Trump concluded the war of words between him and the Iranian regime on July 31, when he said he is ready to meet Iranian leaders without preconditions. This came in response to a question at a news conference held on the arrival of the Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte to Washington.
The statement has stirred much controversy as some consider it a departure from the harsh rhetoric that has long been adopted by Trump towards Iran. They say it is inconsistent with the policy of pressure and confrontation pursued by the US since Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal in May 2018. Others consider it as a US attempt to seek overtures with its long-time foe at the expense of its allies, especially the Gulf nations.
A threat, not a request for dialogue: Trump’s statement can be understood within the framework of several considerations and contexts. The first is that the statement was in response to a journalist’s question about the possibility of a meeting between Trump and Rouhani. Trump’s response was essentially diplomatic; however, it also did not forsake the tone of escalation. Trump said, “If they have the desire to do this, he will accept”. This means that Iran should take the initiative and call for a meeting. He said, “A meeting will be better in cases where there is a risk of war.” Thus, the alternative to Iran’s demand for negotiations is war. This is a veiled threat from Trump to Iran. Also, all his remarks during the conference were strict and of a hawkish nature. He described the nuclear deal as the worst deal ever, blasted Obama’s approach on Iran and expressed his opinion that the regime is going through hard times. He believes that Iran’s leaders would at some point decide to meet to discuss an alternative to the nuclear deal that the United States withdrew from in May 2018. Trump described the previous agreement as not worth the paper it was written on, and that he would be happy to negotiate with Iran a more important agreement.
Understanding the statement in the context of the development of the relationship between the two parties: Trump’s statement cannot be understood apart from the context of development in the relationship between the two countries during the recent period. There has been escalation between the US and Iran as the August 6 deadline of the first set of new sanctions on Iran is fast approaching. The sanctions target the automotive sector, trade, gold and precious metals. They include banning Iran from trading in US dollars. There is a second package of sanctions, which will be effective on November 4, 2018. These will target the energy sector, oil deals, as well as transactions of the Central Bank of Iran and banning it from using the international payment system.
In the light of this, the statements of officials on both sides reached a climax, leading to the threat of military confrontation, especially after the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said on the sidelines of his visit to Switzerland that, “if Iran cannot export its oil, no country in the region will be able to do so”. The Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei praised Rouhani’s threats and considered them as “important statements and represent the approach of the regime”.
The comments came in response to statements by the Trump administration on pursuing a policy of strangling Iran’s economy and threatening the regime by blocking its oil trade. President Trump’s escalation came as the US National Security Advisor John Bolton bolstered Trump’s position by saying “the president would inflict a price few countries have ever paid if Tehran does anything negative.”
In the tweet (which was written in block capitals) and addressed to President Hassan Rouhani, posted on Sunday, July 23, President Trump wrote: ‘To Iranian President Rouhani:
“NEVER, EVER THREATEN THE UNITED STATES AGAIN OR YOU WILL SUFFER CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE. WE ARE NO LONGER A COUNTRY THAT WILL STAND FOR YOUR DEMENTED WORDS OF VIOLENCE & DEATH. BE CAUTIOUS.”
This tweet was in response to Rouhani’s statement that hostile policies towards Tehran could lead to “the mother of all wars” and threats by the Revolutionary Guards’ military commanders towards US presence and its forces in the region. The promotion of Trump’s statement by some parties may give the impression that the US has backed away from its earlier policy of escalation, but if it is read carefully this is not the case, otherwise, they may be misunderstood.
Readiness for understanding and dialogue: In fact, Trump’s statement should not be overstated, given that additional indications do not exist. In the backdrop, there are many details. Before his final statement of readiness to meet with the leaders of Iran, he set the goal of his policy- unprecedented pressure to reach a final settlement. This appeared in his statement on the sidelines of the NATO Summit, where he said that the United States “will put maximum pressure on Iran, and they will communicate with us and ask for dialogue, and at that time we will sit at the negotiating table.”
On the Iranian side, and unlike the hard-line policy of the Supreme Leader, there is a tendency to open channels of dialogue with the United States. There is a current supportive of opening avenues for dialogue with Washington. For instance, a member of the Institute of Scholars and Researchers, Fadel Mibdi exclaimed why should we remain in a dispute with America forever. It is befitting that if the enemy took a step towards negotiations, there should be a positive response. “He criticized the Rouhani over the announcement of his office that he rejected Trump’s call for a meeting at the General Assembly of the United Nations. He said that this was a prime opportunity passed by Iran and was a suitable moment to negotiate a better settlement than at a time where Iran may lose many of its political cards. At that moment, he argues, Tehran will be subject to more and more blackmail and pressure.
There are still different messages from both sides giving the impression that there may be opportunities for dialogue and understanding. Here we must not forget the reference to the stage prior to Iran’s signing of the nuclear agreement in 2015 and the previous secret talks that began seven years earlier in 2009. This could happen once again. The current circumstances in Iran could push it for this option. The regime is suffering from unprecedented internal and external pressures. The US sanctions are expected to come into force in early August 2018. The regime is exposed to a complex and multi-dimensional crisis that could threaten its survival and it could be forced to negotiate.
