Sharp differences keep Washington, Tehran apart

Trump indicated that Washington saw little reason to engage Iran in direct talks, seeing Tehran as offering no concessions.
Saturday 28/09/2019
US President Donald Trump addresses the UN General  Assembly at UN Headquarters in New York, September 24. (AFP)
Maximum pressure, minimum impact. US President Donald Trump addresses the UN General Assembly at UN Headquarters in New York, September 24.v (AFP)

WASHINGTON - In a stark illustration of the failed attempts by world leaders to facilitate a meeting between Iranian President Hassan Rohani and US President Donald Trump, Rohani and Trump used speeches at the UN General Assembly to issue threats and attack each other’s policies.

Trump’s UN speech came days after tensions with Iran heightened over the September 14 Saudi Aramco attack and subsequent tightening of the sanctions on Iran.

Trump indicated that Washington saw little reason to engage Iran in direct talks, seeing Tehran as offering no concessions. The US leader denounced Iran as having “used the funds to build nuclear-capable missiles, increase internal repression, finance terrorism and fund havoc and slaughter in Syria and Yemen.”

Trump called for other countries to support his efforts in combating Iran, saying: “We ask all nations to isolate Iran’s regime as long as its aggression continues and we ask all nations to support Iran’s people as they struggle to reclaim their religious and righteous destiny.”

His message was clear: “As long as Iran’s menacing behaviour continues, sanctions will not be lifted, they will be tightened.”

However, some experts said Trump missed an opportunity to mobilise other countries against Iran. David Adesnik, research director at the Foundation for Defense of Democracy, writing for the Fox News website, said Trump “should have called for a unified [UN] Security Council condemnation of Iran, along with severe economic and diplomatic sanctions against the Islamic Republic by all UN members that would stay in effect until Iran takes responsibility for the recent attacks and agrees to change its behaviour.”

Rohani claimed in his General Assembly speech that the US sanctions were acts of “international piracy” and “merciless economic terrorism.”

Suzanne DiMaggio, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Institute said Rohani “offered this enticement: If you fulfil the US’s deal commitments, then a more-for-more deal is possible. We can rebrand it but the photo op will come when negotiations are concluded, not before.”

The approach seemed hardly enticing to the United States, which wanted Iran to halt its missile and nuclear development programmes and refrain from expansionist and bellicose policies in the Middle East and Gulf region.

Despite efforts by French and British leaders, Trump and Rohani did not meet during their time in New York. Rohani ruled out a meeting with Trump before the General Assembly began, indicating that he was only interested in a meeting if the United States lifted sanctions.

In his speech, however, he seemed to leave the option of talks with Trump open.

“This is the message of the Iranian nation: Let’s return to justice, to peace, to law, commitment and promise and finally to the negotiating table,” he said.

Former CIA analyst Ken Pollack, an expert on Middle Eastern politics and resident scholar at American Enterprise Institute, said he does not believe that Rohani and Trump will engage in talks any time soon and, even if they do, there is “no sign that the Iranians would be willing to make real concessions.”

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson voiced support for a new Iranian nuclear deal, saying: “I hope that there will be a Trump deal, to be totally honest with you.”

The United Kingdom, France and Germany issued a joint statement September 23 backing the US claim that Iran was responsible for the Saudi Aramco attack.

There were different interpretations of the stances of European countries. While some observers saw in the statement a reflection of a new consensus against Iran over suspicions of its involvement in the September 14 attack on Saudi oil installations, others were sceptical.

They said that, despite the statement naming Iran as responsible for the attack, the European countries were not necessarily in agreement with Trump on how to handle Iran.

Writing for Foreign Policy, Ilan Goldenberg and Kaleigh Thomas, of the Centre for a New American Security’s Middle East Security Programme, said: “This statement was not coordinated with the United States and makes the centrepiece of any de-escalation policy a return to the nuclear deal, which the Trump administration opposes.”

Pollack also cast doubt over the European powers’ support of Trump.

“I haven’t seen anything to suggest they are actually coming on board with Trump,” said Pollack. “They don’t like what Iran is doing but, ultimately, they blame the US for provoking Iran and putting them in this position.”