One of the highlights of this weekend’s G7 summit in Biarritz, France, was the appearance on Sunday by Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. French president Emmanuel Macron had invited Zarif to the meeting as part of his ongoing effort to broker a new international agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, after President Trump pulled the U.S. out of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action last year and reimposed sanctions on Iran. This diplomatic gesture inspired modest hopes of a breakthrough that might restart negotiations between Washington and Tehran, but by Tuesday, those hopes were already dashed.
Zarif, whom the Trump administration recently slapped with sanctions, did not speak to any U.S. officials at the G7, but met with Macron and other French, German, and British officials. White House officials were caught off guard by his presence, saying they were not aware in advance of Macron’s (ostensibly last-minute) surprise guest. Trump, however, said on Monday that the French president had asked him about inviting Zarif prior to the event and that he didn’t consider the move disrespectful, unlike Nikki Haley.
Closing the summit of leading global economies on Monday, Macron announced that Iranian president Hassan Rouhani had told him he was open to meeting with Trump — an event he and other European leaders have been eager to make happen. Rouani also suggested in a televised speech on Monday that he was ready to talk to Trump, and Trump said he was willing to do so “if the circumstances were correct.” These statements raised expectations that the two leaders might sit down at the United Nations General Assembly in New York next month.
But on Tuesday, the Iranian leaders who had appeared so receptive to the idea reversed themselves, with Rouhani announcing that Iran would not agree to talks unless and until the U.S. dropped all sanctions, and Zarif calling the prospect of a summit between the two leaders “unimaginable.” There was little reason to be surprised by this turn of events. Both the Trump administration and the Iranian regime have been pretty clear about the conditions under which they would pursue a new deal to replace the JCPOA and what they expect to get out of it; in both instances, the two governments’ demands are mutually exclusive.
On Monday, Trump ruled out sanctions relief prior to starting talks, though he said he was amenable to having European countries extend a line of credit to Iran, whose economy has been ravaged by U.S. penalties. The whole point of his “maximum pressure” strategy is to force Iran to the table by breaking its economy, so Trump has no reason to give in now. But as the Iranians made clear on Tuesday, new negotiations without at least some sanctions relief from Washington is an absolute nonstarter.
Trump also detailed what he was looking for in a new deal: “no nuclear weapons, no ballistic missiles and a longer period of time” before Iran’s obligations under the deal would sunset. After listing these terms, which could make a deal extremely complicated and almost impossible to reach, Trump pronounced the matter “very simple” and said it could be negotiated “in a very short period of time” — as he always does.
Iran has repeatedly ruled out giving up its ballistic missiles, which it maintains are necessary to defend itself against regional threats. Rouhani would be hard-pressed to abandon such a vital strategic weapon when his country is engaged in a rapidly escalating war with Israel in Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon, while also being encircled by Saudi Arabia. The Iranians have also learned a hard lesson about sunset clauses; they negotiated the latest agreement with Barack Obama in 2015, only to have it torn up by Donald Trump just three years later.
Even if Trump can cajole Rouhani into accepting these terms, the political costs would likely be too great for him to bear — that is, if he is not summarily overruled by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say in these matters. Indeed, Khamenei has already done so, as evidenced by Rouhani’s overnight retrenchment. If Trump’s plan for September is to pigeonhole Rouhani at the UNGA and present him with a list of demands the Iranian leader can’t possibly meet, while refusing to budge on sanctions until those demands are met, his “very simple” deal will be very simply dead.
Trump seems to think that his pressure campaign has worked; Iran’s economy is in shambles thanks to his sanctions, and its government is ready to talk. If he can’t fathom why a country would say “no” to a deal, any deal, from a position of such tremendous weakness — after all, that strategy has always worked for him in real estate — he could be in for a rude surprise.
The moderate, reformist, dovish faction to which Rouhani and Zarif belong does not control many meaningful levers of power in Iran, and could not make a deal with the U.S. on its own, regardless of how much it might want to. Iran has threatened to move ahead with further actions in September that would breach the JCPOA, which it considers a dead letter in light of the U.S. withdrawal, if it doesn’t get some sanctions relief. The Iranian military (of which Khamenei, not Rouhani, is commander-in-chief) has also taken escalatory measures like detaining oil tankers in the Straits of Hormuz and threatening to close the strategic waterway, a chokepoint for one-fifth of the world’s daily oil supply.
Rouhani has already spent considerable political capital merely by indicating that he might be open to talking; in the Iranian press, hard-liners attacked Zarif’s G7 trip as naïvely walking into a Franco-American trap. He’s term-limited and must leave office next year, giving him more flexibility, but Khamenei is in office for life and still has the last word. Even if Rouhani managed to secure the supreme leader’s blessing and cut a new deal with the U.S. before his term is up, that deal could still be undermined by elements of the Iranian deep state that are beyond his control.
If Trump isn’t willing to make a good-faith gesture of modest sanctions relief to get the ball rolling, it’s hard to see the notoriously stubborn Khamenei reopening negotiations with the U.S. The only way for this exercise in coercive diplomacy succeeds (and let’s not forget, certain key figures in the administration want it to fail) is if the sanctions have finally crippled Iran economically so that its leaders have no choice but to take whatever deal they are offered. As it stands, however, the U.S. and Iranian positions are much farther apart than Trump appears to realize, and Iran isn’t nearly desperate enough to capitulate.
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