When Trump meets with Rouhani, he should be careful not to treat him like Kim Jong-un

The Iranian and US presidents could meet as soon as next month at the UN, and Trump should bear in mind that photo-ops with Americans don't play well domestically in Iran

Negar Mortazavi
Washington DC
Wednesday 28 August 2019 14:34 BST
Donald Trump and Hassan Rouhani suggest they could meet to resolve US-Iran crisis

A major breakthrough has emerged in US-Iran tensions, thanks to French President Emanuel Macron. Macron, who hosted world leaders for the G7 summit in Southern France over the weekend, invited an unexpected guest to the high-profile gathering. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif suddenly landed in the French town of Biarritz on Sunday, where President Trump and other world leaders had been meeting. The surprise visit was part of Macron’s attempts to mediate between Trump and Tehran, after months of high tension in the Persian Gulf.

Iran’s top diplomat, who was recently sanctioned by the Trump administration, proudly tweeted photos of his meetings with the French President, and the foreign and finance ministers. Javad Zarif then left France as quickly as he had arrived, and flew back to Tehran with an important message for Iranian leaders back home.

The day after, Iranian President Rouhani said that if meeting with someone could benefit Iran’s national interests and improve the lives of Iranians, he would take that meeting. Rouhani was referring to Trump, who has been trying to meet Iranian leaders since he entered the White House, and is using “maximum pressure” to try to get Tehran to negotiate. But Iranian leaders have repeatedly rejected Trump’s request and made it clear that they will not back down under pressure.

President Trump responded to Rouhani by saying he would meet if Iran becomes a “good” player on the international stage. Rouhani then clarified that he would only meet Trump if he corrects his past mistakes and lifts all sanctions against Iran. Meanwhile President Macron said that a meeting between the two presidents could happen soon, even within weeks.

Nader Hashemi, Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver, gave high credit to Emmanuel Macron when I spoke to him this week. “The fact that we are talking about a possible Trump-Rouhani meeting highlights the success of France’s mediation efforts. Who would have thought this was possible given recent tensions?” Hahesmi said. However, Hashemi added, “we are a long way away from a historic meeting between both presidents. There are spoilers on both sides that strongly oppose such a meeting (i.e. Bolton, Bibi, MBS, MBZ) and on the Iran side (the IRGC and Iran’s deep state).”

The only realistic location for an upcoming Trump-Rouhani meeting would be when world leaders gather at the United Nations General Assembly in New York next month. The two leaders have both been present at the same time at the UN in the past – and Trump made requests to meet with Rouhani, but was rejected. So for the meeting to happen this time, Washington will need to dial back its “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran.

Unlike Kim Jong-un, who was seeking international legitimacy by appearing next to the American president, Iranian leaders are not interested in photo-ops with American leaders – especially Trump. The domestic political cost of such a photo would be very high for the Rouhani, unless he can prove to his domestic base that he got something concrete out of a meeting.

Trump may need to make some cabinet changes in order to successfully start diplomacy with Iran, however. “National Security Advisor John Bolton has long advocated war and regime change in Iran. It's time for President Trump to fire Bolton and surround himself with advisors that have the same goals of diplomacy,” Assal Rad, research fellow at the National Iranian American Council, told me.

For a year after Trump pulled out of the nuclear deal, European powers first tried to convince Trump to return to the agreement, then tried to salvage it on their own. They worked for months to create an independent financial mechanism to bypass US sanctions and allow European companies to do business with Iran. But the scope of that business is limited to humanitarian trade and does not include oil, which is what Iran desperately needs to sell.

In other words, Europe’s attempts to salvage the deal without America’s involvement did not succeed. Iran has instead up the ante with the US in terms of confrontation, and has stepped up its uranium enrichment.

Now Macron is helping forge a new path. Instead of trying to convince Iran to stay in the deal without the US, he wants to convince both sides to sit down and talk, and hopefully come up with a new agreement. And so far he has done pretty well.

As much as Europe cares about the nuclear deal with Iran and played a big role in years of negotiations between Iran and world powers, the two main players in this game are still Iran and the US. The only way out of current tensions in the Persian Gulf is for Tehran and Washington to resolve their issues directly.

Of course that is unlikely to happen overnight, and the two sides need a great deal of mediation to happen between them. And there is no better person to do it than President Macron. He is a powerful leader who has forged a good relationship with Trump, and he is on Iran’s side when it comes to the nuclear deal. So both sides are able to trust him, and can see him positioned somewhere in the middle.

There is no better venue than the UN for the three presidents to meet. The annual gathering of world leaders in New York starts in less than a month and will last only a few days. Time is running out for Macron to finalize what he started and help ease the tension that’s building up between Iran and the United States. But it looks like he has a strategy with a good chance of working out.

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