US administration unable to dispel confusion about Iran stance

Trump’s expression of willingness to meet with Iranian leaders is a “textbook pressure and engagement strategy the United States has used for many years in dealing with rogue states.”
Sunday 05/08/2018
Confused reactions. A man takes a glance at a newspaper with a picture of US President Donald Trump on the front page in Tehran, on July 31. (AFP)
Confused reactions. A man takes a glance at a newspaper with a picture of US President Donald Trump on the front page in Tehran, on July 31. (AFP)

WASHINGTON - The Trump administration is not dispelling any of the confusion that surrounds the prospect of its meeting with Iranian leaders, heightening speculation that such talks are not likely to take place soon.

For some experts, such a prospect is remote considering the mixed signals sent by US President Donald Trump as well as his continued expression of hostility towards Iran, including his threatening of Iran, in a tweet, with “consequences the likes of which few throughout history have ever suffered.”

The United States has not expressed any intent to relent on pressures that are provoking social unrest and economic difficulties in Iran, including a major currency crisis with the rial losing two-thirds of its value in six months. Additional sanctions, kicking in August 6, will only exert new pressures on Iran.

Declarations by Trump and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reinforced the impression that the United States was working for regime change in Iran. On July 22, Pompeo compared Iran’s leaders to a “mafia” and promised unspecified backing for Iranians unhappy with their government.

Pompeo said the US government was initiating a Farsi-language channel on TV, radio, digital and social media platforms. The US government would also help Iranians get around internet censorship.

Denials by US Defence Secretary James Mattis on July 27 that the United States was working for regime change in Tehran were laden with caveats. “We need them to change their behaviour on a number of threats that they can pose with their military, with their secret services, with their surrogates and with their proxies,” he said.

The key issue separating Tehran and Washington is Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

“Thus far, the Trump administration has proven to be an untrustworthy actor since they withdrew from the JCPOA,” said Holly Dagres, editor of the IranSource blog and an expert on the country at the Atlantic Council think-tank.

Trump has nonetheless repeated his expectation of imminent dialogue with Tehran. “I have a feeling they’ll be talking to us pretty soon,” Trump told a rally in Tampa, Florida, before adding: “and maybe not and that’s OK, too.”

He reiterated his rejection of the “horrible, one-sided” 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers. “It’s a horror show,” Trump said.

A spokeswoman for the US State Department ducked requests to clarify whether Iran would have to meet certain conditions, such as agreeing to craft a new nuclear agreement, before US officials would meet. The confusion arose July 30 after Trump said he would “certainly meet with Iran if they wanted to meet” and that there would be “no preconditions” for a meeting.

For a dialogue that is supposed to be “without preconditions,” Washington has been setting a number of steep conditions for any talks. Pompeo enumerated some of them: “If the Iranians demonstrate a commitment to make fundamental changes in how they treat their own people, reduce their malign behaviour, can agree that it’s worthwhile to enter into a nuclear agreement that actually prevents proliferation, then the president has said he is prepared to sit down and have the conversation with [Iran’s president].”

White House spokesman Hogan Gidley added to the confusion when asked July 31 if Trump remained willing to meet with Iranian President Hassan Rohani without preconditions. “That’s not changed,” Gidley replied, “but he’s been clear on what he wants from Iran and that is to end its destabilisation efforts, its actions of being the world’s largest state sponsor of terror.”

Ali Vaez, director of the Iran project at the International Crisis Group, writing to the Atlantic, said US policy “hawks” on Iran among Trump’s supporters would oppose bilateral talks because they “prefer to let sanctions take their toll on its economy, forcing the Islamic Republic to surrender or, they hope, generate a popular uprising that topples the regime.”

Confused reactions in Iran have added to Washington’s muddled perspective.

Some Iranian officials quickly dismissed Trump’s offer. “With current America and these policies, there will definitely not be the possibility of dialogue and engagement, and the United States has shown that it is totally unreliable,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qassemi said after Trump’s comments about possible talks.

Ali Motahari, deputy speaker of the Iranian parliament said: “the idea of negotiating is inconceivable. It would be a humiliation.”

Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander Major-General Mohammad Ali Jafari was more vehement: “Mr Trump! Iran is not North Korea to accept your offer for a meeting,” he was quoted as saying by Fars News agency.

Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh, head of the Iranian parliament’s Foreign Policy Commission, however, said that negotiations with the United States “must not be a taboo.”

Motahari pointed out that hardliners have not made it easy for rapprochement with the United States or for the preservation of the Iran nuclear agreement.

“If the whole Iranian system had worked to implement this agreement, today we would be witnessing the presence of European companies in Iran and their investments, and even Trump would not be able to withdraw so easily from the deal but from the start one part of the system did not want the agreement to work,” he said.

The possibility of direct talks between Tehran and Washington drew praise from several US lawmakers, including US Senator Bob Corker, a frequent Trump critic and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He told Politico: “I’m fine with that happening,”

Trump’s expression of willingness to meet with Iranian leaders is a “textbook pressure and engagement strategy the United States has used for many years in dealing with rogue states,” Matthew Kroenig, deputy director of the Scowcroft Centre for Strategy and Security, said on the Atlantic Council’s website.

“Trump is increasing the economic and military pressure on Iran so long as it pursues its threatening nuclear and missile programmes and support for terrorism while simultaneously holding out the promise of talks if Iran is willing to choose a more responsible path.”

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