Rouhani Should Be Allowed to Talk with Trump

Hassan Rouhani (Wikimedia Commons)

by Shireen T. Hunter

When Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif showed up at the G7 summit earlier this month and talked with French President Emmanuel Macron, it raised hopes that Macron’s efforts to mediate between Iran and the United States might finally bear fruit.

Zarif said that Iran and France were in agreement on some points, although he added that the “road ahead is difficult.” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, for his part, stated that he will do anything that could help Iran’s development, including possibly talking to Trump. However, he and Zarif later had walk back their positions, with Rouhani saying on Tuesday that there can be no talks between the United States and Iran until and unless all U.S. sanctions are lifted. Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi added that Iran is only talking with Europe and dismissed any chance of talks with Washington.

This is no surprise, because while Zarif was in Biarritz, Sardar Gholamhossein Gheybparvar, who until very recently was the head of the Basij paramilitary force, said that he hoped that government officials were not rushing to France out of despair and because their knees got weak. Other Iranian commentators also chimed in along similar lines.

In the United States, counteracting President Trump’s relatively softer tone at the G7—he said, for example, that the U.S. does not seek regime change in Iran—National Security Advisor John Bolton warned that a willingness to talk to Tehran does not mean that Washington’s position and demands regarding Iran have changed. In short, no sooner did a small hope for some sort of reduction of tensions between Iran and the U.S. emerge than hardliners both in Tehran and in Washington began to squash it. In all likelihood they will succeed, and nothing will come out of Macron’s efforts.

Pride and Mistrust

Two factors most strongly determine whether any talks would take place and also if any real agreements could be reached. The first is pride. Both Iranian and American national pride is at stake in this matter. Iranian hardliners, although not the majority of the population, think that talking to the U.S. would mean surrender and the beginning of the end for the Islamic Revolution. Thus they want to extract concessions from Washington, notably the lifting of all sanctions. However, the U.S. cannot agree to that a priori, since it would mean Tehran winning the test of wills.

The second factor is mistrust. Iran cannot be confident that if it were to agree to talks, Washington would lift the sanctions. In view of Tehran’s past experiences with the U.S. government going back on its promises—most notably in the context of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which supposedly was to settle the issue of its nuclear program—Iran’s hesitance is understandable.

For its part, the U.S. cannot be certain that if it were to lift the sanctions, Iran would not renege on its promise to talk and, more importantly, to change its behavior. It should be remembered that no sooner had Iran agreed to the JCPOA than it tested a new ballistic missile and then arrested U.S. sailors who had strayed into Iran’s territorial waters.

To overcome this barrier, the United States can lift some sanctions, at least for a period, and Iran can agree to substantive and broad-ranging talks. This is better than Macron’s proposal of freeze for freeze—namely, that the U.S. would issue waivers for some customers of Iranian oil and Tehran would return to full compliance with its obligations under the JCPOA.

Sooner or Later Tehran Must Talk to Washington

Pride and mistrust aside, Iran at some point must talk to the U.S. Iran’s experience since the Islamic Revolution and especially after the USSR’s collapse has proven that it cannot circumvent the U.S. in its international relations no matter how it tries. Over the past three decades, U.S. opposition has kept Iran out of pipeline and transportation networks developed in Central Asia and the South Caucasus and prevented the export of its energy reserves to Europe. A similar situation has prevailed in Asia, where U.S. opposition has been the main reason for Pakistan’s unwillingness to complete its part of a pipeline that would have brought Iranian natural gas to the country. This U.S. opposition has enabled Russia, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan to capture potential markets for Iran’s energy.

Iran has tried several strategies, such as the “Looking to the East” plan and now the expansion of relations with neighboring states, to undo the negative consequences of U.S. opposition, but it has not had any success. For example, despite their professions of friendship towards Iran, neither Russia nor China have helped Iran to enter the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Even Pakistan now is a full member. Russia, while ignoring Iran’s grievances on issues such as the division of the Caspian, is now seeking to substantially expand its relations with Saudi Arabia, Iran’s archrival in the Middle East. Putin is scheduled to visit Riyadh in October. China, which is supposedly Iran’s strategic partner, has not helped Tehran financially. Instead, it has used Iran as a dumping ground for its inferior goods. By contrast, Beijing recently announced that it was giving Turkey a billion dollars in assistance. Beijing is wooing Ankara but not Tehran, because Iran has no viable alternatives.

Meanwhile, Iran’s neighbors are actually either latent enemies or active competitors. They have extracted and will continue to extract advantages from Iran while doing nothing to help it. This is not surprising. When a state limits its options through misguided policies it makes itself vulnerable to external manipulation.

The above means that Iran cannot hope to get out of its current predicament without reaching some compromise with the United States. Hardliners still insist on resistance and believe they can wait out America. Some of them suffer from delusions that the U.S. is on the verge of collapse and that it will soon go the way of the USSR. Even if that were true, it would not happen soon enough to do Iran any good.

