What It Would Take for Iran to Talk to Trump

It may not seem like it, but Tehran has a lot to gain from meeting with a U.S. president in search of his own nuclear deal.

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani attends a news conference at the Chancellery in Vienna, Austria, on July 4, 2018 (Lisi Niesner / Reuters)

On August 6, Donald Trump’s administration reimposed economic sanctions on Iran that Barack Obama’s administration had lifted when it signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2015, the anticipated next step following Trump’s decision to leave the deal in May. Since then, the Trump administration has talked about bringing more economic pressure on Tehran not only to end its nuclear ambitions, but also to curb its regional influence and even weaken the Islamic Republic’s hold on power, which led many to see U.S. policy as one aimed at regime change.

Now it appears that President Trump’s goal is far narrower: He wants his own nuclear deal with Iran, and sees Obama’s deal as an obstacle standing in his way. After removing the United States from the JCPOA, he wants to persuade Iran to follow suit, and then negotiate with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani for a new deal of their own—offering Tehran direct talks without preconditions just days before the reimposition of sanctions.

This all sounds just like Trump’s approach to North Korea: saber rattling followed by summitry—which, ironically, isn’t so different from how the Obama administration used severe economic pressure to force Iran to the negotiating table. Trump’s critics, however, don’t think the North Korea strategy will work with Iran. For one thing, Rouhani has said that he cannot trust a president who walks away from international agreements on a whim, one who prefers bullying adversaries over building trust.

But trusting a new deal with America is a separate matter from whether Tehran should even talk to Washington about the possibility of one. If Iran were to talk to Trump, it would, in effect, be acknowledging the death of the nuclear deal. While at the moment there’s little economic benefit accruing to Iran to argue otherwise, it also has to be careful not to alienate Europe, Russia, and China, which remain in the deal. Iran now has the moral and diplomatic advantage: When it comes to the nuclear deal, it is America that is isolated—not Iran. If Rouhani talks to Trump, Iran would lose that advantage.

A larger issue for Iran is that it no longer has the leverage it did when it last entered nuclear talks. It has since cashiered its nuclear program, making its leaders skittish about negotiating now. But Iran does not have the luxury of choosing when it wants to talk: The strain of U.S. sanctions deprives it of the time it would need to rebuild the nuclear program as it stood in 2015. Indeed, the results of Washington’s significant economic pressure on Tehran are showing. Iran’s currency has lost two-thirds of its value, and shortages have caused rampant inflation and unemployment; this, in turn, has stoked popular frustration and despair, fueling ongoing protests across the country. Even though the demonstrations do not threaten the regime, they could further embolden Washington, and further weaken Iran’s hand in negotiations.

Iran no doubt hopes that Europe, but also India, China, and Russia, can find a way to resist American sanctions. But Tehran has to weigh that faint possibility against what it could get by talking to Trump, despite its skepticism about reaching a new deal. Iran’s leaders are surely considering the impact of Trump’s Singapore summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. They have had the opportunity to hear directly from North Korean’s foreign minister, who visited Tehran this week.

Trump has set a conciliatory tone by promising North Korea’s successful denuclearization, pledging to end U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises, and even hinting that he might formally end the Korean War and reduce if not entirely eliminate the U.S. military footprint on the Korean peninsula. Such a tone seemed to drown out the Trump administration’s hawkish voices. When he offered talks with Iran without any preconditions, he exposed a similar tension between his eagerness for successful, one-on-one negotiation, and his national-security team’s instinct to treat Iran as a problem that can only be dealt with through sustained pressure aimed at provoking fundamental change.

The problem facing Iran is not that talking to Trump is futile, but that selling the idea at home is difficult. In Tehran, rival factions openly jockey for power and influence. The nuclear deal was a victory for moderates; its demise has favored conservative hard-liners. Iran’s rulers cannot afford to enter talks looking like they were duped by America in the first nuclear deal, and then bullied into negotiating for a second one. Rouhani’s conservative rivals made that point clear, quickly rejecting Trump’s offer. Meanwhile, Iran’s moderates, conservatives, clerics, and security chiefs fear a comeback by Iran’s former populist and anticlerical president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose supporters among the urban and rural poor have taken to the streets in recent months.

Rouhani’s own response has threaded the needle between counseling caution and criticizing Trump, without rejecting his offer outright. Still, Iran has not yet given a formal response—and one might not come until the Supreme National Security Council, which includes Iran’s senior-most military and civilian leaders, renders its consensus opinion. That opinion could force Iran’s political elite to unite in support of talks, but only if they are convinced that Iran would be at the table with its dignity intact, assured of the potential for tangible economic benefits.

Iran has to choose between sticking with an increasingly defunct deal and the uncertain promise of a new one. Tehran has to see tangible gain in taking that first step, and Trump has to choose his words carefully—lest he make it near impossible for Tehran to take him up on his offer.