A Trump-Rouhani meeting: inevitable or inconceivable?

By John Krzyzaniak, September 5, 2019

Tehran US embassy paintingGraffiti on the wall surrounding the former US embassy in Tehran.

Over the last two weeks there have been a flurry of statements from American and Iranian officials on the possibility of negotiations between Iran and the United States. Will they happen, or won’t they? While some think that talks are increasingly likely, a recent commentary in the Washington Post suggests that hurdles abound.

Last week, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani caught Iran watchers by surprise when he seemingly signaled openness to bilateral talks. In a speech, he said that if meeting with “a person” would help solve the problems of the Iranian people, then he “wouldn’t miss it”—even if the chance of success were only 10 or 20 percent. Donald Trump, too, has signaled a willingness to meet at the upcoming UN General Assembly.

But within 24 hours of his speech, Rouhani had reversed course, stating that he is not interested in mere photo opportunities and that the United States must lift sanctions before even multilateral talks could take place. Bilateral talks, Rouhani said later, are completely off the table.

The Iranian president’s diverging statements come as Iran is set to take the third step in reducing its JCPOA commitments this Friday. Together, these actions may be part of a new strategy, according to a recent report in the New York Times. The strategy, which involves “displaying a more defiant position on Iran’s military and nuclear energy policies … while signaling a willingness to talk under certain conditions,” has emerged because many Iranian decisionmakers have reportedly concluded that dealing with Trump is an inevitability.

Perhaps talks are indeed on the horizon, but there are several substantial obstacles that will need to be overcome before they can happen. For starters, neither country is a monolith when it comes to setting policy. Just as John Bolton and Mike Pompeo might resist the idea of US-Iran talks, hardliners in Iran would resist anything that could be perceived as a surrender. Indeed, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei stated earlier this year that “negotiations are poison.” In short, both sides will have to overcome domestic opposition.

Second, the United States would have to find a way of reassuring its allies in the Middle East, or otherwise risk damaging relations with them. As Adam Taylor, writing for the Washington Post, succinctly puts it, “Just weeks ahead of another Israeli election, U.S.-Iran reconciliation would be disastrous for Netanyahu.” Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, too, might protest any form of rapprochement.

Third, and perhaps most important, Iran would need guarantees that such a meeting would have tangible benefits. In the case of North Korea, the summits in Singapore and Hanoi held intrinsic value for Kim Jong-Un, who reveled in the opportunity to share a stage with the American president. For Iran, no such intrinsic value exists—in fact, the opposite may be true. For Iran, a meeting that brings no sanctions relief but allows Trump to claim a foreign policy victory just before the 2020 election would be a disaster.


Publication Name: The Washington Post
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