The US-Iranian negotiation dance has, for all practical purposes, just begun.
However, considering the wavering by US and Iranian leaders and the mixed signals they sent at the G7 summit in France, it looks as if that dance is going to be, at best, a stuttering and unpredictable process.
Initially, expectations of a breakthrough looked real when US President Donald Trump told the world that it would be realistic to see a meeting between him and Iranian President Hassan Rohani “in the next few weeks.”
Rohani expressed his readiness to meet. “If I know that in meeting with somebody the problem of my country would be solved, I wouldn’t hesitate because the central issue is the national interests of the country,” he said.
Whatever the reasons, be they resistance by Iran’s conservatives to any rapprochement with the “Great Satan” or Tehran’s temptation to extract maximum concessions from the United States, the early optimism quickly evaporated.
Iran’s official and unofficial positions gave more an impression of serious overreach than of a starting bid. Senior Iranian officials told Reuters: “We want to export 700,000 [barrels per day] of oil and get paid in cash… and that is just for a start.”
A second official said: “Iran’s ballistic missile programme cannot and will not be negotiated” and Tehran wanted to hold on to its “right to enrich uranium.”
Rohani summed it up with a blanket precondition. He was ready for talks, he said, “but first the US should act by lifting all illegal, unjust and unfair sanctions imposed on Iran.”
By way of collateral to vouch for the country’s commitment not to build a nuclear bomb, Rohani just offered a 2003 fatwa issued by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
By August 28, the Trump administration was back in business continuing its “maximum pressure” approach towards Iran, announcing the blacklisting of business groups accused of being “suppliers of Tehran’s missile programme and facilitators of its alleged proliferation activities.”
Before they are on track, any US-Iranian negotiations would have to overcome Tehran’s apparent belief that it can ensure the lifting of US sanctions without altering the course of its belligerent policies.
Any progress towards real de-escalation would have to overcome Iran’s hubris and unwillingness to end its threats to peace and security in the region.