U.S. President Donald Trump’s manner, in which he initially puts forth his most ferocious face and then an extended hand, creates a situation that the interlocutor doesn’t expect. In fact, it is now becoming part and parcel of his customary style, a new foreign-policy “pattern.” We’ve seen him exercise this approach vis-à-vis North Korea, the Europeans and NATO, and now he is applying it towards Iran.
During a joint press conference held at the White House in Washington on Monday with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, Trump stated that he was willing to meet with Iran’s leaders with “no preconditions” because simply “talking never hurts.” Like a true successful businessman, he went on to say that he believes in face-to-face meetings (his specialty), and that a meeting with Tehran could strike another deal to replace the pact he has repeatedly called “the worst deal ever negotiated.”
Just days earlier, Trump had an extremely aggressive exchange with Iran—the kind that promises war: He announced that the United States would no longer stand for the “demented words of violence and death” uttered by Iran’s leaders. Iran, as if it were still the Persian Empire, proceeded to define itself as the “mother of all peace, but also the mother of all wars,” by challenging America to an ultimate showdown.
Now, Trump has suddenly left the door to diplomacy open. This is happening in articulo mortis, given that on Aug. 7, the United States will reimpose its first set of sanctions on Iran’s purchase or acquisition of U.S. dollars, and its trade in gold and precious metals. The United States has also told—and expects—countries to halt all imports of Iranian oil by Nov. 4, which would result in Iran’s oil exports falling by two-thirds by the end of the year. Sanctions will soon affect even the traditional trade of carpets and foodstuffs made in Iran.
It’s a disastrous prospect for a country that has already been hit by an economic crisis that has reduced its population to destitution. It now takes 122,000 rials to buy one U.S. dollar, the gold market is even worse, and its government—assisted by Iranian Revolutionary Guards—oppresses all forms of protest that are by now desperate but powerful in many parts of the country. People are angry at the government. It is also useless for the Ayatollah to accuse spies, traitors and foreign conspiracies for the crisis, and to arrest 29 people for economic crimes, as the regime did on July 29.
Trump announcement that he’s willing to meet with Iran’s leaders has created further difficulties for the ayatollahs, as his goal is to stop Iran’s imperialist designs and its clear intent to create a nuclear bomb. His final political wish may be to bring about regime change in Iran.
Now, both Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani and its Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, are caught in a trap. People will not easily accept what these leaders have already been declaring—their scornful rejection of Trump’s offer, intending that the only path to negotiations is for the United States to return to the nuclear deal, which was signed in 2015 between Iran and the P5+1 group of nations (the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, plus Germany). Rouhani’s adviser, Hamid Aboutalebi, says that one can only speak with those who will show respect by returning to the nuclear deal.
Respect is a fundamental issue in the Islamic world. But people need not only respect, but also bread. A leadership that refuses to consider meeting with Trump is now in contrast with its people, who have been repeatedly chanting the following words during street demonstrations throughout Iran until a few days ago: “Enough with Syria, take care of us!” Meaning: Our resource must not be spent in religious, messianic imperialism, but in benefits to your own citizens.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo commented on Trump’s willingness to talk with Iran’s leaders by linking it to a change in the ayatollah’s power management, a reduction in their “malignity” and the possibility of achieving a real nuclear agreement. Therefore, in practical terms, the Iranian leadership at present is increasingly threatened by a vertical break with public opinion. Moreover, Rouhani’s call for Europe to resolve his country’s economic problems, frankly speaking, is among one of the least convincing foreign-policy initiatives ever advanced.
It’s certainly a start. Call it a Trumpian achievement.
Journalist Fiamma Nirenstein was a member of the Italian Parliament (2008-13), where she served as vice president of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the Chamber of Deputies, served in the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, and established and chaired the Committee for the Inquiry Into Anti-Semitism. A founding member of the international Friends of Israel Initiative, she has written 13 books, including “Israel Is Us” (2009). Currently, she is a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.
Translation by Amy Rosenthal.