Talk of negotiations and high-level meetings between the United States and Iran is nothing new. Trump reportedly tried to meet Rouhani last September on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, right after he delivered a fiery speech critical of Iran. The Iranians promptly spurned his outreach, as his harsh insults had rendered the political cost of engagement prohibitive for Rouhani and his associates. Trump remains radioactive in Tehran, and not just because of his Twitter feed.
Since then, circumstances have only worsened. The Trump administration has walked away from the 2015 nuclear deal. Many Iranians had pinned their hopes for a better life on the deal, and it may well have improved relations between the two countries. Instead, the Trump administration is now seeking to levy sanctions that would crush the Iranian economy. It has done little to disguise its goal of fomenting unrest among Iranians. Stung by the deal’s failure, burned by Washington’s attitude, and keen to survive politically, Rouhani, for his part, has adopted the bellicose tone characteristic of the Islamic Republic’s hard-liners.
In his speech announcing his withdrawal from the nuclear deal, Trump said, “Iran’s leaders will naturally say that they refuse to negotiate a new deal … I probably would say the same thing if I was in their position. But the fact is they are going to want to make a new and lasting deal, one that benefits all of Iran and the Iranian people. When they do, I am ready, willing, and able.” Then, too, the Islamic Republic chose to ignore the invitation: They were not about to negotiate with a leader who had just unjustifiably scrapped the outcome of prior negotiations, and openly claimed he had done so to strengthen his hand. As Iranian officials have pointed out since Trump’s latest pronouncement, destroying the smidgen of trust that the deal created between the two sides impeded any further talks.
More broadly, there is a widely shared conviction among Iranian officials that no deal can be struck with such a mercurial U.S. president. Iranian officials often cite a long list as evidence: One day, he approves a G7 statement; the next day, he withdraws his signature. One day, he threatens his adversaries with Armageddon; the next day, he showers them with praise. His secretary of state lays out preconditions for negotiating with Iran both before and after the president claims there are none. For Tehran, all this is proof that talking with Trump is “as futile as milking the ram,” as a senior Iranian diplomat recently told me.
Another obstacle standing in the way of Iranian leaders meeting with Trump is certain elements of the foreign-policy establishment in Washington, D.C. Trump might see the allure of a “mother of all deals” with Iran, which conceivably could bring about a nuclear pact more advantageous to the United States and deescalate tensions in Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere in the Middle East. But, as Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations recently pointed out, no one in the president’s entourage seems to share that sentiment. Instead, the Iran hawks and Washington, D.C., lobbies associated with Iran’s regional rivals seem to prefer to let sanctions take their toll on its economy, forcing the Islamic Republic to surrender or—they hope—generate a popular uprising that topples the regime.