for a long time that he would meet with the Iranian president without preconditions; last year’s meeting with North Korea’s Kim shows his willing to ignore the advice of his domestic and international backers for the pageantry of a summit.
Instead, the biggest obstacle to this meeting is not in Washington, but in Tehran, where Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has repeatedly rejected Trump’s personal diplomacy outreach, even though it was his sudden change of heart that allowed the 2015 nuclear deal to take place.
Iran hawks know this. “We were very lucky that until now the Iranians rejected all of Trump’s proposals for talks,” is how one senior Israeli official put it, according to a report by Axios’s Barak Ravid. For now, the chances of a reversal may be slim. “Khamenei’s legacy is at stake,” Henry Rome, an analyst with Eurasia Group, wrote in a note on Monday, pointing out that Khamenei is trying to find a successor.
Rouhani and his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, both have reputations as moderates, but they still require Khamenei’s approval for major moves. They also have plenty of reasons to be not so moderate on Trump — Zarif has been personally targeted by U.S. sanctions, while Rouhani has described the White House as “mentally crippled.”
On Tuesday, the Iranian president said that he would not meet with Trump unless the United States lifts sanctions. The demand also showed that Iran’s leaders have watched the aftermath of Trump’s interactions with North Korea’s Kim: The U.S. president still claims that his meetings with Kim were a victory, but there has been no meaningful progress on denuclearization and Trump’s allies have kept sanctions on North Korea.
With Trump about to start a potentially bruising election campaign and in the midst of a risky trade war, Iran’s leaders think they can get a better bargain. As Rouhani explained in a televised address on Tuesday: “We’re not interested in photos."
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