Scenarios for US-Iran relations
The future of the US-Iran relationship is as uncertain as ever following the opening of UN General Assembly. US President Donald Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rohani both addressed the gathering and made numerous remarks to the media and other organisations but none of it was clarifying.
Much of the uncertainty is due to Trump’s confusing comments. He not only contradicted his administration’s top foreign policy officials but also contradicted himself.
In his official address to the assembly September 25, Trump called Iran and its government “corrupt,” “brutal” and “dictatorial” but immediately prior to that speech he posted on Twitter that he would be happy to meet with Rohani in New York and that “I am sure that [Rohani] is an absolutely lovely man!”
Such startling backflips are not unprecedented with Trump. His relationship with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un transformed from one of vicious mutual name-calling to one of brotherly mutual flattery.
The Twitter hashtag #LovelyMan quickly went viral on Iranian social media.
Trump led a special UN Security Council session on September 26 that was intended to recruit allies for his administration’s withdrawing from the US-Iran nuclear deal, an agreement approved by a Security Council vote in 2015. “This horrible, one-sided deal allowed Iran to continue its path towards a bomb and gave the regime a cash lifeline when they needed it the most,” Trump told the Security Council.
As he was speaking, Europe, Russia and China were discussing how to keep the agreement in place by finding ways for Iran and European companies to circumvent US laws. Even French President Emmanuel Macron, the one major European leader who has expressed some sympathy for Trump’s approach to Iran, said Western policy “can’t just boil down to sanctions and containment.”
Trump’s foreign policy team -- Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, national security adviser John Bolton and Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook -- were more consistent in their anti-Iran messaging and none of them called Rohani “a lovely man.” Pompeo accused Tehran of being responsible for “a global torrent of destructive activity” and Bolton warned that if Iran crosses the United States, there would be “hell to pay.”
Rohani was dismissive of Trump’s suggestion about talks and said no dialogue could occur until the United States reversed its position to withdraw from the nuclear deal. He said Trump’s inability to gather support for his hard-line stance towards Iran proved that it was Washington, not Tehran, that had been isolated by the world.
Isolated or not, the United States is the world’s most powerful nation and its sanctions against the Iranian regime are hurting. Try as they may, European and other countries are unlikely to find an easy way to circumvent the sanctions and many European firms have pulled out of Iran. Anti-regime protests in Iran over the past year have made the regime nervous, as have fears over military attacks or terrorist incidents such as the one in Ahvaz on September 22.
As for where US-Iran relations are headed, it is hard to see clearly through the fog but possible scenarios emerge:
The first and least likely is open war between the United States and Iran. Neither Tehran nor Washington wants such a conflict and Tehran, in particular, is likely to try to avoid escalation.
The second and only slightly more possible scenario is a new round of diplomacy. Trump’s periodic suggestions about dialogue with Tehran should be taken seriously. Trump is a transactional man who loves nothing more than the spotlight and would sit down with Satan if he thought he could get a deal.
However, it is hard to envision why Iran, whose entire foreign policy is based on unrelenting hostility to the United States, would see an advantage in diplomacy. Unless Trump agreed to reverse his decision on the nuclear agreement, which is unimaginable.
The third and by far most likely scenario is that the United States will stick with its harsh sanctions regime -- set to become even harsher in November -- and Iran will continue to try to circumvent it, which it will do with very modest success. Beijing, for example, sees no reason to cooperate with Trump on Iran while the US president conducts a trade war against China.
There is a fourth option: The US sanctions do what they are intended to do and lead to widespread social unrest in Iran to the point that the regime’s survival becomes problematic. Such a scenario would require Tehran to pull back on its regional meddling to protect the home front.
It is this scenario that could lead to the diplomatic option that seems to intrigue Trump.