Can the nearly four-decade-long enmity between the United States and Iran be eased?
That’s the big question following U.S. President Donald Trump’s recent announcement of his willingness to confer with Iran’s leaders. “I would certainly meet with Iran if they’re ready to meet,” he said during a White House press conference at the end of July. “I think it’s an appropriate thing to do.”
In a reference to the 2015 nuclear agreement, from which the United States withdrew in May, Trump suggested that one of the purposes of such a meeting would be to amend it to his specifications. “If we can work something out that’s meaningful, not the waste of paper that the other deal was, I would certainly be willing to meet.”
The Iranian government has yet to reply officially to Trump’s off-the-cuff offer. But if the recent comments of a senior American and an Iranian official are anything to go by, the chances of a tete-a-tete between Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani are next to zero.
Rouhani’s advisor, Hamid Aboutalebi, let it be known that Rouhani would be willing to meet Trump if he demonstrated “respect for the great nation of Iran,” returned to the nuclear accord and toned down his hostility toward towards the Islamic Republic.
The U.S. secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, said, “If the Iranians demonstrate a commitment to make fundamental changes in how they treat their own people, reduce their malign behavior (in the Middle East), can agree that it’s worthwhile to enter in a nuclear agreement that actually prevents proliferation, then the president said he’s prepared to sit down and have a conversation with him.”
By setting out their respective conditions, Aboutalebi and Pompeo made it abundantly clear that the prospects of a U.S.-Iran rapprochement are practically nil.
Contrary to Aboutalebi’s demand, the United States has no intention of returning to the nuclear agreement unless it is completely revamped, a condition with which Iran’s arch enemy, Israel, agrees. And contrary to Pompeo’s demand, the authoritarian Iranian leadership has no interest in reforming the repressive political system, as the regime’s violent reaction to mass street demonstrations in 2009 amply demonstrated.
It’s doubtful whether Trump will ease up on his carrot-and-stick rhetoric toward Iran. In a tweet addressed to Rouhani on July 22, Trump wrote in an all-caps message that Iran would face “consequences the likes of which few throughout history have ever suffered” if he continued to threaten the United States.
Responding to Trump, a commander of the Revolutionary Guards Corps, Qassim Suleiman, said that the United States, given its military failures in Afghanistan and Iraq, is in no position to issue threats against Iran.
Trump’s inflammatory tweet may well have been prompted by a speech Rouhani delivered a few days earlier. He had warned that an armed conflict pitting Iran against the United States would be the “mother of all battles,” a phrase coined by the late Saddam Hussein of Iraq. Prior to this, Rouhani had threatened to disrupt regional oil shipments passing through the Persian Gulf if its own exports were blocked by U.S. sanctions. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, backed Rouhani.
In accordance with its plan to exert pressure on Tehran to renegotiate the nuclear agreement, the Trump administration reimposed economic sanctions on Iran on August 6. These sanctions forbid commerce with Iran involving U.S. dollar bank notes, gold, precious medals, aluminum and steel, commercial passenger aircraft and coal. They also end Iranian exports of carpets and foodstuffs into the United States.
Iran faces a choice, Trump said: “Either change its threatening, destabilizing behavior and reintegrate with the global economy, or continue down a path of economic isolation.”
Iran, which is likely to ignore Trump’s threat, will continue to assert itself aggressively in the Middle East. It will support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, Hezbollah and Hamas, all of which are aligned against Israel. It will tolerate no meaningful dissent from its citizens. And it will resist changes to the nuclear agreement.
Given these sharp differences in their respective policies, no one should expect a Trump-Rouhani meeting any time soon, if at all. Speculation abounds that they will meet on the sidelines when the United Nations General Assembly convenes in September. But that is probably wishful thinking.