Talks Should Include the Levant

To do Iran any good, any talk with Washington should be about the real causes of tension between the two states, and that is Iran’s posture on the Palestinian dispute and Israel. Iran’s support for terrorism means its ties to Hezbollah and Hamas. If Iran wants to limit talks to Persian Gulf security and sanctions, they are unlikely to succeed.

Iran wants to delink Persian Gulf security from the problems of the Levant. But the politics of the two regions have been inextricably linked since the 1950s, when Gamal Abdel Nasser first made his foray into the Gulf, followed by Syria, Baathist Iraq, and then Libya. Now that it has close ties with Gulf Arab States, Israel would under no circumstances agree to arrangements that made Iran secure in the Gulf while giving it a free hand in the Levant. Nor would states like Egypt forgo their interests in the future political and security structures of the Gulf.

Hardliners will say that talking to the U.S. on these matters is a betrayal of the Revolution and Islam. But they must remember that continuing on the path of Revolution that has led to the current impasse would be a betrayal of Iran and its people. They must decide what is more important: Iran or a failed revolution.

Shireen Hunter

Shireen Hunter is an affiliate fellow at the Center For Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. From 2005 to 2007 she was a senior visiting fellow at the center. From 2007 to 2014, she was a visiting Professor and from 2014 to July 2019 a research professor. Before joining she was director of the Islam program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a program she had been associated since 1983. She is the author and editor of 27 books and monographs. Her latest book is Arab-Iranian Relations: Dynamics of Conflict and Accommodation, Rowman & Littlefield International, 2019.



  1. Kooshy

    The authentic message of Zoroaster has been garbled by the passage of time. Gathas (Sanskrit: Geetha=Song) are largely incomprehensible since Avestic is a lost language. Yes, the contemporary Zoroastrian religion is very restrictive but that is vestigial of a much more vigorous religious insight that goes back 8600 years. All the religions of Western Asia are offshoots of Din Behi in as much as thematically they cannot be distinguished. Even such late-comers such as the Baha’i are not an exception.

    The Good Deed, Good Thought, Good Speech was a form of Spiritual exercise: master the Speech and after mastering it, move on to master your actions, and once you have gained control of your deeds, you can begin the effort of trying to gain mastery of your thoughts.

    Another exercise was to imprison one’s Greed, thus the word for one who had so succeeded: “rend”.

    It is interesting that the highest exponent of the dominant civilization on Earth seeks to destroy the longest-living monotheistic tradition on this planet. Is Ahriman at work here?

  2. Ms Shireen,
    Apparently your husband hasn’t explained to you the recent history of the US since Eisenhower till to date? I’d suggest that you go back and further research the past 70 some years of the US history.
    In short, today the Military Industrial Complex is in charge of the US foreign policies 120% as predicted by Eisenhower. He warned the Americans to be on Alert of this development almost 70 years ago. The MIC was formed by Charlie Wilson who was the CEO of the GE during those times! Charlie Wilson’s philosophy was very short, simple and easy to understand! He called it “PERMANENT WAR ECONOMY”. Keeping aside the other US wars in 1800’s or earlier, there hasn’t been a year gone by in which the US hasn’t been involved since WWII until today. So creating wars for others to fight and or being involved in wars itself means more funds funneling into the “merchants of death” or MIC pockets! That’s how and why the pentagon’s budget has been increasing since WWII. As you may know the pentagon’s budget is nearly $800B and another $800B for all other security agencies including the expenses of maintaining 800 military bases around the world. All these expenses are sold to the taxpayers based on the big SECURITY LIE through fear mongering of the citizens!
    Now please tell us how another country can trust to negotiate with the US truthfully? The principle of the “PERMANENT WAR ECONOMY” won’t permit any compromises during any negotiations now or in the future. This can change though when the MIC is dismantled and it’s subservients are brought to justice.

  3. “…the real causes of tension between the two states, and that is Iran’s posture on the Palestinian dispute and Israel.”

    No, the real reason that the US hates Iran is the Islamic overthrow of the US/Iran government many years ago exacerbated recently with Iran’s successes against the US primacy in the Middle East ordained by the Carter Doctrine and now spoiled by the extension and amplification of Iran interests in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Iran has whupped the US good and proper so why talk to the US about it? That wouldn’t change anything.

  4. Shirin you are openly REVOLTING against the orders of Allah while heading towards death at everyone else. Take care of your self for safety from Allah’s punishment instead of pondering on trying to involve in supporting US the worst CRIMINAL of this century.

  5. Unfortunately, till Khamenei is around his sycophants will continue to channel his thoughts. Discussions are good. Unlike what many commentators and hardliners say, discussions does not mean capitulation. The only reason they fear discussions is their lack of faith in their own arguments.
    As some have said that the US has a permanent war economy, Khamenei thrives on a permanent hostile resistance economy. Don’t let him escape the blame.

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