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. Iran and Iranians are hated by the American government just because the Iranians kicked the inept American puppet in the ass and threw him out of the country. If anyone doesn’t believe it, all they need to do is to review the sanctions for the needed medicines. Let alone shooting down of the commercial plane and killing 290 Iranian passengers and its crew! The American main objective is to install another dictator in Iran and the rest is a bunch of BS. With that in mind the US government has NOT left any room for itself to maneuver or shown any integrity to be a negotiating partner with Iran.
    Even with all that, if there should be a negotiation between the two countries the negotiations CAN NOT and SHOULD NOT begin in 2020 though! Because that’s all the TV SHOWMAN, Trump, wants. He loves to show the photos of sitting around the table with Iranians to his supporters in an election year! Of course he will supplement the photos with a bunch of lies with no substance or commitments.

  2. Vidbeldavs

    Trumps wants to destroy Iranian, and by implication, the Shia power across the Near East and the larger world of Islam.

    EU states, including UK, agree with those aims, just not necessarily with his methods.

    We are in the middle of a war for continued existence of the Iranian state in its current form as well as physical safety of the Shia and their alliance members.

    There is no escaping of the US economic war except resistance. And offense against US interests and her allies. This is going to be a long story even though the Yemen War is ending and the anti-Assad forces are on the verge of defeat.

  3. Vidbeldavs,
    Another good comment!

    “The vast majority of the American people would welcome resolution of the Iran crisis.” Regrettably, polling of Americans views on Iran has consistently given for decades ~80% with a negative view on Iran. But you may be right, that most Americans would like to see at least one of the “crises” resolved in a peaceful way.

    “Let’s hope for Macron’s success!” Agreed!

    As I write this, Adrian Darya 1 is cruising south of Mersin at the slow speed of 5.6 knots in the general direction of nearby Iskenderun. It has not turned off its AIS. Meanwhile the US Department of the Treasury announced on August 30 that “OFAC took action today against Adrian Darya 1… The Adrian Darya 1 is being identified as blocked property pursuant to Executive Order (E.O.) 13224 …As part of today’s action, the Adrian Darya 1’s captain, Akhilesh Kumar, is also designated pursuant to E.O. 13224.” Let’s see what Iran, Turkey and the US will do next with Adrian Darya 1.

  4. For over forty bloody years – every U.S administration after another, the despicable foul Zionist Jews, the key-European states, the conniving-two faced Russians & of course, the Chinese, everyone in their capacity – have all succeeded in hurting Iran and it’s people in different ways!
    Considering all the facts & reality on the ground & against all the odds: There ‘ve been two incredibly but intertwined factors which ultimately did save our country-Iran, from collapse, humiliation and a definite future swing toward socio-economic irrelevance: One is about an extreme level of sense of pride, we Iranians have in our identity; being reinforced by this sense of believing in our people’s ability & freedom, which our country’s independence has given our nation. The other key factor is, of course, the Revolution itself, which brought hopes & awakening to the nation – Without the power of which, Iran would have economically collapsed, bankrupt & the Iranian-state, in all probabilities, it would have had disintegrated.
    Today – however, against all the self-serving bullshit, Shireen Hunter berated above – Even though, our enemies [the international Zionists & criminal Americans] have kept our people under sustained maximum economic sanctions to ultimately deny our children having [The] kind of a guaranteed future of economic as well as a military powerhouse being handed over to them. Our independent-Iran has made a long stride in developing its own indigenous advanced technologies, a modern health-care system, a highly praised education system, where our girls rated higher than boys & the existence of an almost modern urban infrastructure that are serving our modern Iran. That is the fruit of our Revolution!
    Death to our country’s enemies………Long Live Iran!

  5. Trump has said time and again, he only talks to person who is in charge of Iran. Rouhani, Zarif etc seems to be nothing but Khamenei’s busboys. Besides, there is even doubt about Khamenei’s power, after all that government apears to be a joint venture among multiple sources like a MAFIA establishment.

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