Analysis

Trump-Rohani Phone Call May Have Dissipated, but U.S.-Iran Negotiations Aren't Dead Yet

Despite the insult Trump endured when Rohani refused to speak with him, it seems that both the U.S. and Iran are willing to return to the negotiating table with sufficiently vague conditions to give each side great flexibility

President Hassan Rohani, (R) shakes hands with French President Emmanuel Macron during their meeting on the sideline of the UN General Assembly in New York, September 24, 2019.
AP

The story revealed by the New Yorker magazine regarding the failed efforts of French President Emmanuel Macron to arrange a phone call between U.S. President Donald Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rohani is reminiscent of the matchmaking efforts featured in the Israeli hit television series “Shtisel.”

Everything appeared to have been arranged. A secure telephone line was installed in a special room at the Millennium Hilton Hotel in New York where the Iranian president was staying. Trump was anxiously waiting at the White House for Rohani to leave his hotel suite and walk a short distance to the phone so that together they would make history. But it didn’t happen.

Rohani didn’t even go to the phone after Macron and his staff gathered at Rohani’s door. Trump was left holding the telephone receiver and Macron probably felt like kicking himself. From all of the accounts, it’s not entirely clear whether there had been an Iranian commitment to have the call, whether Rohani got cold feet at the last moment, whether Macron had made the technical arrangements in the hope that the call would take place, or whether it involved a complete misunderstanding.

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Trump’s longing for a direct conversation with Rohani has become almost an obsession. Back in August, at the G7 summit in the French town of Biarritz, Trump had tried to impose himself on Macron’s meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. Macron tried to include Trump, but Zarif rebuffed the pressure.

Zarif insisted that the United States had to remove the sanctions against Iran before there could be such a photo-op. Or, as Rohani put it in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly, the souvenir photo comes after the negotiations, not before. After that, Trump invited Zarif to visit the White House, but the Iranians shelved the invitation.

A short time later, the United States imposed sanctions on Zarif and other senior Iranian officials. And then came the phone call that never was. It will be interesting to see how Trump takes revenge for the insult.

But the failure of public meetings to take place is not an indication that the diplomatic process is dead. It has been some time since Iran shifted its position regarding new negotiations with the United States and the four other countries that signed onto the Iranian nuclear accord.

Instead of flat-out refusing to conduct any kind of negotiations until the United States lifts its sanctions and rejoins the nuclear agreement, Iran has been taking a more flexible stance. At first Iran proposed expanding the inspection regime at its nuclear sites beyond what was provided in the nuclear accord, as a gesture to advance the negotiations. Relying on the opinion of his national security adviser at the time, John Bolton (who has since been fired) and of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Trump rejected the offer.

In September, Iran’s “supreme leader” Ali Khamenei stated that if the United States reconsidered its withdrawal from the nuclear accord, the United States would be able to join negotiations with the other four permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany (which with the United States are known as the P5+1, the original signatories to the agreement).

On Monday, just before he set out on a trip to Armenia, Rohani announced that his country had held important meetings in New York with the four foreign ministers of the P5 that are still signatories to the nuclear agreement, at which he said that preparations had been made for talks with the P5+1 and that all the parties had agreed to the framework for the discussions. He did not provide details but did say that the United States would take part in the talks.

Rohani’s remarks are an extension of a statement that he made in New York that “what we believe is that the nuclear accord does not express the maximum of the agreements [that can be arrived at]. It expresses what was possible at the time. Now, if we want to do something above and beyond the agreement, it’s possible. But it depends first upon the full and exact implementation of the nuclear accord.”

It’s worth noticing that Rohani’s encouraging remarks were made after he understood from the French president and other leaders that Trump would be prepared to lift the sanctions on Iran when the negotiations begin. Immediately after that, however, Trump not only denied that but imposed additional sanctions on Iran, the 16th this year. Nevetheless, Rohani promised to provide additional details on Wednesday on the understandings that were reached when he reports to the Iranian parliament on his visit to New York.

The United States doesn’t remain apathetic to Iran’s flexibility and the Americans are presenting a new, more modest formula for the conduct of negotiations. In May of last year, the U.S. demands on Iran included access to every site in Iran at any time, the withdrawal of all Iranian forces from Syria, a halt to support for Hezbollah, a dismantling of Iran’s Quds Force and the end of support for Houthi rebels in Yemen. There were also demands on the subject of suspending Iran’s ballistic missile program and reporting on past Iranian nuclear development plans.

Instead the White House developed four goals for future negotiations with Iran: The promise not to develop nuclear weapons over time; a halt to assistance to the Houthis and help in bringing the war in Yemen to an end; implementation of a plan to ensure freedom of navigation in the Strait of Hormuz; and non-intervention in regional conflicts.

These are sufficiently vague conditions to give each side great flexibility in conducting negotiations but at the same time, due to their amorphousness, they could lead to endless talks, the potential for failure of which is high. It appears that Iran is prepared to enter into this sort of negotiation but on condition that it obtains concrete concessions in advance on the sanctions issue.

It isn’t counting on American assurances and has already been disappointed by the efforts by the European countries to bypass the American sanctions. A review of commentary in the Iranian media shows that Iran’s policy is based on two working assumptions: Iran is not facing the risk of an American military attack, and it can still withstand the economic pressure of the sanctions.

The Iranian economy has in fact been hurt badly, but it is not destroyed, and, most importantly, the sanctions have not fomented civil revolt that would endanger the regime. Another Iranian assessment is that at this time, Trump needs a diplomatic achievement more than Iran does, and therefore there is a better prospect to obtain greater concessions, but for that to happen, talks must begin soon rather than waiting until Trump’s presidential term ends.

There are differences of opinion inside Iran between those who oppose any negotiations with the Americans and returning to the original nuclear program and those who support negotiations that would lead to an end to the economic crisis threatening the Iranian regime. This is not the traditional dispute between conservatives and reformists but is rather between various segments of the conservative leadership, as well as between the command of the Revolutionary Guard and Rohani.

In the near future, this disagreement is expected to become part of the public debate through the media and then it will also be possible to assess what strategic decision the regime takes.