On Monday, US President Donald Trump floated the virtually unprecedented idea of a direct meeting between himself and his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani. The offer to meet with Iran’s leadership “whenever they want” was seen by many as a dramatic reversal following his tweet, one week earlier, in which he addressed Rouhani in all capital letters and promised “consequences the likes of which few throughout history have ever suffered before” if he ever threatened the United States. The warning came after the Iranian president advised the US government to understand that “peace with Iran is the mother of all peace and war with Iran is the mother of all wars.”
Trump’s supposed reversal in tone was, however, not entirely unanticipated. It followed much the same pattern as was seen in his interactions with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un, with whom he exchanged rhetorical statements and threatening tweets before sitting down for a summit in Singapore after which Trump spoke highly of Kim and boasted about the likelihood of nuclear disarmament. With the memory of that summit fresh in mind, some commentators speculated that Trump’s apparent threats against Iran were only intended to present an image of strength ahead of a possible meeting.
On the other hand, CNN pointed out that some regard Trump’s anti-Iranian rhetoric as more serious than his bluster with regard to other countries. And persons with this view are comparatively skeptical of Trump’s offer of outreach, dismissing it as a way to assuage fears of broader conflict in the months ahead of midterm elections. Indeed, some regard the Trump administration as angling for regime change in Iran, although that phrase has been notably absent from any official statements outlining an assertive White House strategy for dealing with the Islamic Republic.
Whatever the case may be, in practical terms the US and Iran do not appear to be moving any closer to direct talks in the wake of Trump’s non-specific offer of an unconditional meeting. In fact, quite the opposite is true, as Iranian officials have expressly rejected the offer and White House foreign policy officials have attempted to qualify or contradict the president’s offer.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, for instance, said that the president’s willingness to meet with the Iranians actually does depend upon a series of conditions. Newsweek quoted him as saying, “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 into a nuclear agreement that actually prevents proliferation, then the president said he’s prepared to sit down and have the conversation with them.”
Furthermore, Pompeo personally undermined the supposed shift toward dialogue when his office said that there were no plans for direct interactions between the Secretary of State and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif when both men attend the meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Singapore this Saturday. In its reporting on that announcement, Reuters added that the White House had clarified Trump’s statement by saying the administration would still pursue assertive policies of economic sanctions and other forms of international pressure with the intention of “seeking changes in the Iranian government’s behavior.”
Such qualifications no doubt contribute to the wariness of Iranian officials regarding the possibility of negotiations. This wariness was expressed by the Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qassemi. Another Reuters report quoted him as saying, “Sanctions and pressures are the exact opposite of dialogue. How can Trump prove to the Iranian nation that his comments of [Monday] night reflect a true intention for negotiation and have not been expressed for populist gains?”
But it is not clear that perceived sincerity on the part of the US president would change Iran’s position with regard to a meeting between its own officials and their declared enemies. The Los Angeles Times reported that several such officials had rejected Trump’s offer, stating that they would only consider further negotiations if Trump first rejoined the nuclear agreement from which he withdrew in May. This is certain to be a non-starter for the US president, who fiercely decried the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action long before taking office and promised that he would tear it up in favor of a new deal that secures greater concessions from Iran regarding not only its nuclear activities but also its terrorist sponsorship and malign regional behavior.
This goal, in and of itself, arguably makes the possibility of negotiations with the Iranian regime rather remote. Iranian hardliners including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei are fervently opposed to any sign of conciliation in the face of Western powers, and although Khamenei signed off on the negotiation and later the signing of the JCPOA, he famously ordered his subordinates to avoid negotiation on any topic that was not directly related to the Iranian nuclear program and the lifting of US sanctions.
Now, the sanctions that were suspended under the JCPOA are on the verge of being re-imposed, and the Iranian government is already feeling the effects of that pressure. The LA Times noted that the value of Iran’s national currency had sunk to all-time lows and that the country was bracing for declines in other economic indicators as well. It then added that “Iranian social media and exile groups have reported fresh anti-government protests in some cities” as the people blame the clerical regime’s behavior for those indicators and for courting the wrath of the Trump administration.
In its assessment of the current direction of the Trump administration’s Iran strategy, Reuters pointed to recent statements and actions as evidence that the White House is striving to “foment unrest” within the Islamic Republic. And as well as encouraging the clerical regime’s domestic opponents, the administration is examining the possibility of developing what some have called an “Arab NATO” comprised of Iran’s regional adversaries.
Nevertheless, Reuters points out, neither Trump nor his foreign policy principals have formally embraced a project of regime change. However, reports from Iranian Resistance groups regarding the past several months of domestic protests suggest that this is exactly the outcome that is being sought by much of the activist community. And this in turn suggests that, whether deliberate or not, the White House’s pressure tactics are improving the prospects for a wholesale change of government, driven by the Iranian people.