Analysis

Iran Rejects Trump's Extended Hand, but Leaves Room for Future Talks

Instead of Iran knocking on Washington's doors to talk about the nuclear deal and sanctions, it seems the U.S. is the one courting Tehran

U.S. President Donald Trump speaking to reporters after signing a proclamation declaring his withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Iran, May 8, 2018.
\ Jonathan Ernst/ REUTERS

What did United States President Donald Trump mean when he suggested negotiating with Iran with no preconditions? What is hiding behind his words that it would be "great if the sides could work out something meaningful?"

And mainly, who in the American administration may we believe, a president who has asked several times to meet with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and is ready to negotiate with him? Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who has said that negotiations with Iran would be held only "if the Iranians demonstrate a commitment to make fundamental changes" and makes clear that Iran must change its policy toward human rights, or perhaps Defense Secretary James Mattis, who objects to any regime change policy in Iran, and even strongly denies any U.S. intention to attack Iran?

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One thing that is not up for debate, is that the discourse in Washington is becoming murkier and murkier as the August 7 deadline for the first round of renewed sanctions approaches.

The declaration of the president and senior American figures seem to turn things on their head. Instead of Iran being the one to knock on Washington's doors to ask for a discussion of the nuclear deal and additional terms for cancelling the sanctions, the U.S. is the one who is courting Tehran. The intended haze created by the American declarations and the lack of specificity regarding its goals may give the feeling that the U.S. intends to give some leeway and be more flexible in its positions, in order to create a more comfortable space for American-Iranian dialogue. The dozen demands and conditions presented by Pompeo in May to Iran, including a technical halt to the ballistic missile program and a cessation of Iran's involvement in regional disputes, haven’t been mentioned in the last few days.

Instead, the administration is talking about a "change in direction" in protecting human rights (a clause that isn't on the previous list of demands) and about  "something meaningful." But the expression "without any preconditions" that Trump proposed to the Iranians leads one astray into thinking that the two countries are about to embark on unprecedented negotiations, as though there wasn't already a nuclear agreement already signed by the U.S., an agreement from which the U.S. withdrew in May.

To launch new negotiations with Iran means that Iran agrees to the cancellation of the existing nuclear deal, to continue to accept the sanctions regime and to talk to the United States, a power that has unilaterally abrogated an international agreement, about a list of subjects such as Iran's involvement in Middle East conflicts, its support for terrorism and assaults on human rights. Iran has meanwhile rejected what looks like an outstretched American arm and insists on a resumption of the nuclear deal before any additional negotiations are held with the United States.

But even the Iranian declarations do not a priori exclude the possibility of future negotiations with the United States. Bahram Qassemi, the spokesman for Iran's Foreign Ministry, made it clear this week that in light of the American administration's hostile policy toward Iran there is no room for any dialogue between the countries, and furthermore, that the United States has proven itself a country that can't be trusted. In other words, if the hostile approach, which Iran can interpret as it wishes, will change, there will be room to negotiate.

This public verbal exchange is aimed also at European Union nations which haven't succeeded until now in organizing new negotiations, as well as Saudi Arabia and Israel, now fearful of the change in U.S. policy toward Iran.

The EU may find Trump's position, if it turns out to be serious, to provide a new platform for attempts to renew negotiations with Iran. For the EU, this new position could be used not only as an alternative to American sanctions and a way neutralize U.S. influence, but in order to launch negotiations between Tehran and Washington.

The chances for the European effort to succeed depend mainly on its assessments of the Iranian leadership's capability to survive the new sanctions. While Iran can rely on Russian and Chinese support, it has also published a list of substantial incentives for any foreign investors who would complete more than 75,000 development plans. But the crash of the Iranian rial which hit the rate of more than 110,000 rials to the dollar, the protests, unemployment and expected loss of oil export markets may bring a resumption of "heroic flexibility," the phrase Khamenei used in 2015 when he ratified the signature on the nuclear agreement.

Saudi Arabia has ways of putting pressure on Trump but fears the possibility that sanctions against Iran will turn a diplomatic-economic fight into a regional military conflict. The attack on the Saudi oil tanker by the missile fired by Houthis in Yemen caused the Saudis this week to halt their oil shipments in the Red Sea. Its failure to change the situation in its favor in the war in Yemen or to get the United States to play any role in it, its exclusion from the Syrian arena, the waning of the 'deal of the century' with the Palestinians - especially due to Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital - and Saudi's inability to navigate Lebanon's politics, require Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman to reassess the kingdom's Middle East policy. Accordingly, any additional concession that Washington succeeds in getting from Iran, in addition to the nuclear deal, and without sparking a military confrontation, would be a profit, from a Saudi perspective.

The main problem is that any assessment or forecast now is based on tweets, declarations and the remarks of an American president who has accumulated a long trail of contradictions, recklessness and a chronic absence of policy. The validity of this president's remarks about holding a dialogue with Iran could expire within a day or a week.