A possible dialogue in different circumstances: The possibility of new US-Iranian understandings strengthens the visit of Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif to Oman in secret to meet with his Omani counterpart Yousef bin Alawi. Also, there are reports that Zarif asked Oman to mediate between the US and Iran. This comes after Oman succeeded in the mission in the period from 2012 to 2015 when the nuclear negotiations between the United States and Iran began secretly in the Omani capital of Muscat and ended with the signing of the nuclear agreement between Iran and the six major powers in 2015. This hypothesis was backed up by the visit of bin Alawi to Washington a week after Zarif’s visit. According to the “Debka” website focusing security affairs, President Trump gave the Minister of Defence James Mattis the green light to meet with the Omani Foreign Minister and start negotiations with Iran. By this move, Trump resorted to the approach used by Obama: keeping a link with Iran through Oman.
According to Omani sources, the meeting focused on how to defuse the tension between the United States and Iran. The announcement of an upcoming visit of bin Alawi to Iran on Friday, August 3, 2018, boosted the possibility of starting mediation through him.
The Iranian reaction to Trump’s statement did not depart from the internal dispute over the position of negotiating with the United States. This divergence is between the hardliners who demonize the US, suspect its credibility and its ability to honour commitments. This current declined Trump’s invitation while it agreed to engage in secret negotiations to reach a nuclear deal despite the announced remarks regarding this issue. This will likely happen again. The other current is ready to engage in dialogue and understanding with the US, as they are more moderate. They signalled they might accept Trump’s offer.
This internal reality comes within the framework of a role-play policy within the regime, in which there are no significant differences between those on the right of the de facto rulers and those on the left of the two major currents in Iran. This current expressed its support for the nuclear agreement as a condition for dialogue and negotiation. This position, of course, refers to defining the agenda of the negotiations, rather than rejecting the principle of negotiation itself, which may be the focus of the negotiations be it from Oman or any other parties.
If we investigate the statements of many Iranian officials before Trump launched his statements, we will find that they all adopt the line of extremism and a lack of confidence in negotiations with the United States. But the statements of those officials are just political views aimed to project the regime as a symbol of resistance at home and abroad. But in fact, when the deep state institutions and their actual leadership take a decision to negotiate, everyone will return to adhere to the state line and the Supreme Leader’s line, regardless of any propaganda aimed at easing the pressure and reducing the embarrassment of the regime which claims to be a symbol of resistance. This is if the negotiation process has not already begun in secret based on many reports from inside and outside Iran.
In fact, if we assume that Iran will ask for a dialogue with the United States as Trump wants, it is most likely that a dialogue would happen and concern is it will end with a settlement similar to that reached by former US President Barack Obama with Iran in mid-2015, giving it an opportunity to extend its influence and implement Its policies of sabotage in the region without deterrence. But most likely it will be a settlement under clear conditions and determinants because Trump is clear in his demands and he negotiates while having the upper hand based on the reality of him pressuring Iran since he came to power.
A US-Gulf priority to alter Iran’s behaviour without excluding changing it: From another point of view, this statement should not be construed as Trump defaulting on his promises, or that he seeks to harm the interests of some of its allies in the region or abandon them at a critical moment, as Obama did in 2015. In the agenda of the Gulf States, regime change in Iran has never been a foremost objective in the confrontation with Iran. On the contrary, the policy of confronting the threat of Iran, which Saudi Arabia has backed strongly, is essentially a policy of deterrence aimed to encourage Iran to respect its neighbours and not interfere in their internal affairs, as well as to abandon its regional project that threatens the stability of states and their integrity. The policy is aimed to push Iran to forsake its sectarian militias and religious wars. They are demands that Saudi Arabia under its new leadership managed to promote as part of the global agenda and demands that Iran should meet as well as the other demands related to its nuclear program and its ballistic missiles.
As in the case of the Gulf States, the US-inspired change in the Iranian regime seems merely a tool for lobbying to push it to change its behaviour and interact positively with the demands of its neighbouring countries and the international community on key issues of contention. This approach was expressed more clearly by the US Defence Secretary James Mattis, who pointed out that the United States was not seeking regime change but was seeking to change its behaviour, a vision in which Saudi Arabia sees eye to eye with the United States.
A final message to the Iranian regime: In the current developments regarding the position of the United States and its Gulf allies, the message that the Iranian regime must have heard and felt seriously is that its failure to change its behaviour is met by a continuation of attempts by others to force it to change.
This is Trump’s offer. It cannot be understood far from its context and away from the conditions of the United States and its demands from the Iranian regime, which are very much in line with Saudi Arabia’s demands from Iran. Most likely, the message reached the Iranian regime, especially after the internal crisis it suffered because of sanctions and punitive measures in every area in which it seeks to impose its presence and clout.
Finally, now the ball is in the court of the Iranian regime. It either responds to calls for negotiations and preparations for understanding US demands or it will face more pressure and threats until it reverses its policy or face the repercussions of sanctions and confrontation that will hinder the regime’s survival. Sanctions will move the ball to the Iranian people’s court.
If the speculation of an Omani mediation at an Iranian request is true, it seems the Iranian regime has got the message and it has opened a new chapter in which it shall use all its cards for negotiations to perform its role in earning more time. The regime will wait for a transformative event that disentangles it from the quagmire it is in.
But would Trump be sober about it? Can it disrupt its strategy in the negotiation stages if it begins? This seems unlikely given the nature of Trump’s behaviour and his desire to resolve one of his most important presidential bets, like his resolution of the North Korean crisis, although there are big differences between the two cases.