العدد 33 - TRUMP AND IRAN — BETWEEN WAR AND A GRAND BARGAIN
Trump and Iran — between war and a grand bargain
 As I watched Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un make history in Singapore last week, I indulged in a diplomatic fantasy: imagining the US leader standing next to Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s president. What would Mr Trump say? Given his taste for hyperbole, he’d probably admire the cleric’s elegant turban and cloak, his detailed knowledge of nuclear matters and his artful political manoeuvring in a regime in which his boss, the supreme leader, has the last word. He would be most impressed by the Iranian president’s electoral performance: over two elections, his numbers have been “huge” and “tremendous”, a real “winner”.

With Mr Trump, the impossible can become possible. He withdrew the US from the Iran nuclear deal, but could just as easily agree a new accord with weaker provisions, and claim it as a significant improvement. Unlike North Korea, Iran doesn’t possess nuclear weapons yet and it has been willing to contemplate never acquiring them. And Iran has a proven record of successful nuclear negotiations. Years of painstaking talks produced a 2015 accord with more guarantees than most experts believe the US will win from Mr Kim.

Most likely, though, the Trump-Rouhani summit will remain a figment of my imagination. Unless the current stand-off miraculously eases, there’s still a greater chance the US and Iran will stumble towards a military conflict than reach a diplomatic breakthrough. Mr Trump’s behaviour on Iran suggests confrontation is his preferred option. The official explanation for his withdrawal from the nuclear deal is that it was not tight enough, permanent enough, or broad enough; one of the important unofficial reasons was that it was struck by his predecessor. The shadow of Barack Obama still hangs over the very idea of making a deal with Iran.
 
 Instead, the new Trump policy towards Iran demands that the Islamic Republic capitulate, giving up for good all aspects of its nuclear activities and its meddling in the Middle East. Implicit in these demands is that the US is seeking regime change.

Coercion, on its own, is not likely to succeed with Iran. Yet there are those in Tehran who are daring to imagine a grand bargain. The Iranian regime reacted to Mr Trump’s meeting with Mr Kim with some friendly advice to North Korea: beware an American leader capable of cancelling an agreement. Over the weekend, however, 100 Iranian activists, including former senior officials, issued an unusual call for negotiations with the US on a new deal. The Trump-Kim summit, they said, showed that bitter enemies could become friends.

The regime could face increasing domestic pressure to consider a new accord. The activists’ letter was meant to underline that conventional thinking about diplomacy no longer applied and Iran’s leaders should learn from Mr Kim.
 
 Iran’s regime will resist. Neighbourhood politics also work against dealmaking between Washington and Tehran. China was pressing for talks on North Korea; South Korea was eager to avoid war and it was instrumental in the US-North Korea detente. In the Middle East, regional powers including Saudi Arabia and Israel argued for a US withdrawal from the nuclear deal and now see a chance for the Trump administration to help rid the region of Iran’s revolutionary leadership.

Divisions within the regime in Tehran also argue against a revival of negotiations on US terms. Mr Rouhani is the elected leader and the pragmatic architect of the original nuclear deal. The ultimate decision maker is the more hardline Ayatollah Ali Khamene i, the supreme leader, who had to be convinced of the merits of striking an accord with the US in the first place.

Unless the other signatories — European powers, Russia and China — can counter the economic damage from renewed US sanctions, Mr Khamenei may eventually declare it dead. The lesson he will draw from the Trump-Kim summit is that reaching the status of a nuclear power provides more protection for his regime than curtailing his nuclear programme. He is more likely to imagine a Trump-Rouhani summit when Iran can claim that it too has the bomb.