President Trump today said he would be willing to meet without precondition with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, adding yet more confusion to the increasingly risky brinkmanship of recent weeks between the U.S. and Iran.
During a joint press conference with Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte of Italy, Trump was asked by a reporter if he would be willing to meet with Rouhani just as he has recently held summits with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Trump replied, “There is nothing wrong with meeting.” After touting the “great” meetings with Kim and Putin as well as NATO leaders—implicitly putting them in the same category—Trump continued, “I would certainly meet with Iran if they wanted to meet. I don’t know that they are ready yet. They are having a hard time right now.” Asked if he would have any preconditions for such a meeting, he replied, “No preconditions. No. They want to meet, I’ll meet. Any time they want.”
Such a meeting would be as historic as the Kim summit. No U.S. president has met in person with an Iranian president since the 1979 revolution. Barack Obama was pilloried by both Republicans and the Hillary Clinton campaign for saying he would do so “without precondition” during his 2008 campaign. Obama did eventually speak to Rouhani by phone in 2013 during the negotiations for what became the 2015 nuclear deal.
Trump, of course, pulled the U.S. out of that deal. Today he said, “If we could work something out that’s meaningful, not the waste of paper that the other deal was, I would certainly be willing to meet.”
It’s not quite clear what Trump means by that, given that the 2015 deal was far more detailed, specific, and binding than, for example, the vague communiqué he signed with Kim.
Trump is right about one thing. It’s far from clear that Rouhani would want to meet with him. Rouhani has previously rebuffed proposed meetings on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly with Obama in 2013 and (according to Iran’s state media) Trump in 2017. Rouhani, who unlike Kim is not an unquestioned supreme leader and whose position is far less secure, staked a great deal of his credibility on the 2015 deal and would have little to gain politically from sitting down with Trump to agree to a “tougher” deal.
The Trump administration’s conditions for a new deal, as laid out by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, include an array of conditions—including full halt to all uranium enrichment, withdrawal of Iranian forces from Syria, and an end to support for Shiite groups throughout the Middle East—that Iran will never agree to. This has led many to the conclusion that the administration is not actually serious about reaching a new deal and is instead hoping tough economic sanctions will hasten the collapse of the Iranian regime. A number of administration officials, notably national security adviser John Bolton, reportedly believe that recent economic protests in Iran are a sign that such a collapse is imminent. One source recently told Haaretz that Bolton believes “one little kick and they’re done.”
If this is the prevailing view in the administration, it’s hard to see what the point of a Trump-Rouhani summit would be—though at this point, it’s hardly news when the president publicly contradicts his own officials. It would also alarm Trump’s friends in the region, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Sunni Gulf leaders who have cheered his tough stand against Iran and withdrawal from the deal. (One leader who would be quite pleased, for what it’s worth: Putin.)
It’s important to remember that Trump has shown a tendency to create or inflame crises in order to step in and “solve” them by returning things to the status quo. If Rouhani were willing to get in a room with Trump, it’s not impossible to imagine a “deal” being hammered out, and a high-profile meeting between the two leaders would allow Trump to claim he has averted a catastrophic war and “replaced” the worst deal ever, while Iran more or less continues doing what it’s been doing—perhaps with one or two token concessions.
After the events and remarks of the last three months, the notion of Trump and Rouhani meeting is preposterous—which is to say, there’s no reason to assume it won’t happen.