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.

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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.

SHOW 22 COMMENTS

22 Comments

  1. Amin San

    And Arbenz, Allende, Ho Chi Minh, Mossadeq, Assad the Son, Rafsanjani, and Putin?

    What was their problems that caused hostility from US? They all wanted to work with USA.

    You are either a Sovereign state or you are enemy of the USA.

  2. Why does Shireen pretend to actually be neutral?

    Iran should never agree to anything less than the full implementation of the JCPOA. If they agree to another set of talks to change that agreement, Iran as a nation is finished. All regional bullies like SA or Israel and the US will constantly try to change and renege on any deal, agreement or norm as they will know pressure will pay off.

    Only a child doesn’t see that or perhaps a person that is deliberately spewing talking points that are designed to be neutral but are rather anti-Iranian.

    Remember, the true issues those bullies have with Iran are not iran’s Government but it’s rise.

    Even under the shah Iran lost territory and was bullied.

    The true sin of iran is not the Islamic Republic but rather being Iranian or Persian and wanting self determination.

  3. Anis Sayani, don’t pretend to speak for God, neither you or the mullah’s are qualified.

    As for FYI, it is in interest of the Iranian people to have discussions with the US. There is nothing black and white, just shades of grey, so learn to live with it.

  4. Amin San

    Iran had a discussion with USG and it concluded with JCPOA.

    You cannot discuss anthing with dishonorable people.

  5. Hunter argues for “soft regime change” unlike John Bolton. The quest for regime change, however, is central to the present crisis. Rouhani was elected by an overwhelming majority in 2017 to bring the benefits of JCPOA to the long suffering people of Iran. Hard liners that opposed JCPOA in Iran are not the Revolution. The Revolution promised democracy to the people of Iran after overthrowing the rule of the Shah. The linkage of theocratic authority with the military power of the the IRGC continues to trap the people of Iran under authoritarian rule despite the political sophistication of the Iranian public.

    Given fulfillment of the promise of relief from sanctions Rouhani was positioned to drive reforms that could have strengthened civil government vs the IRGC by bringing the people of Iran benefits from JCPOA. The U.S. exit from JCPOA despite Iran’s full compliance with the agreement coupled with the U.S. Maximum Pressure to drive regime change in Iran has fundamentally strengthened the position of the IRGC and associated hardliners in Iran weakening the position of reformers and moderates.

    Resolution of crisis cannot come from Bolton and Pompeo giving Trump freedom to negotiate with Rouhani because that would be at odds with the whole purpose of Maximum Pressure which is to force regime change in Iran regardless of Trump’s statement that he does not seek regime change. Elements of Maximum Pressure have been designed to prevent the possibility of Trump’s negotiations with Rouhani – starting with Pompeo’s 12 demands, provocations including attacks in Iraq, and the insulting sanctions against Khamenei and Zari among other measures. The possibility of a phone call between Zarif and Trump leading to negotiations with Rouhani is a frightening prospect for John Bolton.

    Trump changed his posture in Korea because of the initiative of South Korea’s president Moon Jae In. Hardliners would have continued to neutralize Trump but for Moon’s vision of eventual reunion of Korea. Macron can still play a comparably productive role with Iran by reframing the Iran crisis in a way that offers Trump substantial benefit. The vast majority of the American people would welcome resolution of the Iran crisis. Let’s hope for Macron’s success!

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