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Talking to Rouhani: Trump Shooting from the Hip? Or Following a Script?

Message to Abu Dhabi, Riyadh and Tel Aviv: Don’t worry, U.S. President Donald J. Trump has no intention of meeting his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani, unconditionally.

Credit: Serhii Lohvyniuk - Shutterstock.com

Takeaways


  • Message to Abu Dhabi, Riyadh and Tel Aviv: Don’t worry, Trump has no intention of meeting his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani, unconditionally.
  • Trump’s surprise announcement is an attempt to gain the moral high ground and weaken European, Russian and Chinese support for the JCPOA by demonstrating that Iran is recalcitrant and unwilling to come to the table.
  • The president’s offer puts Iran in a bind. Refusal to talk serves Mr. Trump’s purpose. An agreement to engage would increase domestic hardline pressure on the Iranian president.

Message to Abu Dhabi, Riyadh and Tel Aviv: Don’t worry, U.S. President Donald J. Trump has no intention of meeting his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani, unconditionally.

On the contrary, Mr. Trump’s surprise announcement that he is willing to talk to Mr. Rouhani is likely part of a plan formulated by his national security advisor John R. Bolton a year ago – before Bolton returned to government service.

Trump’s announcement during his recent press conference with the Italian prime minister took many by surprise. His offer to talk to Mr. Rouhani appears to put in doubt Trump’s withdrawal this past May from the 2015 international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program.

And people wondered for a moment whether Trump really wanted to see through the re-imposition of harsh economic sanctions aimed at destabilizing, if not toppling Iran’s government.

Enter Bolton

Mr. Bolton’s plan suggests otherwise. He published his plan, drafted at the request of Mr. Trump’s then strategic advisor, Steve Bannon, in August of last year after he had lost hope of presenting it to the president in person.

The plan meticulously lays out the arguments Mr. Trump employed to justify his withdrawal from the nuclear agreement as well as the steps the United States should take to garner international support for the sanctions regime.

As Bolton’s plan put it a year ago:

Iran is not likely to seek further negotiations once the JCPOA is abrogated, but the Administration may wish to consider rhetorically leaving that possibility open in order to demonstrate Iran’s actual underlying intention to develop deliverable nuclear weapons, an intention that has never flagged.

(JCPOA is the acronym for the nuclear accord’s official designation, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action).

Trump’s message to Europe

Mr. Trump’s surprise announcement constitutes an attempt to gain the moral high ground and weaken European, Russian and Chinese support for the JCPOA by demonstrating that Iran is recalcitrant and unwilling to come to the table.

The president’s offer puts Iran in a bind. Refusal to talk serves Mr. Trump’s purpose. An agreement to engage would have increased domestic hardline pressure on the Iranian president and involved him in discussions that, given present U.S. policy, have little chance of success.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Rouhani advisor Hamid Aboutalebi said as much in separate statements in the wake of Mr. Trump’s offer.

As Pompeo put it:

If the Iranians demonstrate a commitment to make fundamental changes in how they treat their own people, reduce their malign behavior, can agree that it’s worthwhile to enter in a nuclear agreement that actually prevents proliferation, then the president said he’s prepared to sit down and have a conversation with him.

Iran’s Aboutalebi, for his part, suggested that Mr. Rouhani would be willing to meet Mr. Trump if he demonstrated “respect for the great nation of Iran,” returned to the nuclear deal and reduced his hostility towards the Islamic republic.

Reality check

The Bolton plan makes it plain how little scope there is for such measures on the U.S. side:

With Israel and selected others, we will discuss military options. With others in the Gulf region, we can also discuss means to address their concerns from Iran’s menacing behavior.

On the one hand, few believe that either the United States or Iran wants a direct military confrontation.

On the other hand, Mr. Bolton as well as other associates of Mr. Trump have been unequivocal in their calls for regime change in Tehran and their support for demands for the violent overthrow of the Iranian government by an Iranian exile group that is well-connected with Western governments and political elites (even though it has little apparent support in Iran).

Mr. Bolton’s plan to destabilize Iran not only involves squeezing it economically, but also spurring insurgencies among the country’s ethnic minorities.

Saudi Arabia’s interests

The plan envisions official U.S. support “for the democratic Iranian opposition.” In addition, it supports “Kurdish national aspirations in Iran, Iraq and Syria,” and envisions assistance for Baloch in the Pakistani province of Balochistan and Iran’s neighboring Sistan and Balochistan province as well as Iranian Arabs in the oil-rich Iranian province of Khuzestan. It also suggests expedited delivery of bunker-buster bombs to U.S. allies.

In this context, it is interesting to note that a Saudi think tank, believed to be backed by Prince Mohammed, called last year in a study for Saudi support for a low-level Baloch insurgency in Iran.

Pakistani militants have claimed that Saudi Arabia has stepped up funding of militant madrassas or religious seminaries in Balochistan that allegedly serve as havens for anti-Iranian fighters.

According to Iran scholar Ahmad Majidyar:

Iran’s south-eastern and north-western regions – home to marginalized ethnic and religious minorities – have seen an uptick in violence by separatist and militant groups… Sistan and Baluchestan can be a breeding ground for local militant and separatist movements as well regional and international terrorist groups.

Stay tuned.

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About James M. Dorsey

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and an award-winning journalist. [Singapore]

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